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Care of the Self in a Context of Accountability

by Michael G. Gunzenhauser - 2008

Background/Context: This article is a part of a larger philosophical and empirical project by the author and collaborators to understand the ways in which high-stakes accountability policy fosters normalizing educational practices and concomitant resistance by educators and students.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: In this article, the author explores how Michel Foucault’s notion of the “care of the self” might provide a conceptual basis for resistance to the normalizing practices and disciplinary power associated with high-stakes accountability and resulting educational practices.

Research Design: The author employs a philosophical analysis of key concepts associated with normalization, the care of the self, the educated self, and high-stakes accountability. The article is presented as a philosophical argument.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The author suggests that to shift attention from limited notions of the self toward expansive and creative possibilities for constituting the self requires clarity on what we mean by the educated self in a context of accountability. It also necessitates a new professional ethics characterized by critical reflection and intersubjective engagement.

 “The object was to learn to what extent the effort to think one’s own history can free thought from what it silently thinks, and so enable it to think differently.” (Foucault, 1984/1985, p. 9)

On the subject of accountability policy in the United States, thinking differently is now crucial. One of the most fundamental and devastating critiques of high-stakes accountability policy arises from seeing high-stakes accountability as a technology of normalization in which the norm takes on outsized proportions, effecting a reversal of power relations (Foucault, 1995/1975). This power dynamic privileges a nonreflective philosophy of education by default and circumscribes discourse about educational philosophies and practices (Gunzenhauser, 2003). Most fundamentally, I would argue, high-stakes accountability policy presents a crisis of the educated self, because it authorizes practices and conditions that constrain opportunities for educators and students to constitute themselves. Critique or augmentation of accountability policy without attending to the implications of normalization for the constitution of the educated self is unlikely to curtail the largely negative effects of high-stakes testing (Gunzenhauser, 2006; Sirotnik, 2004).

I propose that by turning to a notion of the self based on the work of Michel Foucault, wherein the self is continually constituted through exercises of power, we may see the extent of the crisis and formulate resistance to the normalizing tendencies of high-stakes accountability policy. To make this argument, I provide background on Foucault’s notions of normalizing power and the care of the self, drawing from Foucault and his commentators. In education, Foucault is most well-known for his critiques of disciplinary power, most notably in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1995/1975), which has been applied to analyses of power relations in schools. Late in his life, Foucault devoted much time to his notion of the “care of the self,” built on historical critique of the modern self and the exploration of hidden possibilities through cultivation of a nonfoundational ethics.

By linking disciplinary power and the care of the self, I wish to characterize a promising form of resistance for our current educational context. I argue that resistance to normalization in our current context requires caring for oneself and providing the conditions and experiences for students to care for themselves. Two fundamental projects are developing clarity on what we mean by the educated self and fostering the ethical and professional judgment of educators. As I aim to show, these projects require a complex notion of ethics and the workings of power, particularly how one thinks of oneself in relation to others.


In Discipline and Punish, Foucault (1995/1975) presents a historical analysis, using what he calls a genealogical method, of the changing roles that prisons and incarceration have played in Western culture. He aims to show how the institution of the prison reflects, and also participates in, the cultural construction of such notions as the soul and the modern self. These notions are revealed by considering the role that imprisonment is expected to play in reforming the soul and/or the self. Ultimately, Foucault directs his analysis to the larger role of discipline in a myriad of institutions, including, but not exclusively, the penal system. Along the way, he addresses two institutions that are particularly relevant in this article—schooling and social science—and the ways in which they participate in the discipline of the modern self.

One of the ways in which discipline occurs is through normalization, which Foucault names as the process in which a norm is named, reinforced, and refined. This norm is reified as rational, natural, and standard, with deviations from the norm named as sinister, dangerous, or deficient in some way. Several significant historical aspects of normalization emerge: One is that when looking at previous periods of history, what counts as deviant shifts dramatically; another is that earlier eras are often interpreted anachronistically to support (and further normalize) contemporary notions of the normal. Foucault argues that through the genealogical method, we should uncover taken-for-granted assumptions (or as he says above, our silent thinking), so as to open up the possibility for thinking differently.

To be clear, Foucault is not looking for a hidden core or some essential notion of human nature that culture obfuscates. The taken-for-granted assumptions that Foucault identifies are rather fundamental cultural themes. The self, sexuality, health, and sanity are among the themes he addresses in his work. In his work on sexuality, for example, Foucault demonstrates how a notion of what is normal sexual behavior takes form over time, while at the same time, the notion of what is sexually normal reflects, relies on, and helps to create an underlying notion of a normal self.

Foucault is after a theorization of selfhood in light of these complex exercises of power upon the modern self. He suggests that the modern self is so caught up in the historically situated disciplinary processes that thinking differently is necessary if we are to act differently, first of all, but more so to act ethically. I return to the ethical aspect of this formulation later in the article, but for now, I want to address why I agree with Foucault on the claim that the modern self is constrained through disciplinary processes, among them normalization, and to address high-stakes accountability as a particularly troublesome example of constraint on self-constitution.

As others have argued, educational policy in many Western contexts, including Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, has undergone an increasing degree of centralized surveillance and control (Biesta, 2004; Pignatelli, 2002). High-stakes accountability systems bring the tools of social science to bear in rather explicit means of control. In his explanation of the normalizing functions of institutions, Foucault (1995/1975) describes the role that social science has played in creating modern individuals, providing tools for institutions that support our cultural notions of what it means to be an autonomous, educated person. Most effectively, persons discipline themselves, acting in ways that constitute themselves as docile bodies and normalized selves.

In his classic example of self-discipline, Foucault relates the example of Bentham’s panopticon, a proposed prison structure from 1834, in which cells are arranged around a central surveillance point. Each inmate is invisible to any other inmate but simultaneously viewable by a single guard from the surveillance point. Significantly, the inmate cannot see the guard, and so Bentham supposes that because the inmate believes that at any moment, he or she could be in view, the inmate disciplines himself or herself. Although Bentham’s prison itself wasn’t built, it influenced subsequent prison architecture and is indicative of Bentham’s early modern assumptions of efficient discipline; more important, Foucault makes the panopticon emblematic of modern disciplinary power.

Modern discipline provides a contrast to more violent medieval discipline. Marshall (1996) summarized Foucault’s insight: “Spaces in the new disciplinary blocks operate differently as individuals are constituted in various ways through technologies of domination and in spaces, again private, where individuals constitute themselves through technologies of the self” (p. 18). In spaces such as the school, science provides efficient technologies that help this process along, including institutional practices and social arrangements that encourage discipline. High-stakes accountability policy proliferates new institutional practices and social arrangements that in turn enable exercises of power wherein individuals eventually discipline themselves in private spaces.

In educational policy and practice, social science unwittingly contributes to normalization because of what its tools—standardized testing, for example—make possible, necessary, or desirable. Through the technology of the examination, for example, institutional practices of diagnosis, placement, and standard setting have become possible. Measuring characteristics can become increasingly problematic as the use of measurements expands into the educational practices of teachers, school boards, and policy makers. As the use of measurements makes its way into daily practice, the utility of the measured subject (for example, as the starkly normalized “grade-level” student) leads to the development of new technologies, new practices, and new institutions. As Foucault tells us, these technologies enable science effectively to remake the individual as a case, made up of a series of measurable characteristics. Significantly, for Foucault’s theory of power, these new instruments of discipline are made possible; the conditions are established wherein particular exercises of power can be realized.

When new exercises of power proliferate, Foucault refers to the new institutions that result as “creeping” institutions. Testing systems contribute to creep, for instance, when they authorize judgments about such notions as student achievement, teacher quality, and school success. Other technologies seem to become thought of as necessary—such as testing regimens implemented by school districts with greater regularity and at lower grade levels than federal law requires. Measurements are, of course, approximations, more or less crude, depending on how carefully they have been designed, but important for Foucault’s notion of power is that the power of a measurement is not in what goes into it and not what its designers intend, but in what use is made of it. Pignatelli (2002) described the constraints associated with high-stakes accountability in the following passage from his essay on the ways in which surveillance constrains the practice of educational leaders: “Regrettably, matters of curriculum, school organization and culture, and professional development as collaborative responses to the school community’s collective needs and aspirations are being buried under a blanket of surveillance, shrouded in a haze of frightfully crude and narrowly defined performance indicators” (p. 171). As Pignatelli and others have argued, there is additional concern for the ways in which high-stakes accountability compromises educators themselves as subjects, constraining their latitude for developing educational philosophies and exercising professional judgment.

For example, imagine the new power relations created when a superintendent implements new testing requirements in the second grade for the first time, ostensibly to help teachers identify children for remediation before third grade, when their test scores are incorporated into the school district’s rating in the state’s accountability system. This decision may lead to more structured, test-driven curriculum and instructional practices among teachers concerned that their students may face harm if they perform poorly (Mathison and Freeman, 2003, referred to a similar example). The exercises of power in this example are multiple. Individuals—the superintendent, the teachers—make judgments in response to their conditions and create new structures that further ascribe meaning and power to testing. Individuals in effect are making decisions that call into play conflicted notions about the meaning and value of testing. They create new notions and new conditions that others respond to; teachers act then within these new conditions, and all the while, the test measurement is lent greater credence. Individuals in groups, such as school boards and policy-making bodies, likewise act in ways in which they exercise power. They create institutional practices and authorize social arrangements that constrain or enable subsequent individual actions.

Another rather complex technology of normalization is the notion of “grade level,” a concept with an interesting history that has been reified in new ways through high-stakes accountability policy. To act on the notion of grade level, particularly to use it to make policy or to make decisions about which students of a certain age can progress to the next grade level, relies on a rather extensive series of decisions. What it means for a child to be at grade level depends on essentialized notions of how children develop, how they respond to certain types of learning experiences, which learning material is appropriate at certain ages, and what counts as an acceptable range of responses to particular questions. The grade level is, in other words, a rather tangled technology of social constructions. It is a calculation of characteristics based on a set of scientific practices (rigorously tested but nevertheless socially constructed) and dependent ultimately on a fixed notion of the educated self.

Changing power relations seem to place test measurements in a more powerful position, and in a very clear sense, test scores have taken on outsized proportions. It is important to be clear, however, in our discussions of power. When we grant test scores outsized power, what we are actually doing is exercising power over ourselves and others through individual actions, justifying our actions as necessary, beneficial, or perhaps scientific. What is necessary, beneficial, and scientific is tied up in our assumptions about the efficacy of technologies (tests and norms, for example) and the science that has gone into them. When we exercise power, we are choosing one possibility over many others, and we fail to the extent that we do not consider the possibilities that are obfuscated or foreclosed by the normalizing tendencies associated with these technologies.

As such, the effects of high-stakes accountability policy are more relevant for the individual exercises of power that educators enact and the educational experiences that result than the intentions of policy makers or the stated rationales within policies themselves. In point of fact, the misuse and misappropriation of standardized testing have evaluation and assessment specialists quite concerned about the direction in which accountability legislation has taken educational practice. Rogers (2005) expressed concern over the singular power accorded to high-stakes tests and how overemphasis on single measures leads to dysfunctional accountability systems. In its official statement, the American Evaluation Association (2002) urged policy makers and educators to make use of alternative and expanded forms of assessment that are readily available rather than relying too heavily on standardized assessments. Likewise, Carnoy, Elmore, and Siskin (2003) explored a distinction between internal and external accountability to account for public pressure to perform, and the building of internal capacity to improve educational practices. For her part, Resnick (in Chester, Porter, Resnick, Bersin, & Zelman, 2006), an early advocate of the high-standards movement, questioned the direction that policy makers have taken accountability and the educational practices that have proliferated.

As I suggest in the introduction, using Foucault leads to a more fundamental critique. Foucault would have us see the effects of accountability policy not solely as the misapplication of tools designed for other purposes. Foucault also helps us to see that the exercises of disciplinary power seen as a result of high-stakes accountability policy reflect something rather important and fundamental to the educational enterprise. Philosophers of education have addressed many of the issues of Foucaultian normalization in education in their analyses of previous educational accountability movements (Pignatelli, 1993) and in regard to disability (Erevelles, 2002), performativity (Kohli, 1999), environmental education (Gruenewald, 2004), and sexuality (Mayo, 1998). Other work is more generally concerned with the exercise of power in education (Fendler, 2004; Ford, 2003; Franzosa, 1992; Lechner, 2001; Masschelein, 2004; Popkewitz & Brennan, 1997; Stone, 2005). Previous arguments not only named national reform discourse as normalizing but also foretold the increasing creep of normalizing practices in schools that have come in the wake of No Child Left Behind (2002).

As Foucault shows in Discipline and Punish (1995/1975), the institution of schooling constitutes a cultural notion of what it means to be a modern self: a disciplined, normalized, and docile subject. Because of this depiction, many theorists in education are ambivalent about the usefulness of Foucault for his seemingly nihilistic view of power, whereas others suggest that rejection comes from a fundamental misreading of Foucault and a misapprehension of the possibilities provided by viewing power as Foucaultian (Covaleskie, 1994; Marshall, 1996; Mayo, 2000; McDonough, 1994). Others are concerned that Foucault does not adequately address collective action and therefore is limiting for work toward social justice (Garrison, 1998).1

If we only focus on the repressive aspects of power, Foucault contends, we lack a robust formulation of the self, its constitution, and the crucial role of resistance in the constitution of the self. Further, we underestimate our complicity with normalization. For Foucault, resistance to normalization is a fundamental practice of human freedom. And because normalization for Foucault is so effectively achieved through self-discipline, Foucaultian resistance is not limited to what may immediately come to mind: questioning authority, protesting, or refusing to participate. Nor is this resistance necessarily resistance to standards, testing, or accountability itself (see Skrla & Scheurich, 2004). Foucaultian resistance is instead a more radically personal, relational stance toward oneself and others. In any individual interaction, there are power relations and the potential both for domination and resistance because, as Hoy (2004) argued, any exercise of power necessitates the possibility of resistance, for by definition, it is resistance that is overcome in any exercise of power. This relation may be clearer in an example.

To return to the previous example about the superintendent instituting second-grade testing, in order for the examination to effect its stunning reversal of power relations, various individuals and groups have to make decisions that subjugate their own resistance. I detailed earlier examples of some of those decisions; these interactions are multiple, and I would argue that they extend to everyday interactions that educators have with each other, their students, and their communities. The normalizing power of a test score or a grade level is extended any time that it is reified in an interaction—when a teacher discusses a child’s test score with a parent, for instance, particularly if the teacher leaves unnamed and unquestioned the social construction that is the test score. Without the possibility of resistance in each of those individual instances, in fact, it makes no sense to make the claim for exercises of power.


We need to remain careful, however, not to assume that in each individual situation, there is a correct decision to be made, some sort of ideal, freedom-forming decision. Power relations in Foucault’s formulation are much more complicated than that, and I would argue that it is for this reason that turning to Foucault is particularly promising. For Foucault, resistance carries no guarantees of authenticity or progress. To address Foucault’s formulation of resistance requires an understanding of his concept of the self as an actor who exercises power, resists domination, and acquiesces in power relations. Instead, for Foucault, through each exercise of power, individuals continually constitute themselves. In his later writing, Marshall (2001) explained, Foucault continued to deemphasize the repressive aspects of power. He placed less emphasis on the repression of the self and greater emphasis on resistance and the ways in which the self is constituted.

The distinction between being authentic and constituting oneself emerges most clearly in The Hermeneutics of the Subject (2001/2005), a series of lectures wherein Foucault uses genealogical analysis to address the Ancient Greek exhortation to “know thyself,” which Foucault depicts as fundamental to modern notions of the self as needing to be authentic or true to one’s nature or to a coherent notion of human nature. Foucault contextualizes the exhortation to “know thyself,” suggesting instead that Greeks had a different, more humble idea in mind: “As for the [exhortation to] ‘know yourself,’ this was the principle [that] you should always remember that you are only a mortal after all, not a god, and that you should neither presume too much on your strength nor oppose the powers of the deity” (p. 4). Foucault uses this insight to think differently about the care of the self, a concept he contends had greater relevance to the Greeks than the exhortation to “know thyself.” This notion of the care of the self provides him ways for reimagining ethics and selfhood.

The ethics associated with the care of the self emerges in his three-volume work on the history of sexuality—The History of Sexuality (1976/1990), The Use of Pleasure (1984/1985), and The Care of the Self (1984/1986)—wherein Foucault looks to Ancient Greece for cultural themes around the meaning of sexuality and finds a hermeneutics of the subject where he had sought a hermeneutics of desire. He characterizes his evolving project in these three volumes as an articulation of the ways in which Greeks thought of man as a subject. He says the following in the second volume about his project as a historical and philosophical analysis:

A history of the way in which individuals are urged to constitute themselves as subjects of moral conduct would be concerned with the models proposed for setting up and developing relationships with the self, for self-reflection, self-knowledge, self-examination, for the decipherment of the self by oneself, for the transformations that one seeks to accomplish with oneself as object. (Foucault, 1984/1985, p. 29)

Already with this quotation, one gets a sense that by talking about “a relationship with the self” and the “transformations one seeks to accomplish with oneself,” Foucault departs from a notion of the self as the core of one’s identity, something to uncover over time, an essence to discover, or a pure, foundational notion of human nature (Marshall, 1996). Gone from Foucault’s approach is an “a priori theory of the subject, that is, any theory about the subject that does not take the theorizing activity of that subject itself into account” (Biesta, 1998, p. 7), which he attributes to the “Cartesian moment” (Foucault, 2001/2005).

Foucault shifts our attention to the constitution of the self, a nonfoundational formulation. It is, as Marshall (2001) suggested, an emphasis on a theory of “how we constitute the self” (p. 83). As Zembylas (2003) explained, “In Foucault’s writings, the unified self is challenged and fragmented; he uses the term ‘subjectivity’ instead of ‘selfhood’ or ‘self-identity’ to describe the manifold ways in which individuals are historically constituted” (p. 113). “Fragmented” is apt. In contrast to some of the interpretations of Foucault as nihilistic, giving up the unity of the subject fragments subjectivity but does not erase the subject itself (Biesta, 1998). Pignatelli (2002) described what is lost with the notion of an authentic self: “Foucault rejects an ethics predicated upon authenticity because it leads to the subsequent assertion of veritable, timeless truths about humankind: a modernist project that breeds certitude, complacency, and uniformity about the ethical practice” (p. 160).

I mean lost here in the sense of lost baggage, previous necessities. Significant for Foucault is turning away from the necessity of purifying the self, for eliminating elements of deficiency that cloud the true identity of the self, which Infinito (2003) described as another form of normalization, “the insistence that individuals be constantly vigilant about uncovering the ‘truth’ about themselves” (p. 72).

Although power is always operating, Foucault does not see it as determining our actions. As Marshall said, “Power is productive, it creates or makes people” (p. 84). This distinction in Foucault’s formulation of power places creation in opposition to constraint. The subject is a form of power, and self-creation is itself an exercise of power:

The “subject” is not some entity with defined characteristics, according to Foucault; the subject is a form of power at the same time that it is the product of power. It would seem that the free subject is a form of power that is aware of itself as a power. . . . The method of “coming to be” such a subject will also be an active process, an exercise of power. (Infinito, 2003, p. 72)

As Infinito argued, the constitution of the self through an active process of exercises of power is precisely the resistance we seek. In Infinito’s reading of Foucault, education itself is a process of ethical self-creation. The creative aspect of power may be particularly helpful for my purposes here if the critique of disciplinary power suggests that individuals have no choice but to be subjugated to the constraints imposed upon them. A Foucaultian self suggests otherwise, because resistance is always possible.


The notion of a nonessential self should be devastating to the overreaching use of the standardized test and, more important, should provide ways for mounting resistance. A theory of the self is a fundamental aspect of any philosophy of education, an articulation that provides the sets of assumptions about the meaning and value of education, both as an institutional phenomenon in the form of schooling and as a cultural phenomenon in the form of socialization and nonformal education. In contrast to Foucault’s formulation of self-constitution and the care of the self, the normalizing tendencies of high-stakes accountability policy represent profound constraint, the crisis of the educated self I mentioned before.

Educational theorists who have explored Foucault’s notion of the self have concerned themselves with addressing the crisis of the educated self, primarily focusing on questions about human freedom, in particular the extent to which the Foucaultian self is free to act—both as an educator and as a student. This question has led theorists to focus on projects of resistance—what remains possible to speak of in terms of free and intentioned action in light of Foucault’s articulation of the normalizing power of institutions such as the public school.

At least two projects of the constitution of the self (or “projects of the self,” to simplify) are relevant for resistance to normalization. These two are modified forms of critical reflection (as vigilance against subjugation) and intersubjective engagement (through social relations). These are not necessarily separate projects, although theorists are by no means of one mind about their relation to each other or about how successfully they see Foucault addressing each project.


Instead of the self being constantly vigilant about authenticity, a project of the modern self (Infinito, 2003), the first and most fundamental project of the Foucaultian self is constant vigilance of a different kind; it is what Marshall (2001) described as being “constantly vigilant against ever dangerous forms of subjugation or domination” (p. 77). A stance of “thoughtful disobedience” involves the self in constant reflection and constant change, in short, a continual exercise of freedom: “For Foucault, freedom must be continuously exercised if it is not to be lost” (Marshall, p. 77).

Infinito (2003) addressed what I term the crisis of the educated self when she “disavowed” what she named as an “impoverished, subjugated self,” a self imposed upon oneself from the outside, which she characterized as being exemplified in the subject positions of many of her undergraduate teacher education students. These imposed limits are particularly dangerous for the ways in which they constrain our openness (as educators) to relationships with others and, more to the point, to the ways in which we might “transgress the given, to create ourselves as something ‘other’” (p. 71). For Infinito, the Foucaultian self has been particularly relevant for her students who, encumbered by a received notion of themselves, lack capacity for understanding and caring for others who are different from themselves. This has been particularly true for her White students, whom she found to “have not been active participants in their own formation” (p. 71) and who found it difficult to relate to students of color. As participants in their own subjugation, these students not only lacked experience but the “willingness to change . . ., to liberate themselves from imposed and unreflective being” (p. 71). Without reflection, subjects contribute to their own subjugation.

To force reflection, Infinito (2003) fashioned a disruptive pedagogical exercise, adapted from Jane Elliot’s “blue-eyed, brown-eyed” exercise, wherein students with blue eyes were segregated and purposely subjugated, silenced, and disciplined in what Infinito described to them as an experiment. Infinito jarred her students into an emotional experience, and in the processing of the exercise, she got them to reflect on their ethical decision-making during the exercise. Using Foucault, Infinito invited struggle in her students: “Who one is and who one might become are produced mainly out of one’s struggles. Yet, it is only when we consider our struggles (that which we are resistant to), that we move into a free space” (p. 75). The intention of the exercise is critical reflection so that possibilities for future action might be brought into consideration. Infinito explained concisely how she believes the exercise fosters care of the self: “Of course, it is not until we enact these future possibilities that we can be said to have transformed our existence and thus changed the world, but it is through our experiment and the communal reflection that we are “brought into being”—a being that is fundamentally ethical” (p. 75).

Self-formation happens within inescapable relations of power; it is not evaluated in terms of a telos or even intention, but it is the subjectivity formed in day-to-day life or, in the context of schooling, through day-to-day interactions between educators and students. Zembylas (2003) put it this way: “Self-formation is constituted through the power relations and the resistances that the self reshapes through performances that create greater freedom” (p. 125), whereas the freedom Zembylas spoke of is itself a project and “never fully coherent” (p. 113).

Similar concerns lead to Infinito’s (2003) observation of the crucial role of education as a form of social praxis, her observation that “the locus of ethical activity is not the mind, nor even the will, but rather in the critical and creative capacities brought forth in social praxis” (p. 73). And so a portion of a project for educators is fostering social praxis that may encourage students to bring forth these “critical and creative capacities” in themselves and in their students.


The second part of the project of the self, intersubjective engagement, can be taken as a response to the limitations of critical reflection. Reflection by oneself alone may be individualistic and ultimately self-serving. For Foucault, individualism is an inadequate forbearer to the constitution of the self (Marshall, 2001).  Marshall was clear that Foucault warns against self-serving and narcissistic caring of the self—which we might be tempted to assign him, considering that the phrase “care of the self” may connote pampering, protecting, and luxuriating oneself, particularly at the expense of others. Marshall here talked about what gets foreclosed in Foucault’s critique of individualism, whereas what is gained is a notion of freedom through dependence:

His notion of the self as constituted forecloses on such things as self interest being part of a human nature. On the contrary, the self is constituted in a pedagogical relationship with Others, and as one learns how to constitute and control the self one also learns about Others and care of others in the practices of freedom. There is a very complex interrelation of dependence between the self and others, which starts as a mentor relationship and continues with mentoring relationships. (p. 86)

Foucault (1984/1986) speaks historically of how Ancient Greeks manifest this emphasis on care of the self in social relations. In a time with greater emphasis on the care of the self, social institutions served a purpose of contributing to care of the self. He says, “Around the care of the self, there developed an entire activity of speaking and writing in which the work of oneself on oneself and communication with others were linked together . . . it constituted, not an exercise in solitude, but a true social practice. . . . within more or less institutionalized structures” (p. 51). Turning to an analysis of Ancient Greeks pays off particularly well for Foucault here, because it suggests to us that in our current context, our highly normalized notion of the self is not aligned well with the care of the self. It is possible that we do not have the institutions in place that would reinforce care of the self as a project. However, as Foucault explains these institutions, it suggests that the Ancient Greeks enjoyed many of the same social institutions we have currently, but they placed greater emphasis on some areas than others.

For example, in the third volume of The History of Sexuality, Foucault (1986/1984) goes into detail about the social institution of mentoring in this regard. One seeks “another person in whom one recognized an aptitude for guidance and counseling” (p. 53). Mentoring was a well-respected duty, and in cases of existing relationships, caring for the self and for the other enriched the relationship and was reciprocated: “The care of the self appears therefore as intrinsically linked to a ‘soul service,’ which includes the possibility of a round of exchanges with the other and a system of reciprocal obligations” (p. 54).

Paraphrasing Foucault (1986/1984), we need others in order to take responsibility for ourselves (p. 53). Particularly important, it seems, is for mentors (and other significant others) to help us identify ways in which our actions contribute to our own subjugation and the subjugation of others. Because the Greeks placed so much emphasis on care of the self and had institutions in place to support that project, and because the United States, not similarly interested in the care of the self and lacking institutions that would support it, the project of normalization is dominant, supported through instrumental institutions and isolating social arrangements, and difficult to resist. To foster the care of the self in an institution such as the school, which has long been embedded in modernist notions of the self, new institutional practices and social arrangements are needed.


Resistance characterized by vigilance against subjugation and by intersubjective engagement may suggest a project that avoids pitfalls rather than a project that has form itself. Educators dealing with the normalization associated with high-stakes accountability policy are unlikely to find a stance of merely avoiding pitfalls very satisfying; indeed, creative forms of action are needed. In response to the crisis of the educated self brought about by rampant normalization associated with high-stakes accountability, how might we as educators and educational theorists build a robust professional practice around Foucaultian resistance, characterized as self-constitution through intersubjective engagement and vigilance against subjugation? In what ways may it be helpful to counter normalization in the current context of high-stakes accountability?

Although there is limited space to fully form a model of resistance, I would argue for two fundamental and related projects for formulating resistance: developing clarity on what we mean by the educated self, and fostering the ethical and professional judgment of educators. These projects span the educational sector. These are projects for individual educators, school leaders, teacher educators, graduate educators, and policy makers, because not only are new educational goals and ethical frames needed but as I mention above, additionally needed are new institutional practices and social arrangements.


Significant for any philosophy of education is a notion of the educated self, particularly if, for the sake of argument, we adopt the language of Foucault and grant that the purpose of education is to seek truth (as long as we acknowledge that we also have to define truth). As I mention above, in Discipline and Punish, Foucault (1995/1975) is clear that a desirable but constraining aspect of the modern self is that individuals discipline themselves through technologies of the self, participating in their own subjection. When Foucault takes up the problem of the modern self again in The Hermeneutics of the Subject (2005/2001), one gets a clearer sense that although Foucault embraces the modernist desires for seeking freedom and truth, he finds the modern notion of the self limiting; in contrast to the views of the Ancient Greeks, the modern possibilities for seeking freedom are curtailed. After what he calls the Cartesian moment, the modern self accesses truth through the acquisition of knowledge:

I think the modern age of the history of truth begins when knowledge itself and knowledge alone gives access to the truth. That is to say, it is when the philosopher (or the scientist, or simply someone who seeks the truth) can recognize the truth and have access to it in himself and solely through his activity of knowing, without anything else being demanded of him and without him having to change or alter his being as subject. (p. 17)

Foucault names the link to education in such a view of the self: “to have access to the truth we must have studied, have an education, and operate within a certain scientific consensus” (p. 18). We might term this view of the modern self a modernist caricature, because in the modern tradition, there are multiple examples of philosophers who do not limit the search for truth just to the propositional knowledge that Foucault speaks of in this passage.2

Nevertheless, this modernist view characterizes a view of the self perpetuated by high-stakes accountability policy, for one would have to believe in just such a view of the self, knowledge, and truth to willfully grant standardized tests the authority they receive currently in public education. If teaching to the test, narrowing the curriculum to tested subject areas, and aligning instruction to standardized texts, tests, and outcomes (Sirotnik, 2004) were one’s educational philosophy, one would have to believe that the educated self is achieved merely through the acquisition of testable knowledge.

If an educated self is one capable of seeking truth, then surely Foucault’s more expansive notion of truth is called for, making for a more integrated notion of the self. Following Foucault, we have the basis for conceptualizing schooling as a project of the care of the self—selfhood as continually constituting and open to possibility, but ever vigilant and resistant to normalizing tendencies. Alternative educational philosophies and models of the educated self need to remain in play, such as discourses about the meaning and value of the arts. Further, educators need to be aware that state standards and curricula are contested documents. Standards and curricula are socially constructed and necessarily exclude some subject matter and opportunities for constituting oneself in alternative ways. Educators need to be aware of the roles that discourses play in governing our actions, and they need to act to keep alternative discourses alive, even when they seem to run counter to prevailing norms.

For example, it is a challenge to disentangle the goals of high standards and the normalizing practices that those goals authorize. There is a strong sense in which the use of standards has contributed to the deleterious, “unintended” effects of high-stakes accountability, and the argument also may be made that pushing the notion of high standards is paradoxically oppressive for taking for granted a fixed notion of a self. The processes that lead to the creation of standards, as Popkewitz (1991) and Masschelein and Simons (2005) argued, mask the various necessary exercises of power that occur when committees and commissions decide what subject matter to include and exclude. These processes that Masschelein and Simons, and Popkewitz described, wherein representatives are asked to participate in the construction of standards, provide the illusion of participation and democratic action, paradoxically involving teachers in their own mode of subjection (Foucault, 1976/1990).


I would argue that the other fundamental aspect of resistance to normalization is greater attention to ethics in all educational interactions. This ethical project is the centerpiece of Foucault’s notion of the care of the self, and it is echoed in Paulo Freire’s (1997/2005) contention about what is basic to the development of an educator as a professional: “It is important that we take critical ownership of the formation of our selves” (p. 44). The notion of the care of the self provides educators with a complex sense of the moral nature of their practice—what Infinito (2003) termed ethical self-formation. Rarely are the ethical aspects of teaching cultivated, reinforced, or considered fundamental to educational practice, but the care of the self places them at the center of educational practice.

The ethical development of professionals is tied to cultivation of professional judgment at all levels in education, fostering it in educators, and expecting and respecting it. For example, I often hear from teachers who distrust their professional judgment about the abilities and achievements of their students in favor of test scores. As Mathison and Freeman (2003) explained, elementary teachers find themselves in ethical quandaries when high stakes are attached to students’ performance on tests. If judgments about students’ progress or future placement are at stake, teachers are willing to displace their own professional judgment about the efficacy of preparing children for standardized tests; they reason that failing to prepare children for tests would put the children at peril (Mathison & Freeman). These educators see the real effects of poor test performance, such as grade retention or exclusion from future opportunities. These teachers are placed in the ironic situation of acquiescing to normalizing practices because they reason that resisting might actually constrain students’ future possibilities. Whether the ends they envision would play themselves out is beside the point; at base, Mathison and Freeman noted, the teachers’ ethical reasoning is dominated by utilitarian ethics.

If as utilitarians they act from the principle of utility (in which ethically defensible actions are those that produce the greatest good for the greatest number), even in the best of circumstances, they are bounded by their expectations of how future educational institutions will treat their students. The ultimate real-school effects for their students are dependent on institutional decisions (cut-off scores and the design of the tests, for example); clearly, the teachers lack faith that the future institutional decisions about grade promotion (if the child performed inadequately on the standardized test) would be in the best interests of the children. Furthermore, within the existing institutional and social arrangements, alternatives are limited. In this example, these elementary teachers are placed in an institutionally created dilemma, with no clearly evident choice. Taken in isolation, the situation itself is intractable without transforming the context and reformulating the discursive practices at play.

Taking the stance of care of the self may place teacher and student at risk, although as Pignatelli (2002) contended, risk may be precisely what is called for. We need to think of educational experiences as characterized by greater risk than we currently do. Pignatelli was clear that Foucaultian resistance to high-stakes accountability involves “[prodding] us . . . to choose ourselves through what we actually do, not the programs or the ideologies we subscribe to” (p. 166). We may be tempted to think about risk first in terms of placing oneself at risk—speaking out against subjugating practices, for example, and risking one’s job. The link between risk and resistance need not be so individualistically heroic. Freire (1997/2005) was clear that teachers need to act collectively and build support from parents and students for their professional judgment. Welch (2000), who contrasted risk with control, reminds us of what can be gained by risking action when the outcome is unknown. Applied to education, a risk may be as simple as taking a risk to trust a student or a colleague, or to experiment with something new that is not scientifically proven to be a best practice. An ethical decision is often a risk, but it is also for Foucault an exercise of power that opens up possibilities of new institutional practices and social arrangements.


A Foucaultian notion of the care of the self, characterized by critical reflection (as vigilance against subjugation) and intersubjective engagement (through social relations) may provide promising directions for responding to the crisis of the self brought about by the constraints of high-stakes accountability. It is my position that cultivating the conditions for promoting care of the self is the most defensible approach for teaching, teacher education, administrator preparation, and educational policy in our current context. As Marshall (1996) acknowledged, Foucault proposes a view of the self that is a fundamental critique of the static nature of the modern self. The care of the self amounts to a departure for our tradition of public schooling, focusing attention on how individuals cultivate themselves.

More needs to be done to understand the ways in which educators may provide opportunities for individuals to practice the care of the self, particularly when so many new practices have emerged as the technology of the examination has crept into more aspects of public education; more needs to be done to understand the ways in which social practices contribute to more expansive, possibility-rich notions of subjectivity for multiple populations; and finally, more needs to be done to counter the distorted and distorting discourses of accountability that Biesta (2004) described as radically deemphasizing our responsibility for education as a public good. I believe that Foucault’s notion of the care of the self provides the needed frame for resisting normalization and forming more expansive, professional educational practices.


1. To an extent, I would agree with the criticisms, particularly about the limitations surrounding collective action. Foucault says very little about collective action, and although I do believe that collective action might be built off a Foucaultian notion of the care of the self, for my purposes here, I limit my attention to articulating the care of the self and the relation between educator and student that it may entail.

2. Foucault acknowledges the Aristotlean tradition as an exception. Although the view excerpted evokes logical positivism—the source of the verification principle whereby knowledge is limited to that which can be empirically verified—social scientists have largely rejected the verification principle and turned to various alternative theoretical perspectives, including postpositivism, following Karl Popper. Postpositivism, which informs the work of psychometricians who design standardized tests, takes on a probabilistic and fallibilistic view of knowledge and attempts to account for the very distortions that Foucault speaks of. Significantly, Foucault departs from this view for its limiting the search of truth to the epistemological and the underlying objectivist version thereof. Other theoretical perspectives, including interpretivism and social constructionism, might be said to be different from Foucault’s formulation to the extent that they retain the modernist distinction mentioned above between propositional knowledge and other forms of knowing.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 110 Number 10, 2008, p. 2224-2244
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15192, Date Accessed: 1/28/2022 4:23:17 AM

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About the Author
  • Michael G. Gunzenhauser
    University of Pittsburgh
    E-mail Author
    MICHAEL G. GUNZENHAUSER is associate professor in the School of Education at the University of Pittsburgh, where he teaches courses in philosophy of education, social foundations, and research methodology. His research interests center on issues of social justice in education, specifically the ethical and epistemological grounding of the work of educators and educational researchers. His most recent work has been published in Educational Theory, Educational Studies, Review of Higher Education , and Qualitative Inquiry, and he has contributed to the edited collections Cultural Matters: Lessons Learned From Field Studies of Several Leading School Reform Strategies (edited by William Pink and George Noblit) and Postcritical Ethnography: Reinscribing Critique (edited by George Noblit, Enrique Murillo, and Susana Flores).
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