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From both an architectural and operational standpoint
the legacy of the asylum left its imprint upon the public schools.


Preventing Violence in Schools
Through the Production of Docile Bodies

Part 3 - The School as an Agent of Control

by Pedro Noguera, Ph.D.
Berkeley, California


Dr. Pedro Antonio Noguera is a professor of education at the University of California, Berkeley. He is also past-president of the Berkeley School Board. This analysis (© 1997) is published here by In Motion Magazine as a series of hyper-linked articles which can be downloaded in segments. All sections can be reached from this page, or readers can follow from one section to another. Footnotes and reference will open to a new window and therefore can be left open for easy rviewing.


Part 3

The School as an Agent of Control

To understand why violence has become rampant and how a climate of fear and intimidation gradually came to be the norm in so many urban schools, we must examine the influences which guided the creation of public schools and consider the social role that they were expected to perform. When public schools were being developed in north eastern cities during the latter part of the nineteenth century, their architecture, organization and operation was profoundly influenced by the prevailing conception of the asylum. (17) As the primary public institution designed to serve the needs of the indigent, the insane, the sick or the criminally inclined, the asylum had a profound influence upon the design and management of public schools. While the client base of the early prisons, almshouses and mental hospitals differed, they shared a common preoccupation with the need to control those in held in custody. This was not to be confused with rehabilitating or reforming, for in post-colonial America, crime, immorality, hunger and poverty were seen as endemic to society. Describing this perspective, David Rothman writes:

Although eighteenth century Americans were apprehensive about deviant behavior and adopted elaborate procedures to control it, they did not interpret its presence as symptomatic of a basic flaw in community structure, nor did they expect to eliminate it. (18)

The role of the asylum was to regiment, control and discipline the social outcasts who were housed there. This was to be accomplished through the routinization of every aspect of life within the asylum, and through the imposition of a set of rules and regulations which were rigidly enforced.(Rothman: 235) A military tone characterized life in the asylum, as did a focus upon sanitation, orderliness, punctuality and discipline. Since the goal of these institutions was not to prepare the inmate for readmission to society, but to eliminate the threat they posed to the safety and security of others, the managers believed that this could best be done by enforcing rigid discipline and by removing undesirables indefinitely from the community.

Once the debate over mass public education was won (Cremin 1961: 8-14), the focus of educators quickly changed to how schools would be organized and what social purposes they would serve. Among the many influences shaping public education at the turn of the century, educational historian, Lawrence Cremin, identities three dominant and distinct agendas that were pursued in relation to the public schools: 1) the need to provide a custodial function for children and thereby serve as an agent of social control; 2) the need to acculturate and "Americanize" large numbers of children born of European immigrants; 3) the need to prepare future workers for American industry. At times overlapping, and at other times conflicting, these goals influenced the content of school curriculum, the training of teachers, and most importantly for the purposes of this analysis, the way in which the schools were to be administered.

From both an architectural and operational standpoint the legacy of the asylum left its imprint upon the public schools. Though their custody over children was limited to a few hours per day, and though the goals of education tended to be framed in humanitarian terms, (19) the need to regiment and control the behavior of students continued to dominate the educational mission. Motivated by a combination of benevolence, related to child welfare, and fear, related to the perceived threat of crime and delinquency, schools were called upon to assume greater responsibility for the rearing of urban children. Defining the problem in moral terms, reformers felt that "...raised amid intemperance, indulgence, and neglect, the lower class urban child began life predisposed to criminality and unprepared for honest work". (Katz 1987: 17) Educators such as Stanley Hall (1901) called for the creation of pedocentric schools which were to be designed to treat the social and psychological needs of children as the central mission of schools. Though child rearing was seen primarily as a responsibility of the family, social reformers feared that many poor and immigrant parents were unfit to raise their children properly.(Cremin 1988:195) For this reason, the public schools were seen as the vehicle through which poor children could be saved. Regarding this point educational historian Lawrence Cremin writes:

It was to the school that progressives turned as the institution that would at least complement familial education and in many instances correct it and compensate for its shortcomings. The school would rear the children of ordinary families, it would provide refuge for the children of exploitative families, and it would acculturate the children of immigrant families...the school would deliver whatever services children needed to develop into health, happy and well-instructed citizens - it would provide meals for the poorly fed, medical treatment for the unhealthy, and guidance for the emotionally disturbed...Though progressives asserted the primacy of familial education, they advanced the pre-eminence of schooling. (p. 295)

To carry out these lofty social goals, reformers promoted efficiency in the organization and operation of schools. Borrowing from the writings of Frederick Taylor and the principles of scientific management that he promoted to increase productivity in industry, similar thinking was applied to the operation of schools.(Oakes: 28; Carnoy and Levin 1985: 95) Supported enthusiastically by many of the businessmen who served on local school boards, efficiency and routinization of school activities were emphasized as way to bring order to city schools. The combination of rising enrollments due to the steady influx of immigrant and rural children into eastern cities, and inadequate facilities, had gradually transformed urban schools into little more than warehouses for children. Cremin's descriptions of schools during this period is helpful in understanding why a focus on order might have seemed warranted:

Whatever the high-minded philosophies that justified them, the schools of the 1890's were a depressing study in contrast...In the cities problems of skyrocketing enrollments were compounded by a host of other buildings were badly lighted, poorly heated, unsanitary, and bursting at the seams, young immigrants from a dozen different countries swelled the tide of newly arriving farm children. Superintendents spoke hopefully of reducing class size to sixty per teacher, but the hope was most often a pious one. Little wonder that a desire for efficiency reigned supreme.(Cremin: 21)

Acting under mandates issued by authorities who were almost always far removed from the direct management of schools, superintendents and principals employed a variety of strategies to control the students and teachers under their charge. In many school districts, teachers and students were tested on regular basis "to see if the program was being followed".(Tyack1974: 82) Specific instructions were given to teachers that addressed not only curriculum and method, but ways to discipline and control the bodies of their students as well. Describing this preoccupation with disciplining the body, one observer wrote that students were required to comply with the following set of instructions when asked to recite memorized text: "stand on the line, perfectly motionless, bodies erect, knees and feet together, the tips of shoes touching the edge of a board in the floor." (20)

To insure that students were trained appropriately for the kinds of work they would perform after graduation, specialized high schools were created in several cities. Vocational high schools were set up to cater to lower-class immigrant youth, and academic high schools were established to prepare middle class students for higher education and professional careers. At the vocational schools, the curriculum was designed to provide the skills and training needed to obtain industrial employment upon graduation. In this respect, David Tyack's comment that "...urban education in the nineteenth century did more to industrialize humanity than to humanize industry", (1974:74) is helpful to understanding how the relationship between education and the economy influenced the character of schools.

While students were sorted and educated differently to satisfy the needs of industry, educators still wanted students to undergo a common socialization process to prevent fragmentation and to insure that "American" values would remain dominant and undiluted. Fearing that the arrival of this "illiterate, docile mass", would "dilute tremendously our national stock, and corrupt our civic life", educators were called upon "to assimilate and amalgamate these people as part of our American race, and implant in their children, so far as can be done, the Anglo-Saxon conception of righteousness, law and order, and popular government..."(Cremin 1961:68) An important part of the assimilation process included conformity to an assortment of rules governing student behavior, and values promoting the virtues of hard work, punctuality and obedience. (21)

While there is some evidence that schools were challenged in fulfilling their task of social control , (22) in most cases it seems that they succeeded in producing "docile bodies"; students who were prepared to accept their roles as citizens and workers.


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