Problems of Panopticism in Schools and the Modern World 

Analysis of Panopticism by Michel Foucault written for my junior year AP English class:

In an effort to normalize the scoring of papers from English students, a project was initialized in 1923 to set up a standard for grading. Given a variety of sample essays that demonstrated the paper equivalent of a score from 1-10, the goal was to produce a standardized guide for ranking the quality of papers as determined by experts in the field of English. Even today, the vast majority of schools continue to carry on this system of assigning scores to students as a means of comparing performance and assessing the degree to which they are reaching the standards set in place. This constant process of surveillance, assessment, and classification of students in schools through a rigid scoring system supports Michel Foucault’s argument of a disciplinary modality that orders human multiplicities through the control of “production of knowledge and skills in school” existing in our fundamentally panoptic society (303). The generalized influence of panopticism as more than an architectural structure is not a fully overbearing disciplinary mechanism and has its limits, but still remains at its core “essentially non egalitarian” and unhealthy for society (305).

First, a thorough analysis of the four sample essays and their respective scoring is needed to determine the grading criteria that the essay judges are choose to value and dismiss. The first sample essay, receiving the lowest possible score of one, is riddled with spelling, capitalization, and punctuation errors as well as unclear objects and subjects doing and receiving the action. The student writes, “When I chewed tobacco and they found it owt,” we see that the subject ‘they’ is never specified. The use of ‘it’, supposedly referring to chewing tobacco, is not necessary, and the simple spelling mistake of the three-letter word ‘out,’ and the consistency of the mistakes suggests they are not careless, but large educational flaws from not having learned proper grammar mechanics. However, this essay does have redeeming qualities that were not valued by the particular rubric it was scored against. The significance of the lesson described still comes across to the reader regardless of the grammatical mistakes. Moreover, learning not to chew on tobacco is a very important to learn because tobacco and smoking poses a health risk to not only yourself but others around you. The second sample essay receives a higher score of five because despite a few spelling mistakes with ‘conjure’ and ‘remedy’, the structures of the sentences are complete, correct, and coherent. However, the student does not address the prompt and goes of on a tangential anecdote. Even though the essay is lengthier, a lot of word space is occupied with simplistic and unnecessary explanations of how to open a door, ultimately resulting in this essay having the second lowest score. Sample essay three, compared the the previous two has better formed sentence structures and no spelling mistakes. The student also uses more complex vocabulary such as ‘indulging’ and ‘commenced’. The lesson learned is very clear due to the very abrupt, but concise, short sentences. The essay is rather lacking in content and the phrasing, while not wrong, could be improved by refraining from mentioning “such things… and other good things” since ‘things’ is a vague reference. Last, but not least, the final sample essay, achieving a perfect ten checks off all the boxes the graders have in mind, possessing the qualities of an exceptionally well structured essay with impeccable mechanics and complex sentence structures. This essay also responds to the prompt directly and clearly. (See Appendix)

Through a more detailed evaluation of the implicit reasoning behind the scoring rubric for the sample essays, it is evident that the particular judges involved in creating a normalized grading system valued grammar skills, spelling, and mechanics above all else as essay scores were consistently lower the more grammatical mistakes a student made. Another criteria of scoring with secondary importance is how well the student responded to the given prompt, which resulted in sample essay two receiving the second lowest scores for failure to do so. From there, what differentiates a perfect score from an average one is word choice, sentence structure, quality of response to the prompt, length, and detail as determined by these English grading experts. Alternative orders of ranking could be given if the judges decided the significance of the type of lesson learned by the student was the most important quality, which is a fairly reasonable criteria from the explicit prompt to “write an essay describing how you learned a lesson.” In this scenario, where judges focus on the significance of learning to live a healthy life, the sample essays should be rearranged to allow sample essay one, not smoking tobacco and preventing chances of lung cancer, to have a highest score ahead of essay three, not upsetting one’s stomach by overeating, followed by essay four, and finally two. Although grammatical mistakes can interrupt the flow of an essay, it poses no threat to the reader’s understanding of the student’s retelling of a lesson they learned. There is great value in encouraging and promoting students to take care of their own health that the purely grammatical rubric which is applied to these sample essays does not consider.


Relating the normalization of the grading system back to Foucault and his criticism of all-controlling pervasive panoptic techniques, both the 1923 schools and modern standardized testing system exhibit the function of panoptic disciplinary mechanisms in pushing for a grammatically correct writing. The architectural model of the Panopticon as envisioned by Jeremy Bentham consists of a singular central tower overseeing all the surrounding prisons cell encircling it. Inspectors can look out of the tower and constantly supervise everyone, but cannot be seen by the prisoners. Unsure if they are being observed, prisoners will strive to behave at all times for fear of being watched or punished, getting “caught up in a power situation of which they themselves are the bearer” (288). In the same way panopticism functions to reform prisoners, it also serves to supervise and instruct schoolchildren, confine the uneducated, and put idlers to work (292). The Panopticon is just a synonym for the current structure of the educational system. In schools, as demonstrated by the sample essays, student work is constantly supervised by teachers and administrators under restrictive regulated environments. Additionally, students do not know who is judging their essays and have limited visibility in this sense, only knowing that it will be analyzed and looked over by a certain few authorities. These expert authorities use the normalized ranking system to subject millions of students to supervision and pressure to write and test well, much like prisoners compelled to behave properly at all times. The structure and goal of the modern school system, a fundamentally valuable institution in our society, aligns closely with that of the Panopticon.

Foucault argues that the goal of the panoptic disciplinary mechanisms is to make “it possible to increase the useful size of multiplicities,” but at the expense of “the nonreversible subordination of one group of people by another” (304, 305). We see this asymmetric suppression by panopticism demonstrated by the ranking of the sample essays. The lowest scoring student was most likely to have come from a low income background as demonstrated by his vocabulary including ‘popo bush,’ poor spelling indicating a lack of education and educated parents, and accessibility to tobacco. In comparison, the third student with an average score was from decently well off enough to splurge on eating an extensive amount of junk food, and finally the fourth student was so wealthy that they explicitly expressed their failure to understand and respect poorer students. The fact that higher scores were consistent with economically better of students indicates that the rubric is designed to favor and promote the wealthy, while holding back, demanding, and enforcing particularized writing improvements from the less fortunate, aligning with the goal of panoptic power to maintain control for producing skillful individuals. This supports Foucault’s claim that the panoptic mechanisms of discipline are “essentially non egalitarian and asymmetric” (305). The scores given do not represent arbitrarily unimportant values, but have a commanding role in controlling a student’s future and forcing them to increases their writing skills and general useful contribution to society or risk facing disqualification and invalidation of equal opportunities. Those who abide by and learn to conform to the system are reward through high scores, recognition by elite college institutions, which is in turn extends to recognition by powerful and high paying companies. On the contrary, panopticism insidiously disadvantages those who do not or can not met the criteria of the standard set in place.We see this control and inequality of opportunity manifest even in the current school system as individuals that never learn to write grammatically or don’t test well on standardized exams face known repercussions in the form of low scores, low grades, restricted college options, and reduced job opportunities that serve as the huge motivation for students to enforce themselves to study hard, abide by the rubric set, the arbitrary grammatical conventions, and the educational standards expected. Indeed, panopticism has its limits. Panoptic power can control the penalties one faces in choosing not to abide by the system, but the disciplinary mechanics do not extend to the degree of forcing everyone into reaching the standards set in place. Refusing conformity to the rigid structure determined by only a select few individuals in power provided recognitions of the disadvantages that result is possible. For example, the fact that a 12th grader in 1923 had such poor grammar mechanics demonstrates that the panoptic is not as all powerful and controlling as it appears. Student essay one exemplifies the possibility to make it through the entire academic school system, yet still not adapting to proper spelling and grammar rules, ignoring all imposed consequences and attempts by the experts to force students into a normalized mold along the way. However, even for the minority of individuals who escape the control of the panoptic society, the pervasive nature or panopticism in schools with its classifications and fixed standards of success determined by judges is unfair and fundamentally discriminatory against those who wish to freely express themselves, choose a different life path, or just disagree with arbitrary and unnecessary grammatical mechanics taking precedence over the value of learning to pursue a healthy lifestyle. Schools, traditionally know as a place of education, is like a panoptic prison, using the instrument of discipline, consisting of “hierarchizing individuals” and if necessary, “disqualifying and invalidating” poorly performing students for a means to a particular end, in this case, shaping children to speak and write in a standardized academic ways deemed acceptable by invisible experts in positions of power (305).

Panopticism in schools, essay grading, and standardized testing is just one example of an institution taken over by this efficient but prejudice form of discipline. Our society today is fundamentally panoptic. Foucault argues the panoptic principle derived from the architectural structure of the Panopticon “must be understood as…a way of defining power relations in terms of the everyday life of men” (293). The panoptic model exists anytime a form of behavior is imposed on a multiplicity of individuals (293). Schools rooted in foundations of panopticism only represent the tip of the iceberg. Adults who emerge successful from a panoptic school system that rewards those who obey and conform, are provided the opportunities to live decently well off where they will either follow one of two paths. They will either continue following the disciplinary mechanics which they are accustomed to and continue benefiting from the non egalitarian condition of Panopticism, or more importantly, rise to become the “experts in normality” that dictate and enforce the standards in schools, workplaces, prisons, or any environment where “one is dealing with a multiplicity of individuals on whom a task or a particular form of behavior must be imposed” (293). This results in a ceaseless cycle of panopticism and its increasingly insuperable asymmetries spreading all throughout society without end in sight. Panopticism is so foundational to our societies and the institutions built upon it that the path minimize the control the structure possesses remains unclear, but getting out of the hole our flawed society has dug us into begins with taking advantage of the limits of panopticism and being resilient in the face of the pressures to conform.

Foucault, Michel. “Panopticism.” Ways of Reading: An Anthology for Writers. By David Bartholomae and Tony Petrosky. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2005. Print.


How I Learned a Lesson (1923)


When I chewed tobacco and they found it owt they whipped me for about fifteen minnutes with papa bush. they broke ten switches out on me. but i kept on chewing. they found it out and my papa and Mamma whipped me for abowt twenty minnutes and learn me a lesson.

Score: 1


It is said that experience is a dear teacher and that is one of the lessons I learned along with the real lesson.

One day I came home from school (as I have been in the habit of doing for the past eleven years) to find the house locked. When our house is locked up and the family go out there are just two ways I know of to get in. The first and by far the easiest is to get the particular key that belongs to the lock in the front door and after inserting it in the lock, turn it, push forward and the door will come open. If a key cannot be obtained there is just one way left, as I know of (and I have had years of experience) and that is to get a good heavy brick and heave it thru the window. Not that I have ever tried this method but it’s the only sure remidy left as I have tried all the others my brain could conjur up.

Score: 5


Two years ago I worked for a meat shop. Every day I spent a good deal of money on such things as soft drinks, ice cream, and other good things. I did this all summer. My mother warned me against it, but I kept indulging in these things.

By the time school commenced I began to have stomach trouble. Mother made me quit eating anything I wanted, and kept me on a diet. Finally I was cured of the trouble. Since then I do not “eat drink and be merry” as much as then.

Score: 6


When I sat down to think over the experiences of my life that have been profitable to me my memory wandered back to one of the big lessons I learned when I was yet a little child.

I was in the sixth grade in a little country school. Here I mingled with children from all stations in life and made friends with them all. There was, however, something insincere with my friendship for the poorer children. It was due, I now believe, to a feeling of superiority over them. I resented the ravenous manner in which they ate the lunches I divided with them; I detested their furtive glances when we talked; and I could not tolerate their tendency to lie. In all, they had an uncouth bearing that I could neither understand nor forgive.

That spring our teacher invited me to go with her while she took the enumeration. After visting a number of homes we came to a place called Grub Hollow where several of our school patrons lived. In one little shack we found the family huddled around a little stove, the walls and floors bare, and everything most squalid and depressing. In another, a dirty, miserable hovel, we found a blind father, an indolent, flabby mother, and three mangy children. Finally we found a family of fourteen living in one room amid unspeakable conditions.

On our way home Miss Marxson was strangely silent, and, child that I was, tears stood in my eyes. I had heard “the still sad music of humanity,” and it had given me a new understanding. Never again did I feel haughtily toward those children; and all through life that experience has modified my judgment of human conduct.

Score: 10


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