Special education, Nonprofits, and the Immunization Paradigm

I decided to post my article a little early.  You all can find it on the group site.  It is a piece by Tyson E. Lewis entitled Education and the Immunization Paradigm.  The article informs my research with its examination of biopolitics in education, especially as involves the creation of a “normal” standard.  Before I begin talking about the article, however, I think I should give some background on my viewpoint and research.  I will be looking at the Born This Way Foundation website with a critical eye to how the medical model of disability is reproduced through their discourse.

The medical model of disability what most of us believe about disability and disabled people.  It positions disability ultimately as a problem to be fixed, an issue residing solely in the individual, and as inherently negative, requiring treatment or cure.  This view of disability manifests itself in the treatment of disabled people as charity cases, or as inspirational in striving to overcome their disability.  In contrast and critique, many people with disabilities have defined themselves as a political minority (the largest in the United States) and believe that people with disabilities are not disabled by whatever impairment they might have, but rather by the laws, cultural values, attitudes, and constructed environments that surround them – structures which are all based on a fabricated normal standard. Ableism keeps this system in motion, the idea that disabled people have something wrong with them, that able-bodies are the normal standard to strive for.  This is often called the social model of disability.

In the social model, intersectionality comes into play.  Indeed, the normal standard is not only defined by ability, but also gender, race, sexuality, SES, etc.  In the article I posted, Lewis talks about the idealization of the bourgeois body, the male body, the heterosexual body.  This limited normal standard begins to explain why there is such an over-representation of poor, black kids in special education.  Indeed, educational institutions often define what is normal and what is not.

The monster, the masturbator, and the incorrigible individual are three figures that Foucault uses to demonstrate abnormality and its role in biopower.  The monster challenges “the fundamental laws of nature separating humans and animals”, while the others exhibit less extreme abnormal behaviors thought to be correctable through institutions like schools (p. 486).  Indeed, the special education system is  built on this premise, that people who are “abnormal” or disabled can and should be corrected through schooling.  Lewis asserts that society tries to immunize itself against the threat of the abnormal by “surveillance, hierarchical examination, and the construction of new academic knowledge systems in the psychiatric field”  (p.489).  I would suggest that society also attempts to immunize itself against the abnormal by pathologizing learning differences and excluding children with disabilities from general education classrooms and curriculum.  Lewis quotes Esposito when pondering the inherent conflict in immunization – namely that the attempt to immunize society will end in a “certain form of disqualified life” for that society (p. 488).  We can see this clearly in the attempt to immunize society through the process of special education.  Exclusion from the curriculum, reduced standards, and appallingly low graduation rates among special education students will not serve to protect society from their presumed abnormality.  While educational rhetoric would have us believe that encouraging normalcy in these students is the ultimate goal, they are instead being tracked into low wage work or prison.  Lewis calls this a process of “educational eugenics”.

The process of  does not only occur in school, it is widespread in society.  I chose to look at the Born This Way Foundation website for my research project for this course because their mission initially intrigued me.  The Foundation claims a goal of fostering “a more accepting society, where differences are embraced and individuality is celebrated”.  This more macro outlook is somewhat unique among organizations providing support and services for youth experiencing mental crisis.  For example, one of the best known of these nonprofit institutions is the “It Gets Better” campaign.  Even in the title we can see that It Gets Better is much more survival tactic than social movement.  What I am finding in looking at the Born This Way Foundation is that, despite the language of their mission, the Foundation does embrace the medical model, placing responsibility for fixing the problem on the individual and not society.  The emphasis of the organization is on encouraging youth to be brave in the face of societal pressure, not trying to change society itself.  I need to do more analysis to see if they are also engaged in subtle practices of immunization through exclusion of “abnormal” kids, but perhaps the very act of creating a community of “abnormal” youth and not working more openly against the normal standard indicates that those young people are regulating themselves.

The second part of the project I want to do for this class is create some sort of digital tool that addresses the gaps in services provided by organizations like the Born This Way Foundation.  I’m in the brainstorming process there and would welcome any suggestions that you all have.  That’s it for me.  I hope you all enjoy the article.



2 thoughts on “Special education, Nonprofits, and the Immunization Paradigm

  1. David Walters Jr.

    Biopedagogy brings me back to the article from Gadotti and Furman and Gruenewald. The issue with all of them is the growing our scope of social justice through education. Education is a powerful tool that is used to separate the “bios” with regard to every aspect of society. Our current system awards students that possess high levels of social capital. Those with abnormalities carry inequities in some to all social capital necessary to seem deserving of effective teaching, academic support, college preparation and counseling and additional educational opportunities. Through enactment and participation in social networks, with high regard to maintain the status quo, the agent is provided resources, which allow for growth in some capacity. The more social capital one possesses; the more access to different higher status groups of one’s society. Bourdieu uses “dominant cultural capital” to describe the “powerful, high status cultural attributes, codes and signals” which are appropriated to procure resources. Those with abnormalities and “non-normals” are not seen for what they can contribute to the world and an educational system that acknowledges and understands the need for them and all to be included would help to grow in appreciation of and for life. In a capitalistic society, where the dominant cultural capital affords license to speak and be heard, how can we reconstruct education to hear all?

  2. Bisola Neil

    I appreciated the post of the article, but I must admit it was a difficult read for me and I read it over several times to fully grasp the concept of “biopedagogy” and the “biopolitical regime”. As I was read the article, I continued to wonder about its connection to education. This became clearer for me in the discussion of the educational degenerate because I am familiar with Valencia’s work but I am interested to know more about this theory in layman’s terms because as I read I found myself taking away several meanings from one sentence. By the end of the article, I was still left with very basic questions about the theory of biopedagogy, and its connection to eugentics, degeneration, pedagogy and politics and this I feel prevented me from fully understanding the theory.

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