Friends, a proposal: Let's stop using the phrase "school-to-prison pipeline." It's misleading.
When going to school looks not a little like being in a prison, we're no longer talking about a subject's itinerary through discrete times and spaces—the narrative geography wherein a student, routed through a school that can only fail her, finds herself pushed into juvenile or adult criminal justice systems. The rigidity of disciplinarity in the post-public public school system intimates the tendential identity of the prison-function and the school-function. When a teacher calls an administrator who calls a cop who then brutalizes a student for failing to move from her seat when ordered, neither students nor observers need schooling in Althusser or Foucault to see the school operating as a prison.
All the same, school and prison’s tendency toward an identity of function can be hard to see. First, it is only emergent, a tendency, a possible future that nonetheless enacts itself in the present and points us toward what is in the process of becoming. To read this process of becoming is not the same as declaring an accomplished identity. Indeed, to say today “the school is a prison” is also to compute with the fact that it also is not a prison, not really, not yet. In describing a tendential identity, then, one always risks a kind of overdramatization, the inflation of an instance into a sign of things to come.
Second, this emergent identity is masked by the entrenched persistence of signifiers—and not a little sentiment, too. We continue to call “schools” institutions that are functionally indifferent to the task of fostering the creative, intellectual, and affective capacities of those whom we continue to call “students.” We continue to call “teachers” those people whose skills and good intentions are perverted by an apparatus and a world that doesn’t care about anyone’s intentions. And these signifiers are so sticky because they are so affectively saturated. We all have a favorite teacher, and few of us are prepared to acknowledge that we were bonding to someone who unwittingly substitutes for a cop. And then plenty of folks on the left are wary of critiquing school and schooling today for fear of sounding like a Milton Friedman acolyte. Let’s just remember that it is utterly possible for two opposed political orientations to have a critique of a shared object; that doesn’t mean they have a shared critique. One can mark the tendential identity of schools and prisons and (as I do) still support teachers unions—if only to block and roll back the recoding of schools by the police function.
The idea of the school-to-prison pipeline gets around these barriers through dissociation. The to situates the students in a cartography of linked but discrete spaces, which enables us to cognitively and affectively sunder school from prison. The case of the phrase is accusative, but the critical disposition and political fantasy it sustains is in the ablative. And so it becomes harder to see the prison in the school.
My recourse to grammar might seem pedantic, but it’s not. Slogans are the residues of past struggles and the seeds of new ones. They travel so well because they are so economic in their language. And they are so powerful because they teach so quickly. (Try to recall the first time you heard the phrase “school-to-prison pipeline.” I actually can’t, because I can’t imagine not knowing it, the way it let me rethink the institutional fabric of the world. That’s powerful teaching, and all in just four words.) In a movement phrase, every word counts, every word is made out of and remakes a movement’s orientation toward the world.
I wouldn’t dream of trying to coin a new slogan, but we need a different vocabulary—one that, in terms of grammar, opts for the conjunction over the preposition. Where the preposition posits discrete time-spaces, the logic of the conjunction allows us to see the overlapping but non-identical functioning of these two institutions and their rationalities. Non-identity matters: after all, the teacher called an administrator who called a cop; the teacher and administrator could not beat the student on their own authority. What that moment revealed was neither a school-to-prison pipeline nor the achieved identity of the two. Rather, that moment displayed school and prison operating in the same time-space as an articulated assemblage. Cop and teacher, hand in hand.
It also revealed, I think, the way that Spring Valley High School is situated in a broader social terrain where school functions as a prison—that is, where the labor of human cultivation is subordinated to simple and authoritarian order maintenance. In the school-as-prison, the aim and activity of pedagogy is repurposed to conform to the aims of the police. To be sure, schools have always worked to produce orderly subjects, but such ordered subjectivities were produced through the pedagogical process itself. (Just think of everything implied in the act of raising one’s hand.) Now, police are taking over the application of discipline in schools, and teachers and legislators are handing it over to them. Niya Kenny, the student who filmed the event, was arrested for “disturbing school,” an honest to Jesus law that legislators recently attempted to amend to increase fines from one to two thousand dollars and jail time from ninety days to one year. (Thanks to Ed Kazarian for sharing the “disturbing school” link.) This handoff in disciplinarity marks less a differentiation of function between cops and teachers and more a willed subordination of pedagogical space to the police. Think about this absurdity: a student refusing to leave her seat sparks an event that compels the Richland County Sheriff to fly back from the cop conference in Chicago like a sovereign returning to his troubled land. In this school-as-prison arrangement, cops rule.
School and prison, school as prison, yes. But the most troubling possibility, I think, is school or prison. By using this locution, I don’t intend to invoke the uplift narrative that posits education as a means of avoiding criminality or, really, criminalization—a narrative that the “school-to-prison pipeline” concept has already undone. The or of my “school or prison” marks not a choice between alternatives but an identity produced through the indifferent interchangeability of functions. It is sort of like the sive in Spinoza’s “Deus sive natura.” It would sound like this: “School or prison—whatever, what’s the difference.” The school is rapidly and intensively being inscribed as an institution in the state’s carceral network; the logics of policing are overwriting the ideal logics of pedagogy. The racialized poor of the U.S. are sent to school to learn how to do time in prison, and the effectiveness of this pedagogy indicates the tendential interchangeability of school and jail.
The minimal demand to combat this tendency is very simple: No cops at school. Neither police nor private security guards should ever be involved in administering ordinary classroom discipline. No teacher or administrator should ever have the thought that this could be a good idea or a necessary thing. These are pretty easy fixes, because incredibly concrete. But minimal demands are just that—minimal—and the prison-function of the school is not limited to the fact that cops are on campus. To think beyond the minimal requires some account, perhaps, of the multiple systemic forces that overdetermine the becoming-prison of the school. But the question is not simply one of knowledge, of planning, of finding the best systemic points at which to undo the carceralization of the classroom. It is also one of dispositions and orientations and the creation of new imaginings of the world. I’m thinking of the student who was beaten in South Carolina. By media accounts, the student wasn’t participating in class but also refused to leave it. Maybe she doesn’t like the subject, maybe she didn’t like the pedagogical mode, maybe she was just tired and having a bad day, maybe she just hates school. But her refusal to participate in a given pedagogical arrangement interacts dynamically with her refusal to leave the scene of learning; indeed, we might say she was beaten because her refusals to participate and to leave staged the difference between the learning she wanted and the schooling she got. The cop, then, was not simply enforcing order but reproducing a pedagogical norm: You will learn this subject in this way and not express dissatisfaction with this fact. This command links pedagogical modes across varied institutional terrains, from the underfunded public schools to the neoliberal charters to, indeed, my own classroom, probably, alas. Getting cops out of schools will be meaningless if a post-police pedagogy is unimaginable; the cop will always be invited back in and, indeed, will never have left. What I want, then, is to imagine the time, place, and form of encounter whose possibility is conjured in the student’s refusal to participate and in her refusal to leave—a world of learning otherwise where desiring alternatives won’t get you clubbed by a cop.