Foucault, biopower, and education

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Post by John Driscoll

I was thinking recently about sexual education in the public school system, particularly focused on my experience in the fifth grade. I distinctly remember the day we began our two-week “family living” section. They split up all the male and female students in our team, and sent us either to the cafeteria or the auditorium for these special classes. During these classes we (boys) were educated about male sexuality and human reproduction. I remember that there was a considerable amount of confusion surrounding this series of classes. The confusion stemmed from two main things: First, this was the only time we ever saw our teachers become flustered or uncomfortable in the classroom. It was apparent that this particular topic had an effect on the way the teachers related to the students, and we really didn’t understand why. The second was that there was a great amount of avoidance of the main topic of the classes. I was surprised, even as a ten year old, that though we were supposed to be learning about sexuality and reproduction, there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of discussions about either of those things.

The way I remember it, (and yes, this a little fuzzy because it was over a decade ago,) it took us about 20 minutes of the first class to figure out what the heck “family living” was even supposed to refer to. The teachers never seemed to enjoy running the classes, and would often take turns speaking about the subjects because of this discomfort. Any time particularly detailed discussions would emerge in the text or during Q and A, they would talk quickly and sort of gloss over the important details.

So how does this relate to our recent discussions of Foucault? Well, it seems to me that situations like these tend to perpetuate the understanding that in our society, sex is not something that should be discussed openly, first of all, and any education on the matter is strictly obligatory and not something to be enjoyed, though the reasons for this obligatory nature are somewhat unclear. In response to the veiling of this topic, some people ‘liberate’ themselves by openly speaking about sex or behave promiscuously to spite of the stigma surrounding the issue. Foucault would argue, that this sort of behavior tends to reinforce the understandings we have as a society, and it merely servers to reinforce the power involved with this sexual discourse.

But if this way of relating to and understanding sexuality is reinforced either way, then how can it be possible for us to actually free ourselves from this strange, pervasive and restrictive way of thinking? Well, think of Arendt. She tells us that a parent can lose authority in two ways: By either beating or arguing with their child. So if this whole topic of sexuality is actually inhibiting our freedom in regards to thought and action, then we might actually be able to free ourselves, not by arguing it or challenging it through physical action (e.g. sexual promiscuity), but by conceptualizing it as a misguided notion that is actually intended to enhance our wellbeing. By asking ourselves what it actually means to us as an individual, rather than operating under the standard assumptions that our society provides for us, we are in a way free. In short, the restrictive nature of the discourse on sexuality exists only if we give it credence.  It only exists through us and our thoughts and actions, not the other way around.


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