Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see – Neil Postman

Schools and prisons, remarkably familiar theory

At the time that schools were invented, a thinker named Jeremy Bentham, interested in the management of the population, wanted to revolutionise prisons. He invented a prison building which he dubbed the Panoptican. It was a pretty whacky looking affair; it was a big circle with a lot of floors. While none were ever built, and the only one that comes close, one prison in Cuba, has been abandoned. The idea of the Panoptican is a simple one. At every moment, no matter where the convict was, he or she could be seen. However, the prisoner wouldn’t know if they were being watched because of the nature of the space. Bentham reckoned that, if they didn’t know if they were being watched, the prisoners were more likely to behave because they might get into trouble on the chance that they were being watched. However, they might not be because they wouldn’t know if someone could see them or was watching them at that moment.

Schools are based on a similar premise. The children are all able to be seen by the teacher who, theoretically because of their position in the room, has the ability to monitor every student. However, whether they are being watched, or not, is unknown to the student. In much the same manner as the Panoptican, it is expected that students will behave precisely because they might be being watched and thus might get into trouble.


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