On the Monitorial Method 

Some Resources on Monitorial Methods

Josef Lancaster

[Notes from Dictionary of National Biography -- DNB entry: Volume X I for Lancaster  (1778 -- 1838). He taught larger numbers than Bell in his school, and aimed for higher standards too. He also introduced badges of rank and badges of merit in his monitorial system. The dispute with Bell was largely fuelled by their supporters. Personally, he is described as extravagant and impulsive and he became petulant when deposed. There was a hint of financial irregularities in the events that led to him leaving. Overall, the monitorial system was described as beneficial to the extent that it encouraged mutual teaching and learning, and in 1846, monitors were replaced anyway by pupil - teachers, following the influence of the new state body for education.]

Adkins, T  (1906)  The History of St. John's College, Battersea, London:  National Society 
On Joseph Lancaster's School  at Borough Road: 

'... tiny classes of eight or nine are mechanically spelling out verses of the Bible from large cards suspended before them... each child has its child - teacher and each group of classes its child - superintendent; and so on until we reach the one adult who... controls the whole orderly mechanism -- and system regulated by minute rules, and set in motion by words of command' (page 3). 
There was no cane used, but there were 
'wooden shackles for our limbs, a rope to tie us up with, baskets or cages, wherein, slung up aloft, we may repent at leisure... should our face be dirty, we may enjoy the sensation of having it washed for us in public by a girl'
NB I am not sure if Adkins was an actual contemporary witness of these events, despite his use of 'we'. These accounts of bondage and S&M also occur in most commentaries on Lancaster, perhaps to add a bit of colour, even though some add that Lancaster did not intend to hurt or humiliate anyone and would not use these punishments on 'sensitive' children.

The Lancaster Method was much approved and even the King  (George the Third)  agreed to support the scheme (which may have gone to Lancaster's head). It was soon opposed by Anglicans, however, who insisted that the clergy should teach religious instruction, and were worried by the 'religious but non-sectarian' nature of Lancaster's school. 

The Lancaster Method was linked to policies to provide schools for each parish, indeed it played a key part in legitimating this policy. Opponents worried that the Lancaster system might lead to over-educated working-class people [a similar worry arose even more strongly with the rival 'pupil-teacher' method as we shall see]. 

Lancaster himself got into debt during the operation of his free school and the institution was taken over by the Royal Lancasterian Society. Lancaster himself failed to thrive under the new regime (the DNB hints at certain financial irregularities), left the Society, and finally emigrated to the USA and died in New York The National Society was founded in 1811 as an offshoot of the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge, and Bell was to rely on this agency to organise an Anglican schools. 

Bartle  G  (1976)  A History of Borough Road College,  Kettering: Dalkeith Press Ltd 

The Lancasterian society eventually ran the Borough Road Teacher Training College and Normal School, which began operations in 1810. It seems to have attracted a number of amazing recruits to teacher-training, including a Danish prisoner-of-war, and some Irishmen recruited by Lancaster himself. 

The Lancasterian Society finally split over the intervention of Jeremy Bentham, who had as his main interest an openly secular education: the Utilitarians finally could not reconcile their religious differences with the Anglicans and other bodies and split away. The issue that seems to have split the Society in particular was a disagreement over demands for a broader curriculum.

Dr Andrew Bell, Lancaster's great rival, himself a clergyman, agreed with this,of course, and became the main choice of the Church party in the debate. 

Notes from Dictionary of National Biography -- DNB entry: Volume II for Bell  (1753 -- 1832). Bell became the Schools Superintendent of the National Society  (full name the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church in England and Wales). He was soon in charge of 12,000 schools! He was described as a  'despot' towards the schoolmasters under him, and Inspectors said his schools were inefficient. However, his regime did lead to the establishment of a pupil - teacher system from 1846. Personally he was described as 'pedantic' and particularly interested in making money: he had made his fortune as an army chaplain in India, by offering to run eight chaplaincies at once!] 

Atkins tells us that Bell had his own system, using a monitorial method, which he had developed 30 years before, in Madras, India. 

Jeremy Bentham 
[Notes from Dictionary of National Biography -- DNB entry: Volume II for Bentham, Jeremy (1748 -- 1832). Bentham's father and grandfather were both attorneys, although his mother was a shopkeeper. His father made a great deal of money from land sales, and eventually left Jeremy a substantial fortune. 

Jeremy Bentham was a precocious scholar, who was studying Latin at age four, and French at age six. He attended Winchester School and Oxford, although he had early doubts on signing the required 39 Articles (of Anglican faith). He did not enjoy his time at Oxford, which left him with memories of  'mendacity and insincerity'. He gained his BA at 16 and began his career as a lawyer. He gained his MA at the age of 19, and was called to the Bar. 

He rapidly encountered the idiocies of the English law of the time. It was apparently based on vague general principles, such as the tendency of heavy bodies to fall (!) and Bentham himself lost a case thanks only to the last minute production of an obscure and non-accessible written judgment. Bentham saw the law as totally unfair and conservative, and began his interest in reforming jurisprudence. He spent the rest of his life working towards a rational codification of English law, one based on scientific principles -- above all the principles of utility. This, the DNB thinks, is his lasting achievement . 

He also developed an early interest in education, especially in terms of working on the motivations of scholars and trying to apply the principles of utility. He began writing reforming pamphlets largely against the concept of natural law, although he was interested in practical and detailed proposals for punishment as well. He became a popular figure with powerful patrons, both in England and abroad. He was apparently very popular socially, being described as witty and an accomplished musician. 

The DNB gives a brief account of the general philosophy of Utilitarianism, as found in Bentham's  'Introduction to Principles of Morals and Legislation ':  'Nature has placed mankind under the government of two sovereign motives, gain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do'. Bentham went on to analyse the sources of pleasure  (physical, political, moral/popular, and religious). He approached the issue of the quality of pleasure, which, typically, he broke down into  'intensity, duration, certainty, propinquity, fecundity... purity, extent  (the number of persons affected)' . This work could be applied to law -- for example, punishment could only be justified if it added to the greater happiness. It could be applied to making money as well, and here Bentham was against tradition, custom, and other kinds of restraint on free trade and free commercial activity. 

Despite Marx's jibe [see the critiques], Bentham himself admitted that the principle of utility came from other people, including Helvetius. His contribution was to apply it originally and consistently, even to the extent that, to quote his well-known saying, 'pushpin [a tavern game?] was worth as much as poetry'. 

Bentham came to write some of the drafts for Panopticon while staying in Russia. Ideas for prison reform along these lines were in circulation, and his brother had planned a rational means to supervise a factory. Panopticon became a major issue for Bentham, and he wrote many pamphlets connected with the issue. He claimed the effects of his proposal would include 'morals reformed, health preserved, industry invigorated, instruction defused, public burdens lightened, the economy seated as it were upon a rock... all by a simple idea in architecture'. 

Bentham's own proposals were written in great detail, and included allowing the contractor for food to keep the profits from convict labour, and making the manager of the prison responsible for the insurance of the inmates, following the calculation of an average of level of wastage. Bentham was successful in getting a prison built at Millbank, but it was not a success  (Bentham blamed the King). Bentham returned to writing pamphlets on law reform, tried to be a Member of Parliament, gained honorary French citizenship, wrote a pamphlet urging the end of colonies, attacked the Poor Laws, and took up a number of other reforming causes. In particular:

  1. He developed a strong anti-religious momentum, attacking the Church's catechism via a pamphlet called  'Not Paul but Christ' [which probably says it all]. He also attacked the custom of taking religious oaths at Oxbridge. Some of these pamphlets were considered to be illegal, and Bentham circulated them privately and under a pseudonym. These dubious topics and his 'aggressive and violent' style of writing, especially after 1810 , often got him into trouble. 
  2. Other interests included reforms to Parliament -- Bentham, who began life as a Tory and royalist, believed in universal suffrage, the ending of placemen, the regularising of constituencies, and many of the things we now associate with modern democracy [although not,alas, annual parliaments and making the salaries of civil servants annually renewable according to their prowess, via a kind of early 'citizen's jury'].
In fact, he was a prolific writer and tireless lobbyist, and [like Marx] left a huge amount of work to be collected and edited by a colleague. In Bentham's case this was a certain M. Dumont, a Swiss citizen, who edited the first edition of Collected Works. A number of other editors included his nephew and a young John Stuart Mill, both of whom probably added material of their own. 

Bentham wrote Chrestomathia over 1816 - 17 during his retirement, in Chard. He wanted high standards in his school, and, unusually, sponsored science rather than literature or Greek and Latin. (This was the complete opposite of Coleridge's later views, of course). 

As a final commitment to Utilitarianism, Bentham donated his body to science, for the benefit of mankind, of course. His body was dissected, but the skeleton was clothed, a death mask constructed, and the remaining 'icon' [ Bentham's own term!] is still on display at University College, London. Indeed, Bentham believed that everyone should be embalmed after death, becoming statues, so your ancestors could be placed on display among trees in avenues, for example. Ever the practical man, he proposed varnish for the skin, and a rubberised treatment for the garments, to protect against rain!]

And now some of my own thoughts, for what they are worth. I have an old lecture on Utilitarianism somewhere I am sure -- yes, here it is. I also wrote about Bentham in the course of a critique of modern educational technology (which we'll come to). Here are some extracts: 

Harris D (1987) Educational Technology  and the 'Colonisation' of Academic Work, unpublished, paper presented to the British Sociological Association Annual Conference, Leeds 1987

 [Educational technology often begins with] a radical critique of existing forms of educational practice and their foundations. Such a critique might turn on the naturalistic fallacies of the older forms (as a part of Bentham's more general project to critique 'natural law', for example), or on the conservative assumptions made in traditional educational institutions. Yet this critique is limited and partial, tied to an external goal rather than 'for its own sake'. The critique and the appeal for new solutions and technologies can gain force from some view of crisis in contemporary education such as an imminent 'technological revolution', or the need for greater efficiency in the face of some industrial decline, which both points to the redundancy or inefficiency of the old practices and provides a solution in the form of some new breakthrough. There is a technological orientation to educational and social problems, a belief in a 'technical fix', whether this be the scientific principles of Utilitarianism or the progress being reported in artificial intelligence. 

There has long been an interest in 'effective teaching' and in developing a systematic approach to teaching and learning 'based' (somehow) on secure scientific principles. Bentham's work reveals how a particular combination of arguments and events can place this interest firmly on the agenda: in his case, the inefficiency and expense of traditional schooling (conducted in classes of up to 200, with one master hearing each pupil in turn 'say' his lesson) had become a scandal. The supporters of the Chrestomathic scheme were able to describe the new 'monitorial method' in a most favourable manner by comparison. The new method involved splitting the large classes into smaller 'divisions', each under the charge of a monitor (a senior pupil). Lessons could take a number of forms - the monitor could call on each pupil to translate some lines of Latin verse, for example, and any mistakes were recorded [so think of the massive need for records, grades, registers and the like] for later testing by the master; pupils, for their part, could also hear the monitor relating a grammar lesson, and record any of his mistakes (the system mostly catered for males, although Bentham was keen to admit females too). Should the monitor be caught out, an 'appeal' would be heard by the master, and a successful appeal would result in the appellant advancing one 'place', while the monitor lost one. These 'places' would be awarded by monitors, subject to appeal, and the system produced a rank-order within each division and class.

The monitorial system enabled a marked degree of what might be termed 'individualisation', and the view of the enthusiasts was that this system provided a particularly strong form of motivation for each participant:

'This system binds both Monitor and pupil to careful preparation at home [or substantial self-discipline in Foucaldian terms] : the former from fear of detection and exposure by a boy far below him in the class; the latter both by the infallible certainty of his being called upon to say [a lesson] and reported if he fails; and by the honourable desire of rising in the class, and proving that he knows the lesson better than the Monitor' (Pillans 1983).
Another contributor was keen to emphasise the moral advantages of the new system. In the old regime, pupils were often kept waiting for hours until their turn came to be heard, and this encouraged inattention and failure. Idleness also led to a subsequent dislike of the teacher and the subject, and to 'habits dangerous to virtue'. Under the Lancaster scheme, all pupils were actively involved every minute of the day either speaking or listening. Failure had been eliminated by this new pedagogy - and corporal punishment had been abolished too, as unnecessary, since all members of the school were working happily 'with one spirit'. Everyone was able to attain at least the basics of the lessons, enough at least to gain some introduction to classical literature - the 'shield of the young mind against the ruinous inroads of vice' (Gray 1983).

It is, of course, easy to see in these early examples a close connection between the new scientific methods and the interest in new forms of social control, the link between cognitive domination of an activity and real domination, to use the terms of critical theory (Marcuse 1973). The ambiguities of 'individualised' instruction are particularly clear when it is recalled that Bentham's school was to be designed on the same architectural lines and methodological principles as his 'Panopticon' prison, which has been more widely discussed (most famously, perhaps in Foucault 1979). 

Despite the obvious elements which 'date' the example, there are also echoes of contemporary practices, especially the 'behaviour-shaping regimes' in Borstals or 'special units'. Bentham's own contributions to the scheme also have a contemporary ring: he wanted to rationalise and systematise 'knowledge' in order to make it more accessible to pupils and more manageable in a rational school regime. One way to accomplish this was to clarify the 'nomenclature' of different academic subjects: a rational nomenclature would both present to view the contents of a branch of knowledge (its 'ordinary' purpose) and reveal the relations between different branches of knowledge (the 'systematic' purpose). 'Conceptions' should be 'as clear, correct, and complete as by and in the compass of a single denomination can be afforded' (Bentham 1983 p.142), and the relations between these unambiguous conceptions should be depicted: relations of 'agreement and disagreement' with conceptions in other branches, and relations of 'connection and dependence: viz those which [involve] an acquaintance, more or less intimate, with this or that other branch of art or science' (ibid p. 144). Such clarity and consistency would enable what these days would be termed a 'closure principle':

'...the parts...[of a subject]...must exhaust the contents of the whole...the information, contained in a work which is composed of them [i.e. the conceptions], can be complete...[If not]...the form in which [a work] presents itself will be no other than that of a confused heap of unconnected fragments - each of them, in respect of form and quantity, boundless and indeterminate.' (ibid p.218)
 The benefits of such a labour of clarification and consistency would be available to scholars, able to 'exercise dominion over almost every branch of art and science', to students, who would have all the 'dark spots' produced by 'indeterminacy' in existing subjects removed, and to 'legislators' who were thus enabled to enact educational policy 'sometimes in furtherance of the interests of the professors...more frequently and more necessarily in furtherance of the interests of the whole community' (ibid p.219).

BENTHAM, J. (1983) 'Essay on Nomenclature and Classification'. Jeremy Bentham: Chrestomathia (the collected works of Jeremy Bentham) eds. Smith, M. & Burston, W. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
FOUCAULT, M. (1979) Discipline and Punish: the birth of the prison New York: Vintage/Random House.
GRAY, M. (1983) 'Appendix III'. Jeremy Bentham: Chrestomathia op.cit.
MARCUSE, H (1973) Reason and Revolution, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul
PILLANS (1983) 'Successful applications of the new system of language learning in the High School of Edinburgh 1813' Jeremy Bentham: Chrestomathia op.cit.


You may want to note down your own views of these monitorial methods before proceeding with this section. What do you think? -- horrifyingly manipulative and cruel methods? The worst kind of teacher bullying of innocent kids? Completely misplaced disciplinarianism? Just inefficient and encouraging mere rote learning of trivial facts? You might want to draw on contemporary debates about education to structure your own views too?

For critiques launched by the contemporary 'Church party', including the founders of the College of St Mark and St John, see accompanying file. For additional, more 'academic' and 'specialist' critiques try these...

Marx on Bentham. 

You do not have to know much about marxism to realise that Bentham's philosophy (his version of Utilitarianism), and, in this case, the economic theory based upon it, would qualify as an  'ideology'. However, Bentham was a contemporary of Marx's, and actually gets mentioned in Capital (Marx 1954). Even more fortunately for us, Bentham is actually used as an example in Marx's discussion of what ideology is, and how it works. Marxist scholars have long debated these passages, trying to establish if there is one definition of ideology, two, or several. 

Let's take the second occasion on which Bentham appears in Capital volume one. Here, Marx is defining ideology as simply the world view of particular social groups, which also happen to support the existing economic and political system. Here is the passage in question: 


'But this prejudice [a technical matter of seeing capital as a fixed quantity] was first established as a dogma by the arch-Philistine, Jeremy Bentham, that insipid, pedantic, leather-tongued oracle of the ordinary bourgeois intelligence of the 19th century.... the dogma was used by Bentham himself.... for an apologetic purpose, and especially in order to represent one part of capital... as a fixed magnitude... fixed by natural laws and unchangeable.' (pages 570 - 1). 

In a footnote Marx continues his critique  (or do I mean nasty, sarcastic personal attack?): 


'Bentham is a purely English phenomenon.... in no time and in no country has the most homespun commonplace ever strutted about in so self-satisfied a way. The principle of utility was no discovery of Bentham. He simply reproduced in his dull way what Helvetius and other Frenchmen [whoever they might be] had said with esprit in the 18th century. To know what is useful for a dog, one must study dog - nature. This nature itself is not to be deduced from the principle of utility. Applying this to man, he that will criticise all human acts, movements, relations, etc by the principle of utility, must [or should, therefore] first deal with human nature in general, and then with human nature as modified in each historical epoch [a big task, one which Marx tries to undertake himself]. Bentham makes short work of it. With the driest naivete he takes the modern shopkeeper, especially the English shopkeeper, as the normal man. Whatever is useful to this queer normal man, and to his world, is absolutely useful. This yard - measure, then, he applies to past, present, and future. The Christian religion, eg, is "useful", "because it forbids in the name of religion the same fault that the penal code condemns in the name of the law." Artistic criticism is "harmful", because it disturbs worthy people in their enjoyment of Martin Tupper, [an English poet?] etc. With such rubbish has the brave fellow... piled-up mountains of books. Had I the courage of my friend, Heinrich Heine [name-dropper!], I should call Mr Jeremy a genius in the way of bourgeois stupidity.' (page 571) . 

Here, the notion of ideology seems pretty straightforward. Jeremy Bentham is a English bourgeois, and he has simply incorporated the values of an English bourgeois, a shopkeeper at that, into his philosophy. What a shopkeeper values, how a shopkeeper decides among options, what a shopkeeper finds of utility, then becomes generalised into some law of human nature. Likewise, his actual shopkeeping behaviour then becomes 'natural', and, before you know where you are, capitalism has become 'natural' too

Now let us move on to Bentham's other appearance in Capital. It so happens that he appears in one of the most famous pieces, where Marx is outlining an alternative theory of ideology  (well, alternative for some readers). Let me cite the section first -- Marx is pretty devastatingly sarcastic here too: 


'This sphere we are deserting, within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labour power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham.... Bentham, because each looks only to himself. The only force that brings them together and puts them in relation with each other, is the selfishness, the gain and the private interests of each. Each looks to himself only, and no one troubles himself about the rest, and just because they do so, do they all, in accordance with the pre-established harmony of things, or under the auspices of an all-shrewd Providence, work together to their mutual advantage, for the common weal and in the interest of all.'  (page 172). 

The 'sphere' in question refers to the actual moment of negotiating wages . In the sections preceding this quote, Marx takes us through a typical day in the life of the day labourer [men -- sic -- hired daily]. At the start of his working day, he negotiates with an employer over the day's work, and its wage. For those moments, lasting perhaps 10 or 20 minutes, man and master appear to be fully equal -- the worker is 'free' not to work that day, or to try their luck with another employer if they so wish and, of course, masters are 'free' to negotiate wages (within limits). It looks as if equality, freedom, and the exchange of private property  (labour for one, money for the other) dominates the system. Liberals like Bentham saw this 10 or 20 minute episode as the defining moments for the whole labour relation -- for them, capitalism was all about these crucial elements of freedom, private property, markets, and negotiation. However, says Marx, let us follow our labourer through the rest of the day: 


'Accompanied by Mr Moneybags and by the possessor of labour-power, we therefore take leave for a time of this noisy sphere, where everything takes place on the surface and in view of all men, and follow them both into the hidden abode of production, on whose threshold there stares us in the face  "No admittance except on business."... We think we can perceive a change in the physiognomy [ facial features] of our dramatis personae [cast of characters in a play]. He, who before was the money-owner, now strides in front as capitalist: the possessor of labour-power follows as his labourer. The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but -- a hiding.' (page 172). 

Of course, Marx meant by the term  'a hiding' the systematic extraction of surplus value which is the secret of capitalist production, not an obvious one, though, and not on the surface 'in view of all men'. In other words, for the remaining 10 or 12 hours of the working day, the labourer finds himself completely under the sway and domination of his boss, directed to work in a way and to a speed which maximises his own exploitation. In the classic marxist formula, labourers work in order to create enough value both to pay their own wages, and then to create a surplus: by law, custom, and practice (and sometimes by Divine Right too) the owners of capital have the right to dispose of this surplus as they wish. No equality, freedom, or individual negotiation here! 

For some marxists, this whole important section reveals another notion of ideology. This notion refers to more 'scientific' understandings of the capitalist mode of production. The economic theory of liberals like Bentham was based to some extent on a genuine understanding of the dynamics of market forces. To that extent, it does not simply represent crudely [or 'vulgarly'] the political values of the class from which the theorists derive. However, it is still a misleading understanding. It is based on surface appearances, not what actually goes on in the  'hidden abode of production', and it is based on a misleading abstraction -- the 10 or 20 minute episode at the start of the working day is wrongly generalised to stand for the whole day. Nevertheless, it is an understandable set of mistakes that economists and theorists make. Their theories do correspond to some aspects of reality -- however, that reality itself is misleading, and you generalise about it at your peril, especially if you are using the most obvious features.  'Scientific' ideologies therefore work with inadequate concepts and at the wrong, superficial, level. This might be quite different from asking about the values of the scientists as people themselves, as in the earlier example.

Of course, it also follows that Marx was offering something very different in his own analysis of capitalism -- a properly-grasped understanding of the whole system, both surface and depth features, both the obvious and the deeply disguised aspects.

So --can we see any applications of this kind of critique to Bentham's work on schooling? To take the first critique:

  1. Bentham was regarded as a dangerous radical for his views, and, indeed, risked imprisnoment for publishing them -- yet Marx sees him as 'apologetic'. 
  2. Bentham was out to question what was taken as the 'natural' way to run a school,and devoted much of his work to undermining 'naturalistic' arguments -- yet Marx sees him as naturalising the social system
  3. Bentham wanted to develop a schooling system suitable for all -- yet Marx argues that he stands for the values of an English shopkeeper.Quite how he came to hold these values is a mystery too -- his mother may have been a shopkeeper, but Bentham himself belonged very firmly to the educated British elite and was a very cosmopolitan figure, much admired in Europe
Perhaps Marx's rhetoric has just carried him over the top here? Perhaps he has omitted to examine this specific work on schooling, which is more radical than Bentham's economics? Or perhaps Bentham needs to be judged more in his context -- not against the revolutionary Karl Marx, but against the even more conservative schoolers of his day ( marxists have always had this problem of judging all opponents as equally  'conservative' compared to themsleves, ignoring important differences between them)? Or perhaps Marx is right to penetrate beneath the apparent radicalism of Bentham's proposals to identify a new kind of conservatism still in them -- the conservatism of the old English elite would only be replaced by the conservatism of the rising class of English shopkeepers? (And try my own critique in the opening section of my paper, based on a different sort of marxist resource -- 'critical theory')

Now let us try the second level of critique and apply it to the work on schooling specifically. Could we identify any dangerously ideological and misleading, even if understandable, abstractions in Bentham's account? We might be able to make some progress with this idea --arguing, perhaps, that the surface appearance of teaching and learning is misleadingly specific. It look as if all the relevant action takes place in the actual classroom, in the form of individual interactions between pupils and teachers. Given a utilitarian angle, these interactions would also be driven purely by self-interest -- pupils would want to learn, and teachers to teach them, and everything would be guided by those principles alone. 

This model of teaching and learning could also look very idealistic to marxists,who would want to emphasise less obvious aspects of schooling too -- the disciplining of children who failed to abide by the school rules (which include rules of behaviour as well as of learning), the selection and grading of children (often based upon social judgements made by teachers, it was to be claimed, based on class, gender and 'race'  -- see file on 'labelling theory'?), the close ties between schooling and the demands of the occupational system. Far from being a matter of individual interactions based on self-interests, schools would really have the function of the 'reproduction of the social relations of capitalism' (to quote a well-known marxist study -- Bowles and Gintis). There would be no direct economic exploitation of the pupils to discover, perhaps, and thus no immediate confliuct or motive in masking the reality of school -- but an indirect economic function is possible (to preserve the whole system).

Again, perhaps, this would not be obvious 'on the surface', but on closer inspection, including the inspection of the more hidden aspects of schooling and its role in a wider context, a better understanding would be achieved. Look at school students both before schooling (to examine the effects of their social background), and after schooling (to see in what sort of occupations they end up), and you will get a different picture. Penetrate some of the 'hidden abodes' of schooling and that will help too -- see how teachers and lecturers actually do the business of selection, curriculum design and assessment, perhaps? (try my file on this?) Of course, Bentham might be forgiven for his error, marxists might suggest -- he was a very early writer, after all, unable to see the full flowering of State education and its unerring pursuit of capitalist interests over the ensuing decades, and even Marx spent little time and effort analysing schooling, so we have little to guide us -- but error there certainly was.

Of course, marxists who tried to develop this application of Marx's conception of ideology to schooling ( especially Bowles and Gints and, more generally, Althusser) soon realised that the education system did not offer a simple 'reproduction of the social relations of production'. For one thing, it was not at all obvious what the best way was to reproduce these social relations -- the educationalists disagreed among themselves ( as in the controversy over monitors versus pupil-teachers), and there was a constant level of disagreement and pressure from various organs of the State -- over money, for example, or over more detailed control -- as the flood of legislation about education indicates. If this is reproduction, education offers a constant series of inefficiencies,  'errors' and re-adjustments as far as the State is concerned

The works I have cited here ( especially those in the other file on the 'Marjons moment') raise the possibility of unintended consequences or contradictions as well. Coleridge was concerned to try to reassure those who thought that too high a standard of teacher training might produce social 'instability', for example -- schoolteachers becoming discontented with the 'drudgery' of their calling and leaving it, or, worse, schoolteachers rising above their station, and coming to consider themselves as equal to the educated elite (some commentators have seen this as a continuing anxiety, in fact). 

There is also the issue of reading matter. Teaching people to read is necessary for an educated workforce, but it is also potentially rather dangerous, since the readers might read all sorts of seditious material -- that produced by 'Owenites', 'Chartists' or 'Independents' worried Coleridge especially. Coleridge had a policy of warning masters and pupils that pupil reading would be inspected, and any seditious material would be robustly attacked by the masters who would explain its errors to the pupil reader. Yet this is clearly risky in at least two ways:

  1. seditious reading might simply be concealed or read outside the College or school, perhaps even at disturbing collective meetings ( I seem to recall that this practice of collective readings at dubious mass meetings was noted by Cobden during one of his 'rural rides' to report on the state of England)
  2. robust as a refutation might be by a master ( who were perhaps respected more in their day than at present), there could be no real certainty of the outcome. Seditious writers could be very persuasive, and, after all, the pupils probably knew more about the actual experiences of the working classes than did their masters. Schoolmasters out of their domain are often out of their depth too.
The problem is that education is a very tricky site of reproduction, more open to ambiguity and contradiction than, say, the workplace. Education requires a certain amount of open-mindedness, the free circulation of ideas, and a certain independence on the part of the learner, both to make it work and to make it appear as legitimate. Of course, the curriculum can be quietly restrained, or even directly controlled by the Government as in the UK at present, teacher training can be restricted to a matter of skills again, the Revised Code can be reintroduced, a massive programme of inspections used to police the system -- but even there ( here?) I doubt if the system can ever be finally closed off from all seditious influence -- what do you  think?.

Foucault on Bentham

Another theoretical heavyweight has also mentioned Bentham specifically, although this time in the specific terms of his design for a prison -- Panopticon. I discuss Foucault in general in my aside on Foucault, and his work on discourse and sexuality in the 'Marjons moment' file. There are also reading guides to The Archaeology of Knowledge and Discpline and Punish...As we go through this more specific work, try  once more to anticipate how this discussion might also carry over to the work of Bentham, and the other monitorialists, on schooling too -- Foucault includes the school now and then in his general discussion, which might help with some clues.

Foucault starts his work in Discipline and Punish (Foucault 1977) by noting how the idea of just and appropriate punishment for criminals changed rapidly at the beginning of the 19th century in Europe. Cruel, humiliating and public punishment was common before -- public executions and torture. The new methods took quite a different tack though, and locked prisoners up in relatively humane prisons, with the aim of reforming them. The change reflected a number of important factors, says Foucualt - new ideas about the science of changing behaviour, new technologies in new insitutions designed to change people, and new views of the origins of and remedies for crime. These changes had deeper roots too - in new conceptions of citizenship, subjectivity and the role of the State, for example. [And, of course, Bentham's utilitarianism specifically, and his 'rigorous' application of it -- to insist that punishment can be justified only if it led to the pursuit of greater happiness, for example] These themes come together, and are illustrated beautifully in Bentham's design for a new prison -- Panopticon. 

In the new system, prisoners are locked up in isolation and under constant supervision (or, rather the potential for constant supervision), hence the name. A central supervision tower, and constant patrolling, means that any convict is liable to be inspected at any time by the guards, even though they cannot tell exactly when they are being watched (prisoners cannot see out of their cells). Semple (1993) tells us that the central 'lodge' [!] was carefully designed so as to shield it from the view of cells above and below, while the guards loooked out through one-way smoked glass spyholes. There was also a 'labyrinth' of special walkways, galleries and stairs for the use of guards only, winding around the cells, and, at one stage, a series of 'speaking tubes' to allow the guards to admonish the convicts. 

The design of some Victorian prisons in England -- Pentonville, and Strangeways -- reflect Benthams' architecture of constant surveillance -- a central tower is placed at the centre of a star-shaped system of corridors radiating out from it, while each cell has a small inspection window controlled from the outside. (However, it is worth pointing that, according to Semple (1993), Bentham cannot be blamed for the 'horrors' which apparently ensued at Pentonville) The diagram of the Marjons practice school in the Marjons moment file also gives you some idea of the design -- although you must be a bit cautious here, since the object in the middle of the octagon is not a supervisory tower but a ventilation system suspended from the roof! Nevertheless, the masters stood in the middle, and each class was painfully visible (and audible)

The idea of the regime was to encourage each prisoner to reflect on his crimes and to re-model himself for the future -- as in the concept 'penitentiary', of course. They never knew when they would be inspected, and so there was considerable pressure on them to behave all the time. For Bentham, this was all to be done according to the principles of Utilitarianism -- convicts could ask themselves whether the benefits of their crimes were now outweighed by their imprisonment, they could repent and recalculate what made them happier. The prison regime offered carefully graduated rewards and punishments to help them make these calculations - there were mattresses to sleep on, of different thicknesses, so that repentance was rewarded by a thicker and more comfortable mattress! Semple (1993) provides a list of other details -- Bentham specified the building materials (he liked the new building material -- cast-iron --which was strong, antiseptic, and cheap); the system of heating, ventilation and sewage; the type of music that should be played when prisoners first entered or when they were at exercise; the dimensions of the cells; diet; clothing (prisoners should wear jackets with one very long sleeve and one very short one so they could be easily recognised, an improvement, says Semple, on his first proposal which was to dye their faces!); how much sleep the convicts should be allowed (seven and a half hours per night, eleven hours on Sundays). There must also have been a huge clerical effort to record, monitor and log the progress of prisoners (and their subsequent rehabilitation -- another interest of Bentham's). There was also the need for education in prisons -- and Bentham himself joked about the similarity between prisons and schools, Semple tells us

Semple (1993) enters important cautions at this point which we should bear in mind before we turn again to Foucault:

  1. Bentham's actual proposals were intended to be kind and reforming, and were so, especially when considered against the other sorts of proposals on offer --solitary confinement, starvation diets, dark and cold cells, corporal and capital punishments. By our standards they still look barbarous, of course -- especially Bentham's idea of tattooing convicts with a prison number (and on the left arm too, of all unhappy places), legally requiring any suspects to show their arms,and insisting discharged prisoners should carry a certificate of discharge ready for inspection. 
  2. His practical proposals were always tempered by the need for economies too, for example -- so the prisoners' diets should be adequate but cheap (at one stage, he thought a diet solely of potatoes would be fine) -- but this was normal for the time, and at least it wasn't deliberate starvation. 
  3. He meant well, generally, following his other principles of 'lenity' ( arguing that the prisoners' loss of liberty was already their main punishment) and a kind of moralistic 'severity' ( e.g. cutting out any luxuries like alcohol or tobacco). He saw it as enlightened to suggest that prisoners took essential exercise in the air on a large treadmill, and as plain common sense that the treadmill be connected to a pump to utilise the energy generated!
  4. Bentham did change his mind a great deal, as circumstances and practical politics changed. He was forced to revert to advocating corporal punishment for prison offenders, for example, fearing that his proposals would be rejected on the grounds that he might be seen as being too soft, especially on escapers. In fact he seems to have realised quite late the problems posed by possible escapes, and was forced to redesign the containing walls and consider the use of troops to police the prison. There was a constant development of his ideas, as the practical and the reforming impulses unwound -- and as actual proposals began to take shape in various programmes of State prison-building (largely to replace transportation).
[We might see security as a problem specific to prisons, of course, one accounting for their excessive regulation,and one not applicable to schools. Another difference might be that Bentham apparently had a very low opinion of convicts whom, he assumed, were stupid, and not very susceptible to reason, perhaps unlike 'normal' children. Convicts had to be helped to repent by employing some pretty crude non-verbal symbolism, especially in Bentham's early work -- lots of black paint, skeletons propped up in doorways, the hanging of effigies, solemn music, models of suitable animals cemented into the walls -- monkeys (mischief), foxes (cunning)]

For Foucault, Bentham offers a classic moment in thinking of the discipline and regulation of individual subjects. Instead of massive external retaliation ending in public torture or death, designed to scare the rest of the population into submission, the emphasis shifts on to trying to encourage self-discipline and self-regulation among prisoners and the rest of us -- to work on the 'soul' rather than on the mind. Of course, schools were to take care of the rest of us -- they were behaviour-shaping regimes for the unconvicted. There too was to be found a  massive effort of surveillance, the constant risk of being asked to 'say' a lesson (or fill in an 'ellipsis' if you happened to be a Marjon student), a detailed reward and punishment regime, a mixture of concerns to learn both academic subjects and more general  ways of behaving. Bentham's reforms had merely elaborated and refined this new technology and new conception of discipline, and his philosophy had helped form a new expert discourse based on a new understanding of subjectivity.

Foucault M (1977) Discipline and Punish : the birth of the prison, London: Penguin Press
Marx K (1954) Capital: a critique of political economy Vol 1 London: Lawrence and Wishart
Semple J (1993) Bentham's Prison: a study of the panopticon penitentiary, Oxford: Clarendon Press

back to start page