Mastering the 'good (enough) student' - subjectification of young people in education and training

Year: 2012

Author: Bye, Jayne

Type of paper: Refereed paper


This paper reflects on what is at stake for young people when they engage in education and training. Questions of subjectification, conformity, inclusion and survival (and their opposites) frame this discussion and highlight the importance of examining what we do to and with young people in education and training. It draws on the Foucault's governmentality theorisations and also on the work of Judith Butler. In a response to a collection of articles using the work of Butler in a special issue of the British Journal of Sociology of Education (2006), Butler made a number of comments about the subjectification of young people in educational settings. Her comments were concerned primarily with processes of subjectification around gender norms, yet they were also linked more broadly to the norms of schooling and how they create students who are acceptable in terms of institutional norms of behaviour and governmental norms of the desired neo-liberal subject. Butler's examination of the link between mastering skills and the processes of subject formation shows how potentially fraught the subjectification process is. Her comments concern the acquisition of skills to meet the norms of academic success but they could also be applied to mastering a whole range of skills required for recognition of studenthood. These could include behavioural norms that indicate acquiescence with the discipline standards of a school, rules of social interaction between students and between students and teachers and acceptance of the values that underpin the curriculum. At issue here is the fact that along the way, the challenge of 'right' conduct, exemplified by the norms of studenthood which indicate 'the good student' or even 'the good enough student,' creates instances of inclusion and exclusion. Furthermore, the ongoing nature of this subjectification process means that the anxiety around this conferral of recognition is shared by all, not just those who find it difficult to submit to accepted norms of behaviour. However, those students, who for whatever reasons, continually fail to meet the norms of conduct face a disproportionate risk in terms of recognition and in some cases become unintelligible as students in most schooling contexts. The possibility of exclusion from school, either self-initiated or school-initiated, becomes very high when this recognition is continually denied. As Butler (2006) indicates, this possibility produces an impossible bind for young people who must conform, under threat, to a set of norms which produce the intelligible student or face exclusion.