I’m a parent of two children in Toronto, Ont., an administrator at the University of Toronto and a graduate student in higher education, also at U of T. I was taking a graduate course on the theories of Michel Foucault, the French philosopher, and for a fall-term assignment was asked by my teacher to “make strange” with something around me. He explained to us the idea of “making strange” by using the example of Bertolt Brecht. Brecht would design theatrical productions that exposed to the audience the lights and the ropes that were needed to put on the play. We were asked to deliberately look at something in a new way, to “expose the lights and the ropes,” make strange with something and challenge our taken-for-granted assumptions. That assignment not only made me “make strange,” it made me unsettled.
Earlier in the year, my son, then a Grade 3 student, wrote the Education Quality and Accountability Office Assessment, the EQAO. About a week before the EQAO began, my son was a bit nervous, and I told him that it wasn’t a test about him, but a test of the school and his teachers, adding that it would be good practice. He wrote the EQAO over the course of a few days and as usual, when asked how it went, his response to us was, “Okay, I guess.”
While I was starting my “making strange” assignment, my son had progressed to Grade 4 and we were waiting for his EQAO scores to come back. In the morning, I would drop my kids off at their before-school daycare, get on the streetcar to head to work, and read about torture and the formation of prisons in Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. I came across the chapter on docile bodies and thought of my ever-active eight-year-old son sitting down to write a standardized test over the course of a week. I read about manufacturing spaces, partitioning and enclosure and I remembered how happy my son was at the start of the school year when he got his own desk. Foucault writes, “In the eighteenth century, ‘rank’ begins to define the great form of distribution of individuals in the educational order… rank attributed to each pupil at the end of each task and each examination.” I was starting to see connections. I would read about timetables and structure in Foucault and think about my own kids in their own structured environments like school and daycare. I read through the chapter titled “The Means of Correct Training” and I began to feel a bit uneasy.
My reading of Foucault continued that fall, venturing into surveillance and disciplinary spaces, efficiency, normalizing judgement, correction and hierarchy. Meanwhile, my friends were indicating that their own kids had received their EQAO scores back, but my son still had not. Finally, I emailed his teacher to ask about the results, and the next day my son said that he’d received them; then he told us that at some point between getting the form handed to him at the end of class and leaving his daycare, he had lost it.
What followed was not my finest parenting moment: “What do you mean, you lost your scores? We’ve been waiting for them since May! Are you telling me your private test scores are sitting somewhere in the school for anyone to see? How could you lose them – they’re important!” This went on. After the kids went to sleep, I purposefully reread parts of Foucault. “The examination,” he writes, “combines the techniques of an observing hierarchy and those of a normalizing judgement. It is a normalizing gaze, a surveillance that makes it possible to qualify, to classify and to punish. It establishes over individuals a visibility through which one differentiates them and judges them.” This bewildering categorization to which the standardized test subjects my son to is a form of power: a form of power that schools exercise upon their students and that mothers exercise upon their sons.
My son eventually did bring home his EQAO assessment. His individuality had been reduced to a graphic, three grey bars and black squares set against four levels ranked against a provincial standard that is not even explained. I can only describe my feeling of reading the assessment as a combination of relief and utter disappointment: relief that he did okay – and disappointment that it mattered so much to me.
Illustration: Dave Donald
First published in Education Canada, June 2016
1 Michel Foucault. Discipline and Punish: The birth of the prison, trans. M. Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books 1995), p. 146.
2 Foucault, Discipline and Punish, p. 184.