Review – 'Benign Violence: Education in and beyond the Age of Reason'

By | July 31, 2015

Image of an exam hall with empty chairs.The face of modern education?. Flickr/Richard Lee. Some rights reserved.

Ansgar Allen
(2014) Benign
Violence: Education in and beyond the Age of Reason,
Basingstoke; Palgrave MacMillan. ISBN 9781137272850. £65.00.

Too many
sociological and education studies are published nowadays. The pressure to
publish has outrun the need to have something different to say. Wheels are
constantly re-invented, well-worn furrows are re-ploughed, established ideas,
concepts and insights re-cycled. It is not far-fetched to believe that much of
what is written and published is actually not intended to be read, it is there
to be counted and measured and used to make judgements or claims about the
productivity of the author – ‘a new species of academic is in the ascendant’
(p. xi). Worth has become detached from originality. What a relief then it is
to read something original, different, challenging, playful, inventive and

Ansgar Allen’s
book is all of those things. And more than that it is a book of, for and
against our times. It is a book that should be read; it has a pressing necessity
to it. I challenge any academic to be unmoved by its asides to the state of
contemporary higher education, to not recognise themselves and their plight. The
book is about us, we pedagogues and the damage we do. It is about the social
construction of what we call education in modern times. It is about the ad hoc,
messy but overbearing institution we call school. It is about the strategic
concatenation of power relations that produce what we call the classroom, and
the assembly – painful, measured, compared and celebrated of what we call the
pupil. We take schooling for granted, and it does have a long history, but it is
an artful, artificial and artefactual phenomenon that needs to be destabilised.

Allen’s book
defies many current academic conventions but at the same time draws on older
ones – it is presented and written in the form of Nietzsche and Pascal, a set
of mediations on the state of education. But the defiance of convention is not
simply an affectation – it makes a point. The meditations are poignant,
provocative, reflexive and sometimes painfully funny.  And although decidedly and eruditely Foucauldian
the book is not a homage; it raises difficult questions about the relevance of
Foucauldian analytics to contemporary politics.

‘Desirables’, ‘passables’ and ‘undesirables’

What the book makes
forcefully clear is how little has changed since the invention of state
education in the 19th Century, and how many of the reforms and
innovations of contemporary education have their genealogical basis in the
problems of managing the urban population in the 19th century.

In particular
alongside testing, categorisation and the scourge of the norm, Allen
illustrates the continuing role of eugenic rationality within contemporary
education. He reminds us of the tortuous but fundamental intertwining of eugenics,
testing and the Origin of the Species
– the survival of the fittest, the need to adapt to changing environmental
conditions – meritocracy in other words. Meritocracy, a term rediscovered and
laughably misunderstood by Tony Blair, is now to the forefront of many of the
third sector programmes that are embedded in English education policy – like
Teach First, the Sutton Trust and ARK, whose raison d’etre is to identify and sponsor the aspiring, able and
deserving children of the working class.

This works through
what Allen (p. 189) calls systems of extraction.
This is a  ’charitable’ focus that
Francis Galton, founder of intelligence testing, argued for in the 19th
century (p. 99) based on a division between what he termed ‘desirables’,
‘passables’, and ‘ undesirables’. My own institution played a key role in this
history. When Galton died he left the residue of his
estate to the University of
for a Chair in Eugenics. Karl Pearson was
the first holder of this chair—the Galton Chair of Eugenics, later the Galton
Chair of Genetics
. Pearson formed the Department of Applied
Statistics (with financial support from the Drapers’
) at UCL which incorporated the Francis Galton Laboratory of National
Eugenics which then became the Galton Laboratory of the Department of Human
Genetics Biometry. The Galton Lab became part of the Department of
Biology in 1996.

Eugenics works by
combining ‘scientific testing’ with systems of categories which then also
define the limits of normality. There are of course now developments underway
to extend the remit of testing from intelligence to character, DEMOS, the Blairian
think tank, is one of several organisations jostling for the
attached to the current focus on character education championed by
Secretary of State Nicky Morgan and others. 
Character is of course already firmly embedded in Conservative welfare
policy, with its fundamental division between strivers and skivers – the latter
who threaten ‘deterioration in the noblest part of our nature’ (Darwin The Descent of Man p. 206). As Allen
says ‘The success of eugenics would rely heavily on its popular appeal’ (p.
107) and that continues to be the case as eugenic claims appear regularly in
ministerial statements and tabloid headlines.

Predicting futures, manipulating hopes

Allen traces his
genealogy of division and the attendant strategies of power from the 19th
century through the odd, many still unexplored byways of education policy and
practice in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s – secondary modern schools, CSEs,
streamed comprehensives, remedial classes – including to the point at which my
personal history encountered the sociology of education and the work of Colin
Lacey, David Hargreaves and Peter Woods inside the ‘black box of schooling’.  He then takes us through to the contemporary
overburdened fixation with educational performance, and gives particular
attention to formative assessment as a humane and effective form of pastoral
power which enrols the student as an active self-assessor.

But Allen is not
doing history in the conventional sense; his concern is with a history of
governing, its rationalities and techniques, and the interplay of knowledge,
professional expertise with the practices of discipline and regulation that
make ‘good’ government possible. The point of application of these techniques
is as Allen carefully points out, now different, rather than the 19th
concern with altering the normal distribution of outcomes, ‘the rate of
individual progression… is the focus of improvement’ (p. 224), articulated through
‘value-added’ – hence formative assessment. As he goes on to say the
proliferation of base-line testing and student performance monitoring systems
has also generated new business opportunities for universities and businesses
eager to sell their systems to institutions insatiable for ‘process-based
technologies’ (p. 231) – here neoliberal academia can seek both impact and
profit. Testing and monitoring work at the nexus between aspiration, hope and
failure – schools now predict futures, manipulate hope, and produce ‘likely
futures’ (p. 233).

The book finishes
at the limits of genealogy, the destabilisation of the present – assessment,
standards, measurement are made intolerable, their benign violence is made
clear. They must be refused, resisted, swept away – that is our task. This is a rich, admirable, provocative, timely, and refreshing