Hoskin on the discipline of education

Keith W. Hoskin, “Education and the Genesis of Disciplinarity: The Unexpected Reversal,” Knowledges: Historical and Critical Studies in Disciplinarity, ed. E. Messer-Davidow et al. (Charlotteville; London: UP of VA, 1993) 271-304.

Hoskin gives a genealogy of the knowledge “ecosystem” of the modern university, with its disciplines and characteristic disciplinary micropractices, arguing that education is not a subdiscipline, but the engine of disciplinarity (this is the “unexpected reversal”):

Both the genesis and the continually expanding power of disciplinarity are outcomes of simple and humble changes in education . . . that took place at the end of the eighteenth century . . . :

1. constant rigorous examination;

2. numerical grading of the results of this examination [a.k.a. “calculability”];

3. an insistent process of writing by students, about students, and organizationally around students [a.k.a. “grammatocentrism”]. (272; italics mine)

It gave rise to three new “educational settings”: the seminar, the laboratory, the classroom; and three versions of the “newly disciplined, but also self-disciplining human subject”: “the dispassionate man of science,” “the reflexively aware practitioner of hermeneutics,” “the ambiguous social scientist” (275-76).

Hoskin draws on Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison [Surveiller et Punir: Naissance de la Prison], trans. Alan Sheridan (1975; New York: Pantheon, 1977) . . .

Panoptical Tower


For Foucault, examination is the key: it embodies “an observing hierarchy and . . . a normalizing judgement,” aimed at reforming the individual from without, through discipline—and within, through self-discipline (184). It is a prime example of what Foucault calls power/knowledge, since it combines into a unified whole “the deployment of force and the establishment of truth” (184). It both elicits the truth about those who undergo the examination (finding out what they know, who they are, etc.) and controls their behavior (forcing them to learn in certain ways, declare themselves, etc.), i.e., in knowing we control and in controlling we know.


The examination also situates individuals in a “field of documentation” (189). Individuals not only sit exams, but submit to examination. The results of exams are recorded in documents, e.g., assignments, records/rolls, that provide detailed information about the individuals examined and allow them to be controlled. On the basis of these documents, those in control can formulate categories, means, and norms that are in turn a basis for knowledge. So, reform happens through through recording, a.k.a. writing.

Hoskin goes further, suggesting that the “third term at work in the power-knowledge relation,” which Foucault as a “crypto-educationalist” fails to recognise, is educational practice: “the hyphen in the power-knowledge relation is the historically changing structure of educational practice through which humans learn to learn” (296). The etymology of the word “discipline” (L. disciplina) condenses all three meanings :

  1. the “instruction given to a disciple,” i.e. knowledge;
  2. the “order necessary for [this] instruction,” i.e. power; and, as discipulina (of which disciplina is a contraction), according to a questionable etymology,
  3. disci– f. discere learn + pu- f. puer/puella, child, thus “to get ‘learning’ . . . into ‘the child,'” i.e. education.

Hoskin's Hyphen

Hence the vital role of the “total institution” of the contemporary university (Erving Goffman, Asylums [1961]): it is the engine of the “total mobilisation” of society in the service of transcendental capitalism (Ernst Jünger, Total Mobilisation [1931]).

(See Simon Caterson, “Building the Total University,” Quadrant 47.12 [Dec. 2003]: 20-25, repr. Robert Dessaix [ed.], Best Australian Essays 2004 [Melbourne: Black Inc., 2004].)


One thought on “Hoskin on the discipline of education

  1. Pingback: What’s the Story with Academic Writing? A Narratology of the Academic Essay (Part One) « Te Ipu Pakore: The Broken Vessel

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