Review - 'Benign Violence: Education in and beyond the Age of Reason'

Ansgar Allen's book traces our obsession with assessment, standards and measurement in modern education. It is both an unsettling history and a provocative call for resistance.

Stephen J Ball
30 July 2015

The face of modern education?. Flickr/Richard Lee. Some rights reserved.

Ansgar Allen (2014) Benign Violence: Education in and beyond the Age of Reason, Basingstoke; Palgrave MacMillan. ISBN 9781137272850. £65.00.

Too many sociological and education studies are published nowadays. The pressure to publish has outrun the need to have something different to say. Wheels are constantly re-invented, well-worn furrows are re-ploughed, established ideas, concepts and insights re-cycled. It is not far-fetched to believe that much of what is written and published is actually not intended to be read, it is there to be counted and measured and used to make judgements or claims about the productivity of the author – ‘a new species of academic is in the ascendant’ (p. xi). Worth has become detached from originality. What a relief then it is to read something original, different, challenging, playful, inventive and significant.

Ansgar Allen’s book is all of those things. And more than that it is a book of, for and against our times. It is a book that should be read; it has a pressing necessity to it. I challenge any academic to be unmoved by its asides to the state of contemporary higher education, to not recognise themselves and their plight. The book is about us, we pedagogues and the damage we do. It is about the social construction of what we call education in modern times. It is about the ad hoc, messy but overbearing institution we call school. It is about the strategic concatenation of power relations that produce what we call the classroom, and the assembly – painful, measured, compared and celebrated of what we call the pupil. We take schooling for granted, and it does have a long history, but it is an artful, artificial and artefactual phenomenon that needs to be destabilised.

Allen’s book defies many current academic conventions but at the same time draws on older ones – it is presented and written in the form of Nietzsche and Pascal, a set of mediations on the state of education. But the defiance of convention is not simply an affectation – it makes a point. The meditations are poignant, provocative, reflexive and sometimes painfully funny.  And although decidedly and eruditely Foucauldian the book is not a homage; it raises difficult questions about the relevance of Foucauldian analytics to contemporary politics.

‘Desirables’, ‘passables’ and ‘undesirables’

What the book makes forcefully clear is how little has changed since the invention of state education in the 19th Century, and how many of the reforms and innovations of contemporary education have their genealogical basis in the problems of managing the urban population in the 19th century.

In particular alongside testing, categorisation and the scourge of the norm, Allen illustrates the continuing role of eugenic rationality within contemporary education. He reminds us of the tortuous but fundamental intertwining of eugenics, testing and the Origin of the Species – the survival of the fittest, the need to adapt to changing environmental conditions – meritocracy in other words. Meritocracy, a term rediscovered and laughably misunderstood by Tony Blair, is now to the forefront of many of the third sector programmes that are embedded in English education policy – like Teach First, the Sutton Trust and ARK, whose raison d’etre is to identify and sponsor the aspiring, able and deserving children of the working class.

This works through what Allen (p. 189) calls systems of extraction. This is a  ’charitable’ focus that Francis Galton, founder of intelligence testing, argued for in the 19th century (p. 99) based on a division between what he termed ‘desirables’, ‘passables’, and ‘ undesirables’. My own institution played a key role in this history. When Galton died he left the residue of his estate to the University of London for a Chair in Eugenics. Karl Pearson was the first holder of this chair—the Galton Chair of Eugenics, later the Galton Chair of Genetics . Pearson formed the Department of Applied Statistics (with financial support from the Drapers' Company) at UCL which incorporated the Francis Galton Laboratory of National Eugenics which then became the Galton Laboratory of the Department of Human Genetics & Biometry. The Galton Lab became part of the Department of Biology in 1996.

Eugenics works by combining ‘scientific testing’ with systems of categories which then also define the limits of normality. There are of course now developments underway to extend the remit of testing from intelligence to character, DEMOS, the Blairian think tank, is one of several organisations jostling for the money attached to the current focus on character education championed by Secretary of State Nicky Morgan and others.  Character is of course already firmly embedded in Conservative welfare policy, with its fundamental division between strivers and skivers – the latter who threaten ‘deterioration in the noblest part of our nature’ (Darwin The Descent of Man p. 206). As Allen says ‘The success of eugenics would rely heavily on its popular appeal’ (p. 107) and that continues to be the case as eugenic claims appear regularly in ministerial statements and tabloid headlines.

Predicting futures, manipulating hopes

Allen traces his genealogy of division and the attendant strategies of power from the 19th century through the odd, many still unexplored byways of education policy and practice in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s – secondary modern schools, CSEs, streamed comprehensives, remedial classes – including to the point at which my personal history encountered the sociology of education and the work of Colin Lacey, David Hargreaves and Peter Woods inside the ‘black box of schooling’.  He then takes us through to the contemporary overburdened fixation with educational performance, and gives particular attention to formative assessment as a humane and effective form of pastoral power which enrols the student as an active self-assessor.

But Allen is not doing history in the conventional sense; his concern is with a history of governing, its rationalities and techniques, and the interplay of knowledge, professional expertise with the practices of discipline and regulation that make ‘good’ government possible. The point of application of these techniques is as Allen carefully points out, now different, rather than the 19th concern with altering the normal distribution of outcomes, ‘the rate of individual progression… is the focus of improvement’ (p. 224), articulated through ‘value-added’ – hence formative assessment. As he goes on to say the proliferation of base-line testing and student performance monitoring systems has also generated new business opportunities for universities and businesses eager to sell their systems to institutions insatiable for ‘process-based technologies’ (p. 231) – here neoliberal academia can seek both impact and profit. Testing and monitoring work at the nexus between aspiration, hope and failure – schools now predict futures, manipulate hope, and produce ‘likely futures’ (p. 233).

The book finishes at the limits of genealogy, the destabilisation of the present – assessment, standards, measurement are made intolerable, their benign violence is made clear. They must be refused, resisted, swept away – that is our task. This is a rich, admirable, provocative, timely, and refreshing book.

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