Can Metal Detectors Replace the Panopticon?

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Essay Excerpt

New York City TV reporter: "How do you like this school?"
Inner-city high school student: "O.K., security treat us right!" 

The spontaneous response of the young man quoted above epitomizes a way of thinking about schools that one might wish to problematize. Perhaps more aptly, the perspective expressed in this epigraph might itself be seen as problematizing and interrogating - however unconsciously - the strategies that public educational policies are developing for coping with school violence as well as the whole ideological spectrum of pedagogical theory, including the strand that has come to be called "critical ethnography" (Anderson 1989). At least in New York City's most troubled and overcrowded high schools, where the tutoring/mentoring program that I direct has been operating for the past nine years,' students quite matter-of-factly associate schooling with security guards, police tactics, and high-tech weapons-scanning devices. Not only is this now-taken-for-granted phenomenon undertheorized, theory mimics the embarrassment found in everyday reality by discreetly lapsing into silence when it comes to the topic of school violence and terror.

In this article, I attempt to present a sort of expanded gloss on the text of this student's remark by reflecting on the parameters of the culture of school violence, which I define, provisionally, as a complex concept that includes the anticipation of violent student performances, their regular enactment, and the discourses surrounding and constructing those actions, as well as the spiral of currently ineffective methods of responding to them in inner-city schools. School violence is not an easy item to grapple with. If one portrays it too vividly, one is in danger of legitimating all those influential discourses by which the most reactionary segment of society has written off urban public education as an utterly hopeless case (see, for example, Bennett 1984, 1992). If one sins in the other direction, by minimizing it, one must respond to the obvious questions: Why single out the violence in big urban schools? Haven't rural and suburban schools become equally unsafe (Celis 1993)? Beginning with premises such as these leads only to fruitless statistical debates about whether one school or community has more violent incidents than another and about how the data were collected - with all the attendant implications of racism and ethnocentrism. In any case, what business does a white male ethnographer have trying to "represent" inner-city school violence? (171-172)

Devine, John. "Can Metal Detectors Replace the Panopticon?." Cultural Anthropology 10.2(1995): 171–195.

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