The University

College is a place for learning. It’s a place for learning about chemistry, economics, art history, etc., but most of all it’s about learning how to find yourself. Right? That’s why so many people refer to college as the best years of their lives. And why is this? Because they were out of their parents’ homes? Sure. Because they were constantly around their friends? Why not. But because they were free individuals? Not quite.

Vanderbilt University is no exception when it comes to the subtle integration of discipline into college life, and it is certainly not exempt from its status as an Ideological State Apparatus. The feeling of freedom exists certainly. But is it warranted? Let us think first of the purpose of Vanderbilt and other universities. They exist, in theory, to serve as education institutions that seek to facilitate and encourage the growth of the minds of their student bodies, while simultaneously preparing their attendants for life in the workforce with respect to whatever career they may eventually come to choose. Right here, even at a concept so basic, we see that the implications of such an institution existing point to some deeper forces at work. Not necessarily sinister forces, mind you, but forces that may not be initially apparent in the mission statement. Like any school or university, Vanderbilt is what Althusser would call an Ideological State Apparatus. Students are educated here not only in the academic disciplines, but also in the practices and protocols of the ideology of the state, i.e. the USA, a capitalist republic. Education is sought to an end: employment, which is essential for proper function within a capitalist society. Students are also expected to behave in a manner fitting to budding productive capitalists, and allowed to take majors that teach western economic theory and give lessons in history according to the side of democracy. Aside from all this, the culture of the university is overwhelmingly capitalist; the atmosphere found at Vanderbilt is no doubt different from that of Moscow State University before 1991, what with “Vandy’s” traditional upper-middle class attire and frequent partying. The Vanderbilt experience is certainly academic, but the display of culture, whether deliberately chosen by the powers that be or not, says a lot about the nature of the University as a capitalist institution.

Then we come to the subject of how the university is kept from disorder. Any community this large must have some guidelines and rules in place to keep it from falling to total chaos. There a few notable examples of this: the honor code, residential advisors, and, of course, VUPD. The honor code is a rather obvious example of the Panoptic systems described by Foucalt; power that is visible but unverifiable. Every student signs the honor code as a freshman. Subsequently, every student is made aware of the penalties put in place should this code be broken. The entire premise of the code is made apparent in the name: honor. A somewhat vague term nowadays, but nevertheless, provocative. Nobody wants to be called dishonorable, and more importantly, nobody wants to suffer the consequences associated with these dishonorable activities. Thus, while in most cases, violations of the honor code could usually pass by undiscovered, so many students adhere to it. The factor of risk is always present. Each student knows that there exists a possibility that a member of the faculty, or even according to the honor code itself, another student could at any point during their violation discover them and turn them in for punishment. One cannot guarantee this discovery in most rational cases, but the fear is still there. Of course, in addition to this fear of an imperceptible observer, students themselves are used by the system so that set observers are not even necessary: the student begins to observe himself. This is the concept of honor. The punishments dictated by professors and other faculty are supplemented by the punishment that the cheater gives himself (in at least some cases). I am referring, of course, to guilt. Now, there are more obvious structures in place as well, and I made reference to both the RA staff and VUPD earlier. These two are fairly similar. In line with the panoptic systems that Foucalt argues are the foundation for western society and the root of the west’s economic success, enforcement staff on Vanderbilt’s campus serve to similar ends. It is an accepted deduction that drunkeness and otherwise risky or dangerous activities decrease the productivity of students. Punishments for these situations are communicated to everyone. Students know that they are watched and accountable for their actions. Nobody knows when a party will be busted or when some “late-night nausea” can be reported by an RA. Now this system is not perfect, as many still go about as if they were invincible, but the concept remains the same.

Ultimately, once could see Vanderbilt as both an instrument to the larger American soceity, and a society in and of itself. It functions not only as an institution for training the capitalists of tomorrow, but also a disciplinary society in line with Foucalt’s explanations of panopticism and efficiency.



  1. Great post! I agree with the idea that students are always aware that VUPD and Resident Advisors are around, giving them the visible threat of discipline. There is always someone on duty and are constantly police cars driving around campus. Not only is there the threat of having a police or RA catch the student drinking, but there is the ability to draw back to any moment through surveillance cameras. A student can’t get away with anything. Because of the cameras in all the dorms and around campus, no student is ever going unseen. I think technology has made Foucault’s idea of surveillance even more effective and extreme. Human eyes are no longer required to catch and discipline someone, but visual evidence is always available.



  2. Michael – I truly enjoyed your tone and application of theory throughout your post. I really appreciated your consideration of “the purpose of Vanderbilt and other universities”, followed by consideration of Althusser and Foucault’s theories. While perhaps it ‘occurred’ to me, it had honestly never fully occurred to me how shaped by capitalism our school environment truly is… If, lets say, a socialist club would be formed, such a club would just be a spectacle, an anomaly, and a group of “wackos”. Our school environment, structure, and procedures definitely all reinforce capitalism (from elements so basic as our multiple food options to Commodore Cash) and, as you said, produces capitalists. Perhaps this falls in-line with the criticisms of some politicians who have called Colleges “Indoctrination Mills”… Nonetheless, very specific and perhaps biased ideology is imparted on us during our time here. Further, really good connection between the panoptic metaphor Foucault brings in and the Honor Code… A question I would pose is, do you think that the honor code (while undeniably matches Foucault’s definition of surveillance) subjugates the students as the “working class” in the same way Foucault feared that social structures would upon moving to surveillance?

    Not to get too weird, but I was actually just having a conversation with one of my hall-mates and he jokingly wondered how many times one would have to use the school wifi to watch porn before getting an email about it — do you think this censorship from the techhub represents an example of Foucault’s concerns?

    Something I’d appreciate you’re further clarification on in person is what you meant in saying “the atmosphere found at Vanderbilt…. Moscow State University before 1991”.

    See you tomorrow!



  3. Great post Michael! This argument is very prevalent, and even students today recognize it. The panoptic model is definitely implemented in the Honor code. Also, going off of Claudia’s comment, the omnipresence of cameras on campus contribute to this culture as well. Realistically, not a lot of people actually check the security cameras, and, in fact, students are almost discouraged from using them. In freshman orientation, my RA told us that in order to check the cameras, a serious offense must have been committed, and specific time frame must be known, and the individual must pay for the costs of retrieving the footage, and the labor of the officer who watches the footage. These rules discourage students from checking the security cameras. But, it is interesting to note how although the cameras are barely used, they give the impression of students always being watched—even though no one is actually watching. This makes the camera surveillance visible, yet unverifiable, which are two characteristics with which Althusser defines of discipline. This is why the many “useless” security cameras on campus are an efficient source of power that the university exerts on its constituents.



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