Sunday, August 7, 2011

Oprah, Foucault, and Coincidences

A long time ago I used to watch Oprah almost every day. I know, people make fun of the show’s combination of household tips and celebrity interviews interspersed with stories of horrific tragedy and the giving away of cars, and all held together by Oprah’s special brand of pop-psychology.  But once in a while I heard something on that show that stuck with me, and here’s one of those things. According to Oprah, there are no coincidences when it comes to human behavior. We behave in a certain way because we get something out of that behavior. So the woman who bemoans, “just my luck, I fell in love with a creep who stole all my money and had an affair with my Aunt Gertrude” chose that rotten boyfriend for a reason, because it met some unexamined need in her. It wasn’t a coincidence. 

Once I started grad school there was no more time for Oprah. Sometimes it felt as if my head would explode with all the new ideas I was required to read and understand (or at least make believe I understood, although I’m pretty sure I didn’t fool anyone). I noticed that certain names kept popping up in my course readings, names of people I’d never heard of in all my years of watching Oprah (nor in all my years of undergraduate and graduate education, but that’s another story and it sort of proves the point that I hope I’ll make in a minute). Anyway, one of these people is a French guy named Foucault. Now, Foucault said a lot of pretty heavy stuff, and I wouldn’t presume to do justice to his ideas in this little blog. But he wrote a lot about power and about the relationship between power and knowledge. He questioned the things that people, especially people in certain fields of study, believe to be true, or accept as “scientific” – that’s what he meant by knowledge. Foucault said that power and knowledge (that stuff that everybody assumes is true about a given subject) are related. They need each other to survive. They feed each other, in a way. So, power is achieved and maintained by people’s believing some things, and not other things, to be true or scientific. Then that knowledge, those things that people generally accept to be true, grows into whole areas of study, whole industries that keep the original people who promoted them in power. Seems a little confusing, I know. But I think that, in a way, Foucault, like Oprah, is saying there are no coincidences.

Take ability tracking in schools, for example. You know, that’s where they separate kids according to ability level, in order to teach them more effectively. This is done between schools (smart kids go to a specialized high school, and everybody else goes to the neighborhood or the vocational school), and even more often within schools (smart kids take certain classes, and everyone else takes the other, easier classes). The commonly accepted knowledge about tracking is that it makes sense; it’s a smooth and efficient way to educate kids. This way the teachers can focus on the specific needs of each group, and everybody’s happy. The only problem is that there’s a ton of research out there that says it doesn’t work, at least not for the lower-tracked group.  The higher-tracked kids, however, do great, but that’s just a coincidence, right?  Well, let’s apply Foucault’s theory. First of all, power has been exercised. The people in charge of the school districts (did I mention that they’re mostly white?) decided a long time ago that tracking was the way to go. They created this knowledge, this discourse, about how to best educate kids. The knowledge (because it has all this power behind it) takes on a life of its own and becomes widely accepted as scientific fact.  But, in reality, the kids in the lower-academic schools or tracks (did I mention that in integrated school districts they’re mostly students of color?) receive a substandard education, and are more likely to drop out and wind up unemployed or involved in the criminal justice system. Ah, but that’s not all. The exercising of power in the decision to divide up our kids into smart and not-so-smart groups creates a problem – it seems some kids are being “left behind.” (Sorry I’m oversimplifying here.  I’m aware that tracking is not the only system that creates educational disparities, but it is one of them). Now we need another body of knowledge regarding what to do about this problem.  How do we educate these low-tracked kids?  Commissions are formed. Acts of Congress are passed. Standardized tests are created and administered. Special education teachers are trained and hired to write IEP’s. Teacher educators are hired to train the special education teachers. Books and articles are written, making money for publishers and providing jobs for academics. Etc., etc., etc. Not to mention that the mostly white middle and upper class kids who are receiving the better education will graduate, go on to college, and replace their parents in positions of power, where they will maintain the knowledge about ability tracking that got them the better education. Hence, the groups in power stay in power because the knowledge they create serves to keep them in power. It’s not a coincidence.

The whole idea of coincidences becomes its own sort of discourse, too – a widely believed truth that serves to maintain the present power structure. For instance, recently I was involved in a conversation that went something like this (paraphrased):

Person A: A new study says that white men with criminal records are more likely to be called back on job interviews that black men without criminal records.
Person B:  Why do you make everything about race?
Person A: Well, while the whole middle class has suffered in the recession, the African American middle class has been hit especially hard, being the first to be laid off when budget cuts require downsizing.
[In fact, the wealth gap between African Americans and whites has more than quadrupled in the past few decades.]  
Person B: That’s just a coincidence.  It’s not anyone’s fault, and it’s certainly not related to color. It’s simply about seniority. African Americans in professional positions get laid off first because they happened to be hired last.

Hmm.  It’s a coincidence that African Americans were hired in professional positions later than whites? Certainly nothing to do with discrimination in hiring there. And I guess it was a coincidence that for decades our government stopped African Americans from purchasing homes in middle class communities, which stopped them from acquiring wealth.  It’s a coincidence that the only housing available to them was in the urban areas, where their children received the substandard education that I talked about earlier. Gosh, it’s amazing how one group of people can suffer from so much bad luck!

All right, maybe I’m getting a little off-track.  Let me just end this by saying that I have to agree with Oprah and Foucault (but maybe not in that order). There are no coincidences.


  1. I just learned of Oprah's coincidence quote and Google searched it to get some context and came across this blog entry. I enjoyed it! I had to read Foucault in U-grad but don't remember any of it. Reading your entry makes me want to go back and read some texts from my social sciences courses.
    I liked your comments on tracking, but what about some of the programs and practices related to tracking that were court-mandated in an effort to desegregate communities?

    (I don't want to make sweeping generalizations, but I also don't want to post a blog entry on your own blog, so please excuse me if my next few sentences seem a bit simplistic!)

    Since some schools were simply "better" than others due to socioeconomic characteristics of the students' families and since socioeconomic status correlates so strongly to race and ethnicity, a few school districts were under fire for practicing segregation, albeit passively. So a couple of them built up the selective/magnet programs and other tracking practices and endeavored to include a predetermined amount of (qualified) students of color. I suppose that's what most people see as affirmative action, but I think at the time it was very necessary action.
    Tracking as we know it isn't the answer, as you mentioned, but I'm a bit wary of the idea of "de-tracking."
    Bottom line is that equity shouldn't be an option when it comes to education (of course) and I think that can be achieved by implementing an appropriate variety of programs for families to choose from.

    I'm going to stop here for the sake of brevity (ha!) but at the risk of this comment coming off as scattered. Just wanted to share a few of my thoughts as I read your entry. Definitely got the wheels in my head turning!

  2. Thanks for posting! The problem I have with the way the school choice movement has developed is that in many places we now have a few quality schools that are inaccessible to most kids. Many of these schools require students to win a lottery in order to gain admission. If we believe in public education, how can we allow this situation to continue? All public schools should offer a quality education, not just a few charter or magnet schools.