James Palermo
Buffalo State College

Discussions regarding the need for a critical pedagogy develop the common theme that the public schools perpetuate the domination of women, minorities and the lower classes.1 These writers argue that domination is reenforced by the politically repressive interpretations of the world that children and teachers accept in the schools’ definition of truth (subject matter) in the hidden curriculum, and in the use of certain standardized tests.2 Although much has been done here, what is missing is an aesthetics of critical pedagogy.

My aesthetics of critical pedagogy model derives from Foucault’s descriptions of the paintings of the surrealist Rene Magritte. My purposes here are to a) lay out Foucault’s analysis of Magritte’s aesthetics and b) apply this model to the California Readiness test given to kindergarten children. The intent is to show the critical power of Foucault’s Model discovering how the implementation of this standardized test fits what Foucault calls a repressive normalizing practice.


In broad terms, this notion of an aesthetics of critical pedagogy is rooted in the experience of contradiction which one experiences before certain works of art. This contradictory experience has an active/passive dynamism.3 One actively forms perceptions and simultaneously one undergoes a new changed way of experiencing. The trigger of this critical experience is the art object itself: The painting, play, film, book, or dance presents contradictory meanings.4 The consequence is that one’s habitual unreflective ways of viewing the world are changed. The model of this experience can be used to form a critical consciousness with new understandings of work, self and others.

Magritte’s paintings often confuse and provoke because he destroys ingrained notions about art, representation, and logic.

Art is popularly conceived as the human activity of imposing order upon experience. Moreover, the aesthetic experience is defined as essentially contemplative: Wordsworth’s definition of poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquillity” is a powerful statement still accepted today.5

In this vein, representation is the aim of the artist. Representation as well is the standard of excellence. That is, the novel or painting is “made well” if it appears to successfully repeat, copy, or imitate an original thing — something real in the world. Doubtless, this view comes to us from Aristotle’s Poetics where he writes,

poetry, tragedy, comedy are all in their general conception modes of imitation. [Indeed, Aristotle describes artists as those who imitate and represent various objects]...through the medium of color and form, [and]...taken as a whole imitation is produced by rhythm, language, or harmony.6
Now, while there is no obvious linkage between logic and art, later discussion will show that Magritte integrates imagery and sentences within the same work. Indeed, the net effect of this conjunction is an exercise in contradiction. Anticipating my discussion of Magritte then, a few words on the function of logic follow.

Logic is an instrument of reason whose rules must be obeyed if we are to think correctly. That is, when we come to true conclusions, we do so because we have put together correct judgments about what is the case. The necessary conditions here involve the valid conjunction between the quantifier, the subject, the copula, and the predicate. Hence, the sentence “John is a man,” is to be logically translated as: The subject John is a member of/or joined to the larger class of Men.7

These allusions to contradiction made above, are perhaps made stronger if we compare Magritte’s paintings to lies.

Magritte’s paintings repeat within us the agonizing experience felt when we think the friend conversing with us is lying. This agony courses through us because we want to believe him, and we think we have contradictory evidence but we are not sure, not positive. In this situation our interlocutor’s arguments may assume such a perverse plausibility that we at once accept and reject them. Similarly, looking at a Magritte, one senses a physical anomaly in the paradox: “I am lying is true, if it is false and false if it is true.” What is demanded here is that a distinction be made between language about language and words in a speaker’s concrete situation. The issue concerns the relationship between words and things and truth.8 The philosopher’s remedy of course is to appeal to the law of contradiction (P cannot be both true and false).

But Magritte has no truck with the solidity of the laws of logic. His paintings are built upon contradiction; that is, within the same canvas, one may find a realistic tableau of ordinary life and written below it a descriptive title. The contradiction, of course, comes from the title’s explicit rejection of what we may believe we are seeing.

To make specific how the Magritte/Foucault aesthetics of contradiction works, I shall now turn to Foucault’s description of a paradigm case, his painting, “This is Not a Pipe.”

A Paradigm Case

At first glance, the pipe depicted appears so accurate, so detailed in shape, color, and volume it seems like a photograph tacked onto the canvas. But, beneath the pipe is a single sentence written in cursive: “This is Not a Pipe.”

Indeed, this sentence is not a legend that amplifies the pictorial image. Foucault says the statement seems so simple-minded, one first wonders why it has been made: “Of course, this is an image of a pipe, not a real pipe” is the viewer’s first response. But, Foucault is not satisfied. He is interested in how the contradictory text of the imagery and the discourse that “names” it are to be construed. His central argument is that Magritte’s meticulous depiction of the “Pipe” is not representational. Remember, Foucault’s argument derives from the contradiction of viewing the “Pipe” and reading its inscription.

If one takes the claim of the title “This is Not a Pipe” seriously, three things emerge: (1) “This” particular painting of a pipe does not stand for or represent any of that class of objects found in the world, that are called pipes;9 (2) “This” the sentence itself could not not represent a pipe;10 (3) “This” mixed element of discourse and image, written pipe and drawn text “is not a pipe.”11

What is the point? Foucault wants to show how the systems of imagery and language cancel each other in Magritte’s painting. More precisely, since the Renaissance, imagery in realistic painting has implied resemblance; and language discourse has been used referentially to name and affirm the contents of painting. But, in “This is Not a Pipe” resemblance and discourse are dissociated and ruptured.

Given these contradictions, how is one to view “Pipe?” What replaces resemblance? Foucault’s answer is similitude. The contrast between resemblance and similitude is illustrative.

Resemblance serves representation which rules over it; resemblance predicates itself upon a model it must return to and reveal; and resemblance presupposes a primary reference that prescribes and classes.12
“Similitude obeys no hierarchy, it develops in a series.”13 Specifically in the “Pipe” painting what is crucial is that the pipe be seen as a text/simulacrum. Foucault says “this is not a pipe…but rather a text that simulates a pipe; a drawing of a pipe that simulates a drawing of a pipe; a pipe (drawn other than as a drawing) that is the simulacrum of a pipe (drawn after a pipe that itself would be other than a drawing).”14 To say the pipe image is a simulacrum is to say that it belongs to the order of things that are similar, that is, other drawings of pipes.

A summary of the above serves to put the Foucault/Magritte critical aesthetic in relief. The salient points are these:

1. Plastic imagery and discourse can be shown as incommensurable sign systems;
2. Plastic imagery need not represent, it can instead, be an expression of similitude;
3. The deliberate juxtaposition of a plastic text against a discourse which annuls the “meaning” of that text, breaks down previously held beliefs about the function of painting. Further, this demolition of resemblance, “this affirming and representing nothing,”15 is a critical moment in the viewer’s consciousness. I use the term critical in the Kantian sense, to mean a question about the limits and conditions of what can be known.
Until now, I have dealt only with the mechanical core of the Foucault/Magritte aesthetic. Returning to the main concern of this paper, that is, a critical pedagogy, I shall argue that the teacher who possesses this critical aesthetic consciousness develops a new understanding of the hidden power relationships embedded in the imagery and language of the California Achievement Test Form 10 (CAT).

Instrument Description

McGraw-Hill’s examiner’s manual legitimates the use of this CAT, appealing to the instrument’s validity, its match with curricular content, and its usefulness in designing course work to meet students’ needs. Because these claims represent data to be integrated into the Foucauldian critique, their evidence is listed below.

Validity of this CAT is evidenced in its combination of “the most useful characteristics of norm referenced and criterion referenced tests…[that] provide information about the instructional needs of students.”16 Moreover, this test measures “achievement in basic skills commonly found in state and district curricula.”17 Content categories themselves are found in “current state and curricular guides, published texts, [and] instructional programs [all of which were subjected to] criterion referenced assessment instruments.”18

Most important, this test “establishes reference points for beginning instruction in kindergarten, [and can be used] to predict first grade reading achievement.”19

Form E level 10 is divided into six sections. Five of the sections assess the child’s language skills as indicators of reading readiness.20 All of the language elements tested are rooted in Standard English. The critique will be trained upon the section called language expression. This choice is made because each of the other sections (sound/visual recognition, vocabulary and comprehension) coalesce in the child’s lived experience of expression.

The teacher’s manual describes the language expression section as one that measures “a student’s understanding of singular and plural nouns and past, present and future verb tenses. [This is done] as the student identifies the picture that is associated with correct usage.”21 Put differently, the child’s choice is one that attempts to match a correct verbal description with a picture representation.

Administering the Instrument

Directions are read aloud to the child by an examiner who asks the child to mark a correct selection. The following are sample instructions and pictorial representations meant to assess the child’s understanding of verbal tense.

Item 11: The examiner is directed to say: “Move your marker down to the drum. Look at the pictures. Find the picture that shows the ‘girl will ride the bicycle.’ Mark your answer.”22
Item 12: The child is asked to match the correct illustration with the following sentence: “The boy painted a picture.”23
Item 14: The illustration here is to be matched with the sentence: “The man is climbing a ladder.”24
Item 16: The item sentence is: “The man will dive into the water.”25 This form continues throughout the section. The descriptions for items 18, 19, and 20 follow.
Item 18: “The man will dig a hole.”26
Item 19: “The children raised the flag.”27
Item 20: “The boat is sinking.”28

The Instrument and Black English

Keeping the above in mind, consider how the test items must appear to a kindergarten, inner-city, African-American child. Quite simply, the language expression section does not make sense. Why? Fundamentally, the Standard English of the test is not the language s/he uses. This child’s native tongue is Black English.

An analysis of the syntactic differences between Black English and Standard American English demonstrates striking disparities, especially in the origins and structure of verbs. One expert, J. L. Dillard says “Black English reveals the greatest difference from white American dialects — and the closest resemblance to its pidgin and creole ancestors in its system of verbs.”29 Particularly significant here are the usages that render tense. The CAT examples cited above render the present as “the man is climbing” and “the boat is sinking.” But, in Black English the sentences would read: “the man be climbing” and “the boat be sinking.” In another example of the present tense we find, “John runs”; in Black English, the sentence becomes “John run.” Not only is the sentence structure different, but notice that the s ending is dropped. But, the test earlier treated the s ending only as a measure of the child’s ability to distinguish singular and plural.30

One finds similar disparities when comparing the future tense, and the idiosyncratic Black English use of “done.” The CAT examples previously cited rendered the future as: “the girl will ride” and “the man will dive.” In Black English, these same sentences would read: “the girl be riding later” or “the man be diving later.” A similar disparity is reflected in the handling of the past tense. The standard version “I have gone” in Black English becomes “I done gone.” Setting the Black English usage against the CAT items “the boy painted” and “the children raised” makes explicit, significant, linguistically different structures; “done” is not used in standard English in this way.

As must be obvious, the kindergarten, inner city, African-American child who uses the Black English code cannot make much sense of the CAT items; s/he is forced to guess the correct response in Standard English. The conclusion to be drawn is that the CAT is not a fair instrument in assessing the reading readiness of this population. Simply put, the CAT is a biased test.

But none of this implies that McGraw-Hill, the publisher of the CAT, failed to address concerns about test bias. In prefatory comments describing the CAT, McGraw-Hill describes its effort to reduce test bias. Specifically, it enlisted men and women representing “various ethnic groups and who held responsible positions in the educational community to identify within the test, items they considered to reflect possible bias in language, subject matter, or representation of people.”31 The publisher claims that those items that appeared to be biased were eliminated.32

The CAT in a Foucauldian Context

Thus far, the discussion of the CAT as a school practice affecting the lives of kindergarten speakers of Black English has developed only a sociological critique. Moreover, this practice has yet to be connected to Foucault’s aesthetics of contradiction.

To bring everything together, I must make a distinction about purposes. A stated purpose throughout has been to show how this contextualized CAT practice is an instance of repressive normalization. But, my overarching purpose is to expose the core aesthetic element within Foucault’s critical apparatus, namely the ambiguous, contradictory and non-representational relationship between words and things. To set the stage for all of this, I shall first return to the CAT practice using Foucault’s categories.

Making sense of this contextualized activity in Foucault’s terms means looking at this standardized practice as a political text. This is a text which experts design, administer and interpret, creating a certain kind of subject. First, the CAT, the minority child, Black and Standard English codes, as well as the school, must be seen as parts of a system with interlocking institutions, techniques, social groups and perceptual organizations, and all of these elements are orchestrated by rules of discursive practice.

The administration of the CAT actualizes an anonymous alliance between the institutions of the publishing house and its psychologists who designed the test and the school’s agents.33 The latter include the examiner who administers the test, the psychologist who interprets the scores, and the teacher who defines the meaning of the test by placing the child into a certain reading group. That these groups share common perceptual organizations is evidenced not only by the schools’ continued use of this test, but also by the phenomenon of cooperating, representative minority members from within the educational community who screened the test for racial bias and then gave their imprimatur.

Parts 1, 2 and 4 of the CAT examiner’s manual give explicit descriptions of the test (Part 1), preparations to be used by the examiner before administering the test (Part 2), and procedures to be used to process completed tests (Part 3). These sections do more than describe; they prescribe and impose rules of discursive practice. That is, they are serious speech acts, set down by serious speakers who prescribe not only what must be said, but what can be said and how it is to be said. Certain examples appearing in the preparation and description sections are typical. The preparation section describes a non valid test as follows: “A non valid test results when a student loses time during that test or marks answers randomly. [Examiners are instructed to treat these conditions as a non valid test results and to] erase all answer marks for the affected test section.”34

The development section describes how test items were chosen, accepted and scientifically validated.

All items and test directions were carefully reviewed for content and editorial accuracy. A staff of professional item writers — teachers experienced in the test’s content areas — researched and wrote items.35
Test vocabulary was “controlled by reference to Basic Reading Vocabularies and The Living Word Vocabulary.” The scientific validity of the item selection “involved the application of Item Response Theory (IRT) and the implementation of a three-parameter statistical model that takes into account item discrimination, difficulty and guessing.”36

To call these descriptions a discursive practice is to repeat that certain truth conditions were set down by experts (serious speakers), speaking as experts about the testing of children (serious speech acts). And, finally, these speakers validate this practice as neutral scientific statements when they invoke the item response theory method.

Defining the Test Experience: Normalization

Rereading this experience, one finds the political mechanism of repression that Foucault has named normalization. Under the rubric of science, normalization uses totalizing procedures of classification and supervision to define normality and to impose remediation. The result is the creation of a certain kind of person or subject.

Normalization is implicit in the goals of this CAT: measuring achievement in basic skills, determining reading readiness and providing information about the instructional needs of children. These expert definitions of goals and test procedures operate to create a system, which defines and classifies subjects, measures abilities, and exposes those with skills that are below the norm. No single instrument would seem more efficient and helpful in the prediction of a child’s potential for achievement, and the control of conditions to bring about optimum development so early in the child’s career. This CAT is the triumph of education as a normal science.

But such normalization also defines the deviant, the abnormal and the problem, that which falls outside the range of the norm. The kindergarten child whose primary code is Black English must fail the language section of this CAT. But the specific problem demonstrates the particular within the universal: One minority child’s deficiency represents the school’s overarching problem with a competing code. A typical solution is devaluation; that is, Black English is not seen as a legitimate language, but is defined as a substandard code — at best a southern derivative of Standard English. Entwined within this rejection of Black English is the rejection of “a network of cultural loyalties, group outlooks, verbal games, perceptual modes, lore, logic, structure, grammar, music — the language habitually used to perceive record, remember, transmit, abstract, recall and relate by at least eighty percent of Black Americans.”37

In Foucault’s terms normalization is the anonymous expression of domination and power. Domination is the repressive rule of silence, and censorship, a power that operates according to the mechanism of taboo. The subject created by these practices is a child with a language problem whose scores are below the norm, a child needing remediation. Remediation is efficient, and scientific in so far as it silences the child’s mother tongue.

Applying the Foucault/Magritte Aesthetic to This Discursive Practice

At this point the arguments have shown how the discursive practice of the CAT has created a definition of the minority child. This is an institutional construction of the child’s subjectivity that is held in place and articulated through such non-discursive practices as the school’s tracking system and the placement of the child into remediation programs.

At first glance, nothing here seems connected to the Foucault/Magritte critical aesthetic, outlined in the beginning. But, Magritte’s painting, “This is Not a Pipe” was meant as a paradigm case that would expose the hidden power relationships embedded in the imagery and language of the California Achievement Test Form 10. All of this is made plain by showing how the constructs in both critiques, overlap, share common origins and are mutually implicated. Using these convergences, I will show the crux of Foucault’s argument on his rejection of the naïve correspondence between words and things.

The relationships I have in mind are those that obtain between the painting and the CAT example as speech acts, that overturn the logic of representation, express lies and are most adequately seen as similitudes. Calling the CAT example a discursive formation by implication is also to call it a speech act. In uttering words (giving and taking the test, interpreting scores and “placing the child”) actions are performed. So, too, the painting must be seen as a speech act as the viewer reads the sentence “This is not a Pipe.” What seems a simple declarative sentence is really an imperative — an order to behave in a certain way. The viewer is told: “Do not believe this is a pipe; do not accept this faithful representation of real pipes as other than a lie.” Once again, the pictorial correspondence between the painted image and the linguistic naming of that image are sets of contradiction. This contradictory speech act is repeated in a different form by the minority child who is asked to connect the CAT imagery with appropriate words. The lie for the child is the forced choice of words, the forced options that name the image with words s/he does not use. But if the child cannot join the CAT pictures to correct captions then the premise upon which the test was built, namely its representational power, is contradicted as well.

Now although this example of the minority child’s experience is a lie; it is a weak lie. The argument assumes that if the child were competent in Standard English, s/he could match the image and sentence correctly. The implication is that representation remains intact. The stronger sense of this lie is evidenced by placing the “pipe” and CAT examples against the logical paradox cited originally. That is, “I am lying is true, if it is false and false if it is true.” Remember the description — imperative of the title “This is Not a Pipe” is meant to be taken as a true statement. The viewer’s immediate response is one of doubt; what s/he sees is an apparent contradiction: This pipe image is not to be seen as representing real pipes. The logical translation: if this image is a lie is true, it is false to believe it is a representation. Foucault’s conclusion, then, is that the text of imagery and words falls apart. The significance of the Foucault critical aesthetic here is evidenced by contrast effects. The ordinary move is to define the child’s Black English code as substandard. This judgment is then validated by appealing to the child’s poor CAT performance. But following Foucault’s “Pipe” lesson, something different happens. Here, the teacher assumes an attitude of doubt and puts the meaning of the minority child and low score out of play. Furthermore, with the teacher’s acceptance of Black English as a language, the representational power of the CAT itself is questioned. With this, the cycle of normalization stops. As an aside to all of this, I am not advocating that the child not learn and become competent in Standard English. Methods of code switching in appropriate ways are what the schools should teach African-American children, especially those in the central city schools. But this is not what the example is about. The subject of this paper is the kindergarten child who by definition comes ill-equipped to switch from Black to Standard English. This inability to switch codes is normalized as the child’s lack of readiness and underachievement. But following the “Pipe” paradigm, normalization stands revealed as a political process. Moreover, the lesson of the Foucault-Magritte critical aesthetic is not that words are joined to things in a naïve correspondence. It is, instead, the understanding that the language of discursive practices creates the reality it describes. The lesson: kindergarten minority children who lack language skills may be the creation of a practice whose authors are anonymous. But these nameless agents power define human possibilities. Foucault’s critical aesthetic is a powerful tool that can be used to overcome this lie.

For a response to this essay, see Ross.
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1. See Joel Spring, American Education 4th ed. (New York: Longman, 1989).
David W. Livingston, et al., Critical Pedagogy and Critical Power (South Hadley: Bergin and Garvey Publishers, Inc., 1987).

2. See William Wordsworth “Michael, A Pastoral Poem” in Dominant Types in British and American Literaure, ed. William Davenport, et al. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1949), 109.

3. See John Dewey, Art As Experience (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1958).

4. See Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1991), 16.

5. Davenport, et al., Dominant Types in British and American Literature, 12.

6. See Aristotle, Poetics 1447a-1447b in Philosophy of Art and Aesthetics, ed. Frank A. Tillman and Steven Cahn (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), 58-9.

7. See Daniel J. Sullivan, Fundamentals of Logic (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963).

8. The model chosen here is taken from Michel Foucault, This Is Not A Pipe, trans. James Harkness (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982).

9. Ibid., 26.

10. Ibid., 27.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid., 44.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid., 49.

15. Ibid., 47.

16. California Achievement Tests, Form E., Level 10, Examiner’s Manual (Monterey, California: CTB/McGraw-Hill, 1985), 1.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid., 2.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid., 17.

23. Ibid., 39.

24. Ibid.

25. Ibid.

26. Ibid., 40.

27. Ibid.

28. Ibid.

29. J.L. Dillard, “Black English” review of Black English, by Toni Cade Bambara, The New York Times, 3 September 1972, 3.

30. California Achievement Tests, 2.

31. Ibid., 4.

32. Ibid.

33. Ibid., 3.

34. Ibid., 7.

35. Ibid., 3.

36. Ibid.

37. J. L. Dillard, “Black English,” 3.