St Anne’s Academic Review 7 – 2017

When Excellence Kills Education:A Foucauldian Enquiry into Academia and Ambition
Friedrich Püttmann
STAAR 7 – October 2017, pp. 14-22

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The French philosopher Michel Foucault is renowned for investigating history in order to understand contemporary society. A pinnacle example is his book Discipline and Punish published in 1975, in which he describes the evolution of what he calls ‘disciplinary society’. He does so by analysing the historical shift from traditional punishment in the shape of public torture to the surveillance system in the prison of the 19th century. He argues that the modern prison is focused on disciplining the inmates to make them better people rather on simply punishing them for what they did. Foucault’s central claim is that this disciplining power of the surveillance system of the prison with its observation, normalisation and examination can be found in many institutions of the modern age like hospitals, factories or schools. In consequence, this produces a disciplinary power that trains people to be “docile and knowable” making surveillance more efficient (Foucault 1991: 172). And it implies the constant subjection of individuals to an overarching power leading to a disciplinary society that gives full control over people. In a similar vein, Terry Eagleton defines ideology as the “activities of a dominant social power” (Eagleton 1991: 29-30). For him, the purpose of an ideology is to “help unify a social formation that is convenient for the rulers” and to secure “complicity of the subordinated”. In this sense, the use of disciplinary power within society as defined by Foucault amounts to the induced submission of society to an ideology.


Foucault’s description of the role of discipline in society has subsequently been the object of debate for many scholars who discussed to what extent the society of their time was or is a disciplinary society. As a student at university, I am, in the words of Foucault, subjected to one of the educational institutions of society and represent a suitable object of analysis for this debate about societal disciplining today. With this essay, I therefore seek to carry forward this debate by posing myself the question to what extent I, myself, am subjected to a disciplinary society nowadays and thus instilled with an ideology. Does the university discipline me as its student? Does it not? Or is there possibly something else that disciplines me? To answer this question, I will first outline Foucault’s concept of the disciplinary society and then relate it to my personal context. Furthermore, I will consider texts by neo-Foucauldians such as Gilles Deleuze and Bart Simon to develop my argument. Essentially, I argue that it is not the university that disciplines its students. Instead, I suggest that students and universities alike are subjected altogether to a disciplining that is imposed by the dominant power of the market, competition and meritocracy, and those who define merit.


According to Foucault, the formation of the disciplinary society builds upon state apparatuses and establishments that use discipline as an instrument to exert power over a multiplicity of individuals. The ideal form of this exertion of disciplinary power Foucault sees in the Panopticon of Jeremy Bentham: a model of a prison in which the inmates are isolated in cells, assembled in a circular construction around a watchtower and thereby constantly visible to a guardian who might, however, not even be present. What the inmates do not know is when exactly they are being watched. The consequence is that the mere possibility of being watched at any moment makes them internalise the feeling of being controlled. The consequence is a kind of self-policing – the individual observes herself to make sure she does not deviate from what she believes to be expected of her. The three main features through which this disciplinary power is established are hierarchical observation, normalizing judgement and examination (Foucault 1991).


In Foucault’s argument, hierarchical observation means the permanent and total visibility of the subject who is observed by an institution that stands above her. It further involves one’s isolation in a cell and continuous recording of one’s actions. Normalizing judgement refers to how the individual is being shaped according to a prescribed social norm through an external judgement of her. Qualities of people are assigned ordered values, an ideal is established and by means of ‘carrot and stick’, training and correction the individual is moulded to strive to conform to this norm as much as possible. But the particular qualities aside, the main virtue the subject acquires is to conform in itself. Lastly, examination is the constant latent threat of being checked. It combines observation and judgement and manifests the power relation between the institution and the individual. That means, the institution will assess the individual; it will use its established truths of right and wrong, good and bad and will measure the individual accordingly. In total, the individual is disciplined for she is subjected to a higher force that possesses the accepted knowledge and authority. Conforming to the rules set out by the authority is what is necessary to live in peace. To fully understand the applicability of these concepts, it is important to interpret them at a more abstract level to see in what other contexts but the prison, the military or the school they may play out. The essence is that in the disciplinary society, interventions do not focus on guilt but on abnormality. Norms are established, people are classified and deviations are corrected. By the end of the day, individuals are normalized, even homogenized, which makes them more useful to the economy and easier to control, as Foucault contends.3 Starting from these descriptions, scholars have posed the question of whether we thus live in a ‘panopticist society’ – do we?


Disciplinary power is said to be exerted through tangible institutions that bring together a number of individuals and submit them to three aforementioned mechanisms. One of society’s finest institutions at which many young people gather is the university. Indeed, the university exhibits certain features that are reminiscent of panopticism. Every course defines certain objectives that the students are meant to fulfil whereby they deploy the aforementioned knowledge relations: the institution University fills the minds of the students with the knowledge it judges valuable. These minds are supposedly not blank but they are eager to function in the space of this institution. My appropriation of this knowledge and of these skills is moreover constantly examined and my progress or failure is judged accordingly through grades that are precisely recorded on a transcript. The quantification of evaluations through grades creates the appearance that performances are made comparable – just like the workers in a factory. Evaluating a performance with a number is placing it in a seemingly objective category. The numerical judgement x seems to equal any other x in the nationwide or even worldwide landscape of higher education. Just as a workload of 5 ECTS-points is supposed to be equal across Europe to any other work being worth 5 ECTS-points. What matters for the disciplinary power is not so much the specific content of a university course, which, of course, may always differ, but the fact that the student is trained to follow a seemingly universal system of evaluation and accreditation. Content may differ but the ‘universal truth’ is that a B is better than a C and less good than an A. The imposition of the quantified evaluation system thus reflects the normalizing judgement of the disciplinary society: we identify our position on the quantitative scale and strive towards the highest end. This strife is the norm.


An immediate objection may be that the person who judges the performance is an individual, too, wherefore judgement can hardly be fully standardized, but this objection misses the point. Surely, what one needs to do in order to climb to the top of the evaluative scale, that is, to excel, may differ per course, per discipline, per university or country but the system of conformity remains the same: ‘Say what you want me to do and I will do it!’ is the slogan of the student who has internalised the will to strive for ‘the best’. It is statements like these that the German academic Christiane Florin quotes in her book Warum unsere Studenten so angepasst sind (Why our university students are such conformists)(Florin 2013). The problem with that is that students begin to think about education first and foremost in an instrumentally rational way (‘How can I best produce what is liked in order to get the best grade?’) instead of appreciating it in intrinsic terms (‘How can I best produce what I think is worthwhile?’). But what does this do to a critical education if it is increasingly reduced to being a means rather than an end? What kind of citizens will such a predominantly instrumentalist mentality produce? In fact, it is here that the disciplinary training deploys its full power over the student who primarily longs for gratification and merit. She is submitted to normalizing judgement and is induced to do the best she can to meet the norm. But is it really the case that she is therefore subjected? Does not the sentence above that the student pronounces to her tutor rather indicate that it is herself who willingly submits to the power of the teacher? After all, the university student is not enclosed in the university. Enclosure, which constitutes a central element in the panopticism Foucault describes, is missing here since the student is free to leave the university if she dislikes it and to go attend another one. But is the student therefore free from subjection as such? Not really.


Gilles Deleuze, a companion and friend of Foucault, argued that the disciplinary society ended after World War II due to a “crisis of environments of enclosure” (Deleuze 1992: 3). What he means by this is that, before, subjection depended on people to be gathered and distributed in an enclosed space. This space, however, was finite and once one had left the factory or the school, the enclosure and thereby the disciplinary power would stop. Today’s society, Deleuze claims, is no more a disciplinary society but a “society of control” (Deleuze 1992: 4). Disciplining people in enclosed spaces has become redundant because control has become ubiquitous: it is the omnipresence of meritocracy, defined as the advancement and reward of people or institutions according to merit, that has disciplined students to regard competition as natural and to internalise the values that are necessary to be ‘the best’. “The modulating principle of ‘salary according to merit’ has not failed to tempt national education itself” (Deleuze 1992: 5). The encastrement, that Foucault describes, the embedding in surveillance in which the individual finds himself, is no longer limited to the physical space of the university but has become all-encompassing through a dissemination across our entire culture.


Bart Simon describes that the encastrement of today is an “enculturation” (Simon 2005: 10). The new space of enclosure is not physical anymore but cultural; culture is the new panopticon. Hence, if the student leaves a specific university to go attend another one she is merely circulating within the culture of enclosure for it is not the university as particular institution that imposes the disciplinary power on her but society as such. The quantified evaluation has nowadays gone beyond the inside of the university. Not only the students’ performance is judged in numbers but also the university itself is subjected to a normalizing judgement through its position in a worldwide ranking that appropriates the power to define ‘a good university’. This may seem like a good thing from a free market perspective of international competition but – just like with international credit-rating agencies – the key question is how much power we are ready to give to the judgement of these ranking institutions in defining what is ‘good’. From the perspective of liberalism, free choice is crucial. But how free does your own judgement of what is ‘good’ remain if the judgement of powerful institutions defines the life-courses that follow these choices? For the student to be ‘the best’ it thus no longer suffices to conform to the standards of the individual teacher or institution but he must conform to the standards of the highest instance to define ‘good’; she internalises to strive for the ‘best grades’ at the ‘best university’. Better A than B; better Harvard than the New School. Where formal achievement and prestige matter, true passion about the content easily becomes secondary. With increasing numbers of young British people going to university and enhanced competition, compromising your subject choices if needed to get into Oxford is the instrumentally rational thing to do. Likewise, it is rational to choose the courses with a reputation for ‘easy good grades’ instead of those that may otherwise really interest you and to keep on doing what you are already good at rather than to try out something new – after all, is expanding your horizon really worth the risk of losing out on success?


Self-interest is not the same as an interested self and today’s homo academicus rationalis has been taught to prioritise taking an instrumentally rational approach to what higher education offers rather than to explore intrinsic value in it. But how will the self-interest ever know what it really desires if the actor is trained to primarily think about her choices instrumentally? The idea behind Rational Choice Theory is that actors strategically choose their courses of actions to maximise the fulfilment of their preferences. But how can the actor discover or develop her preferences beyond the basic desires for esteem and existential security if the actor never ‘goes for what sounds interesting’? The idea behind liberal education is to unfold one’s personality by taking steps in the diverse directions that our passions point us to. The logic of rational action is to play it safe and pursue the prime desires one already holds in the most strategic way. So does the ‘rational’ course of action really just arise from individual free preference formation? Or is it the economic constraints and the worries about the future that actually make glittering grades a stronger incentive than enlightening endeavours?


The same goes for researchers who have to weigh between rationally pursuing what is asked for and investigating what they ascribe value to. In a higher education system that is increasingly dependent on endowments from the outside, the incentives are clearly set. But likewise, how will we ever discover what we as a society may have an interest in that we did not know of if the foci of research are increasingly on what is instrumentally useful at the current time? And how much do we want to give to those who may have the financial means to decide ‘what is asked for’? Similarly to the education of students, where will this leave the freedom of research and the potential for change? To be sure, this does not preclude that objectively useful research on, for example, illnesses for that matter is misleading us. Yet, much of our societal progress did not start from self-interested instrumental behaviour but from actors pursuing intrinsic value. In contrast, today, the strife for performance begins to prevail over the drive by curiosity; merit matters more than Erkenntnis [1], and ambition and willingness are the new currency. It is the omnipresence of meritocracy determining jobs for graduates and funding for institutions that subjects students and universities alike to the control forces of those who define merit and it makes them – knowingly or unknowingly – obey.


This is the two-sided face of meritocracy: it creates the room for many to aspire to benefits by virtue of merit. But what actually constitutes merit, first of all, needs to be defined, and those who are in the position to do so, exert power over those who are subjected to it. This is why the sociologist Michael Young, who coined the term meritocracy, said in 2001: “It is good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit. It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others” (Young 2001). ‘Achievement’ is only recognised as deserving if it corresponds to the definition of merit that is predominant in society. In a Foucauldian sense, striving to deserve in meritocracy is like striving to say the truth in discourse: before the potential truth of one’s proposition can ever be recognised as truth, it must be ‘in the true’, that is, it must meet the requirements that define whether it is part of the discourse at all. “One is ‘in the true’ only by obeying the rules of a discursive ‘policing’” (Foucault 1970: 61). Transferring Foucault’s statement on discourse to meritocracy as another disciplining mechanism, one could say: ‘One is ‘in the merit’ only by obeying the rules of how merit is defined.’ In Foucault’s terminology, meritocracy therefore represents a “procedure of control”.


While disciplinary power was already invisible, the society of control is moreover ubiquitous. The meritocratic and competitive labour market is the new panopictist tower isolating its inmates, that is, basically every working person, in cells of ‘self-marketing’ and ‘employability’ by establishing meritocracy and competition as universal ideology. ‘Can I afford to travel over summer if my fellow student does an internship at the same time?’ or ‘How can I play it safe to get the highest grades?’ are the new questions the student begins to ask and it is at that moment that the student becomes a docile body. In the moment that a ‘good student’ is seen as a ‘student with success after graduation’ and ‘success’ is seen as ‘being highly employable’, then being ‘the best’ simply begins to mean being ‘the most useful to the economy’. As argued by Foucault, waste of time has become “forbidden”, efficiency is the maxime that pervades all areas of life and speed is “a virtue” – values that imbue today’s university (Foucault 1991: 141-154). Under a process of gradual marketization of higher education, universities are increasingly being pushed to orient their programmes towards the major value of employability. From ‘islands of reflection’ they are turning into intellectual factories, producing the new workforce for the knowledge economy. Of course, use and applicability of knowledge and skills are virtues of an education, too, and many may salute the end of the idleness of academic ‘ivory towers’. But to what extent can thorough intellectual innovation really emerge, fundamentals be rethought and new horizons be reached if education is predominantly judged by the economic imperative of immediate utility? What if efficiency and speed start impeding the gradual maturation of new ideas and the depth of thoughts? How, then, will students claim back the space and the time to develop ways of thinking that may not be instrumentally rational or efficient but that bear intrinsic value for them? This is what Foucault’s theory leads us to question. However, I argue that it needs to be adapted to 21st century society: Foucault’s belief that “discipline sometimes requires enclosure” is no longer valid. Enclosure has become cultural. The dissolution of the group, the new “solitude” and the imposition of a “general duel” that mark today’s generation of university students, who are soon to enter the labour market, have created a societal prisoners’ dilemma.


“The corporation constantly presents the brashest rivalry as a healthy form of emulation, an excellent motivational force that opposes individuals against one another…” (Deleuze 1992: 5). This is precisely the mechanism of the “prisoners’ dilemma” in economic theory. The docile bodies have internalised to behave instrumental-rationally. They are rational agents that always seek the greatest benefit for themselves wherefore in the prisoners’ dilemma the participants are likely to play on each other’s costs by betraying one another, which in the end makes both players end up worse. Being isolated and seeking to win, they play against each other instead of co-operating – and consequently both lose. Today’s generation of students is made “docile and knowable” by being conditioned to meritocracy and competition through the structures of the modern labour market and the interests of employers. Put in different terms, this phenomenon is what the Harvard sociologist Aage Sørensen has called a ‘neo-classical soup’: the future of work contracts and employment relations is their complete individualisation and marketization (Sørensen 2000). It is the return to the world of spot-market exchanges to the greatest possible extent that we are driving towards. In this world, employees are pitted against each other to make them most efficient, only employed for the exact time there is need and only remunerated for every single action they perform. It is the pinnacle of productive efficiency. In consequence, this ultimately fragments the future graduate workforce whilst being at university and makes them not only useful but fully obedient to the disciplinary forces that govern meritocracy (what Deleuze calls ‘corporations’).


Merit is induced in us students as the aim that we rationally pursue, which makes us obey the leadership of those who define merit. The prisoners’ dilemma of meritocratic competition is the 21st century mechanism that numbs any potential sentiment of a common ‘class consciousness’ among today’s university students. Instead, each one preparing for later competition against others about jobs is seen as ‘natural’, making us students entirely conform to what those who define professional merit demand. To be sure, at the societal level, these are not those who give the individual students the skills to excel and offer grades in return, but these are those who have a natural economic interest in a highly efficient and useful labour force and offer employment as incentive. But the point is not to brand a subgroup of the citizenry as ‘evil’; the point is to question an ideology that drives us towards accepting a full-fletched competition as natural and in our self-interest. Or to put it with Hannah Arendt: “The [ideological] preparation has succeeded when people have lost contact with their fellow men.” Isolation, as in the prisoners’ dilemma, keeps people politically weak while at the same time productive (Ardent 1963: 474/75). The result is the‘society of control’.The ideology of meritocracy and competition thus functions as a means of control in the (Neo-)Foucauldian sense: meritocratic society disciplines and shapes itself according to a norm created by those who have the power to define merit, making every student that aspires to employment and success, and every university that aspires to excellence and funding, perfectly calculable and hence controllable. What better way could there be to successfully calculate human behaviour by means of Rational Choice Theory than to shape their young minds accordingly?


In conclusion, what does that mean for a university student of the 21st century? Are students thus subjected to a disciplinary society and instilled with an ideology? As has become clear, the Foucauldian concept of disciplinary power is a useful tool to question one’s education. However, its shape has changed. As Gilles Deleuze announced in 1992, we do not have the disciplinary society anymore that acts through enclosed loci such as the university. Instead, students are subjected to something ‘higher’ and all-encompassing: the rules of the modern labour market and those who govern it. In this sense, students are disciplined to compete, to excel in order to be the best employable person and they accept the rules of the game because they internalised them as being natural. Ideology is instilled in them in the way that they are formed to be complicit with the “activities of a dominant social power” which is the rule of merit and its social meaning. Competition about jobs has succeeded – despite all the time spent on networking – to isolate students from each other as a group with a potential collective interest.


This potential collective interest could be to re-establish spaces that are deliberately ‘closed off’ from the pressures of the market society and that allow for a free formation of preferences, the pursuit of intrinsically valuable ends and the development of personality. At this point, it may be worth recalling an insight from German Romanticism that education (Bildung) is not only learning (sich bilden) but also it is the shaping of one’s character (bilden; formen). Instead, I do not show my CV anymore and say ‘This is who I am!’ but I take a blank sheet of paper and ask ‘Who do you want me to be?’ The CV is not just a record of one’s life anymore – it is one’s ‘crafted piece of art.’ But to get out of this enclosure, students would be required to foster greater co-operation. After all, the ideal solution to the prisoners’ dilemma would be to re-establish co-operation between the prisoners and to co-operate on their self-interests. But the individually rational pursuit of self-interest automatically leads this project to failure – we create, in fact, our disadvantages ourselves. As Rational Choice theorist Jon Elster himself puts it, sometimes, to be irrational is to be more reasonable than to be rational (Elster 2007).


The underlying problem is that students are being disciplined in a way that they cease to re-unite to oppose the dictate of those who define merit and to break out of the prisoners’ dilemma that their generation is caught in. In this light, universities, which are likewise subjected to these rules of merit, are the institutions through which discipline operates, but they are not the disciplinary institution themselves. In fact, they are the institution that could liberate the students by teaching them to co-operate so that they can reverse the power relationship between the market and themselves. For it is that “isolated humans are powerless by definition”, as Hannah Arendt pointed out, and ‘rational’ beings are easily isolated.



[1] From the German, loosely translatable as ‘discovery’, ‘knowledge’, ‘insight’ or ‘epiphany’.



Arendt, H. (1963). The Origins of Totalitarianism. Cleveland, OH: World Publishing Company.
Deleuze, G. (1992). Postscript on the Societies of Control. October, 59(1), 3-7.
Eagleton, T. (2007). Ideology – An Introduction. London: New Left Books.
Elster, J. (2007). Explaining Social Behaviour. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Florin, C. (2014). Warum unsere Studenten so angepasst sind. Reinbek: Rowolth Verlag.
Foucault, M. (1970). “The Order of Discourse”, In: Robert Young (1981). Untying the Text – A Post-Structuralist Reader. London: Routledge.
Foucault, M. (1991). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. London: Penguin Books.
Simon, B. (2005). The Return of Panopticism: Supervision, Subjection and the New Surveillance. Surveillance & Society, (3)1, 1-20.
Sørensen, A. (2000) Towards a Sounder Basis for Class Analysis. American Journal of Sociology, 105(6), 1523-1558.
Young, M. (2011, 29 June). “Down with meritocracy”. The Guardian. Retrieved online on 7 June 2015 from


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