It’s a sunny, early spring day, and I am standing on the asphalt at Sawhorse’s build site in Seattle’s Central District.  Two dogs, program regulars Gus and Valley, are playing –  a lithe, writhing blur of gray and gold. Familiar yowls from power saws and the quick, rhythmic thump of the impact drivers almost drown out their playful ruffs and woofs. I am just behind the EASE.L house, a tiny house for the homeless designed and built by our all-women’s program. I can’t see everyone on the site; some students and counselors are inside the house, perched on 6 foot orange ladders maneuvering 13’ boards of pine siding into a 13’-1” room; some are outdoors but even farther back, spray painting the soon-to-be-installed door a warm gray-yellow; and the rest are scattered near various tools and walls, working on six or seven aspects of the tiny house at once. It’s a little bit ad hoc, a little bit messy, and entirely collaborative.

Sawhorse Revolution Women

We are lucky, because efficiency is not the goal of Sawhorse. Most people want education programs that will mold students into mechanically efficient, productive, and career-oriented individuals. There’s a reflexive assumption that job-training – meaning ingraining the values of productivity, obedience (being a good worker), and efficiency (of gesture, money, and time) –  would be the highest-order goal for a skills program like Sawhorse. However, our informal, setup-by-us format speaks to a different set of values. Indeed, Sawhorse’s beautiful mess of people and projects is actually a philosophical move. It’s a move that does not attempt to produce a certain kind of person, but rather to break the incessant flow of proscriptive power relations that bear on us 21st Century humans daily, and to abrogate this flow through physical conditions that are diverse, adventurous, excessive, orderly and disorderly, strenuous and relaxing, communal, non-proscriptive, spontaneous.

The foundation of this attitude is the idea that spatial arrangement matters for learning: that our bodies’ positions and sensory impressions shape what we think, what we learn, and how we are. It follows that space is not neutral; the spaces we move through and the objects we interact with have ideas and goals behind them: silent, encoded philosophies. Recognizing the codes and messages in schools and beyond helped shape Sawhorse’s approach to education. For me, at any rate, this recognition happened in part thanks to the writing of Michel Foucault, a French critical theorist active from the early 1950’s until the mid 1980’s. His ever-evolving ideas on the interaction of power, knowledge, space, and the human body offer a potent examination of the conditions we live in today. [1]

In “Docile Bodies,” a crucial chapter from the book Discipline and Punish, Foucault traces the history of institutional training in relation to the body, from the elementary school to the pencil to the military formation. His interest lies in how the modern state has developed, especially in how it administers its subjects. The essence of his argument is that power in the modern age has shifted from a brutal, quick enactment of corporal punishment to a network of power relations encoded in the physical landscape. Instead of shackles in the town square, power today operates through a thousand proscriptive gestures, [2] encoded in, say, the movement of a thumb on a cell phone. According to Foucault, “a micro-physics of power” (139) flows through even the smallest corner of the built world, producing obedience and homogeneity through a complex series of trainings to which our bodies are subjected.

Consider the grid of desks that comprises a typical elementary classroom. For Foucault, this layout, with children’s bodies facing forward, position held by the combined chair/desk, was,

one of the great technical mutations of elementary education. It made it possible to supersede the traditional system (a pupil working for a few minutes while the rest of the heterogeneous group remained idle and unattended)…. It organized a new economy of the time of apprenticeship. It made the educational space function like a learning machine, but also a machine for supervising, hierarchic, rewarding (147).

Unlike apprenticeship, with its adequate supply of useless free time, the classroom gathers and organizes bodies’ actions in the most efficient way possible. Socially, the classroom’s material innocence conceals an agenda of conformity, albeit conformity amidst a seeming variety of characteristics. Foucault writes that a grid offers the capacity to rank students based on merit, age, performance, or whatever else – thereby attaching these qualities to the student. Each person in a grid is subject to a pre-determined set of characteristics with which people will be defined and compared to others. And so, the grid, “transforms the confused, useless or dangerous multitudes into ordered multiplicities” (148). A grid is the first condition for the modern form of power relations to flow.

Sawhorse’s diverse and spontaneous build site responds to and investigates accepted forms of learning. One could perhaps call our learning environment the spread – an organic composition of people, instead of the “tableaux vivant” of formal schooling. Compared to the grid, what effect does a spread have? Let us go back to the EASE.L House build site. Late in the build, half of the projects we were working on were inside the 120 s.f. house, which is about the size of a food truck, or a large walk-in closet. Put seven bodies working in there, equipped with tools, paint, and 13’ boards, depending on the team, and a new message can be learned. In this cramped condition, one must be attentive and considerate, so as not to scrape a board against wet paint, or bump into a student on a ladder. Visually, one’s image is one of being close to others. Physically, one encounters and must physically consider the safety and well-being others. Time is wasted as one group waits for another, offering a chance to socialize, reconsider the problem at hand, or simply rest. Clearly, the build site is a far cry from the administered, lonely grid of the typical classroom.

Perhaps the most important feature behind Sawhorse’s approach[3] is simply the recognition that the space that we work and act in is not neutral. Foucault hints that one of the most troublesome aspects of the power-knowledge network is how hidden these mechanisms and relations remain. One might say that the unexamined classroom is not worth sitting in. Without a study of what the world is – how we are organized, how spaces and objects affect us, that we live in a grid, and so forth – in short, when we don’t examine the more painful truths in our lives – we also miss the opportunity to live into the truths of those systems. If education programs took responsibility for all of the messages being taught, the form and the content, what other kinds of beautiful messes could we get ourselves into?




[1] I’ve included here the chapter, “Docile Bodies” from Discipline and Punish, one of the central expositions of Foucault’s arguments and ideas in his book, and to which this article consistently refers.

[2] These gestures are connected to a “correct” means of operating the gesture. A wild, free, exploratory swipe of the thumb on the iPhone, for example, is “incorrect,” and the phone will let you know that only a certain kind of swipe will suffice.

[3] Others, we believe, are part of a similar educational response to administered schooling, including Danish forest kindergartens, adventure playgrounds, and some elements of Montessori education, among many others.


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