On Jacotot and the Ignorant Schoolmaster

Dave Harris

The book that seems most immediately relevant to educationalists  The Ignorant Schoolmaster (Rancière 1991) concerns the activities and principles of Joseph Jacotot, an educationalist in Belgium and France in the 1830s. [see my notes and comments on the book here] Rancière merges his voice with that of Jacotot in an interesting way, which is discussed later [see my notes on Rancière and Foucault] . Jacotot/Rancière faced a particular problem during his tenure at the University of Louvain (it might be worth noting immediately that Jacotot was never a simple schoolmaster, but rather a professor at an elite university).  He and the students had no shared language, and Jacotot began by giving them a popular classic text published in both French and Dutch.  Students had to teach themselves French by memorizing this text, page by page, comparing the words in the different versions, and learning French vocabulary by rote.  To his surprise, apparently,  Jacotot found that students were able to develop fluency in French using this method.  A number of outsiders, including senior academics, were invited to examine student work, and set tests like asking students to write something then comment on and extend the texts they had read. External assessors agreed that students had produced work of an acceptable quality -- although one professor found a minor error (a missing accent).

Jacotot/Rancière argued that people were perfectly capable of learning for themselves without the intervention of the usual skilled pedagogy consisting of systematic explication.  Indeed, they learned even if pedagogues themselves knew nothing about the subject. There was a fundamental equality of intelligence among human beings of whatever station. In addition, knowledge could be developed in any direction by a process of linking the new to what was known already.  Both claims contrast strongly with those of conventional models which involve skilled and sequential (‘progressive’ in that sense) explication. Explication produces permanent hierarchical relations between teacher and taught, because the ignorant can never catch up and bridge the gap between themselves and their teachers

It is already possible to see how this might interest current British progressive (in a different sense) educationalists .  It looks like this is another confirmation of the fundamental intelligence, equality, and creativity of children.  Rancière’s comments about the ways in which the usual pedagogical approaches divide students looks like the well established attack on traditional methods of teaching.  The idea that knowledge can be developed from making connections between what is known and unknown can seem like one of the classic defences of non-disciplinary ‘discovery’ or project – based pedagogies. 

However, Jacotot/Rancière also suggest features that would not be so popular with modern progressives. There is a demand that students undertake rote learning, for example, and be tested frequently on their knowledge. There are no excuses for not doing so: rote learning was boring, for example, but student laziness had to be countered. When students said they could not do anything this meant that they could but did not want to. When students dismissed academic learning as elitist nonsense, Jacotot pointed out that their own pride in their common sense or their practical expertise was also elitist, and, very often, showed strong contempt for ‘ordinary people’.  

There was initially no real support for a community dimension in education either, since social life itself was seen as imposing some material deadweight on intelligence: ‘the battlefield is the true portrait of society’ (Rancière 1991: 92).  Managerial discourses were indeed vague, florid and evasive, but, annoyingly, so was much ordinary speech.  [Rancière/Jacotot cite Bentham on legal language as a kind of appalling poetry] Lying was not confined to any one social group.

Finally, Jacotot/Rancière does not deny the need for teacher authority, but claiming authority on the basis of expertise is seen as particularly pernicious. Most current educational thinking would see it as the only acceptable basis for authority, of course. Certainly the alternatives seem undesirable – to cite an old sociological study, teachers can in practice also claim authority based on their superior age, social class, gender or ethnicity, but none of these can be supported in modern societies. Charismatic authority is also possible but unpredictable. If charisma is his secret, it isnot surprising that Jacotot's ideas could never be established as some kind of pedagogic school or movement.

Rancière used to be much more critical of the authority relations in universities as an advocate of student and worker radicalism during the ‘Events’ surrounding the May 1968 revolts.  French students then would not be prepared to discuss any basis for the claimed authority of university hierarchies, and wanted to dismantle them.  Rancière himself once admired Maoist practice that saw university academics forced to do manual labour, and to teach subjects in ways that were radically accessible to the masses, instead of following the normal scholarly routes to personal reward (Rancière 1974 [1969]). To be fair, Rancière withdrew his support later, once he realized the ‘penitential’ implications. However, ‘equal intelligence’ was originally a Maoist slogan (Bosteels 2011: 28).

This interest in radical politics, and the later interest in aesthetics, as well as the work done on worker movements in the 1830s all point to a wider context for the work on education.  This is actually recognized very briefly in an article on Rancière by the influential educational philosopher  Gerd Biesta (2010: 40): the work on Jacotot and pedagogy is connected to  'Marxist notions of ideology and false consciousness', and to Bourdieu's concept of misrecognition.  However, Biesta does not pursue this critical work very far, claiming limited time and space.  On Marxism Biesta (2010: 44) refers us instead to Eagleton’s textbook on ideology and quotes him as saying:

one of the crucial insights…  is not only that all thought is socially determined—following Karl Marx's dictum that "it is not the consciousness of men that determines their being but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness"—but also, and more importantly, that ideology is thought "which denies this determination"

There is also the suspicion of a classic ‘ideological couplet’  (also discussed below, it is s an Althusserian term) at work when Biesta contrasts  economism with its usual opposite -- liberal essentialism: ‘the assumption of the equality of all human beings' (2010: 57).

It is worth saying that Rancière would not read Marx’s phrase as anything other than a preliminary polemic , and he suggests that Marx went on to argue that the classic philosophical conceptions of materialism and idealism both ’belonged to the same theoretical configuration’ and need to be opposed by a new politicized conception of materialism ‘founded on the human history of production’ (Rancière 2011: 12—13). Rancière’s own critique of Marx and Marxism is rather different as we shall see. Whether Rancière would claim a general equality is also in doubt considering what we saw above about Jacotot/Rancière on society as a battlefield. Biesta includes Bourdieu in his critique as a kind of weak Marxist, developing a sociological version of economism and false consciousness in the form of the concept ‘misrecognition’, but again Rancière’s critique is different and more sophisticated.

Overall, Rancière’s actual criticisms lead to more general problems with any attempts to analyze concrete situations, including liberal ones.  Biesta’s interpretations makes it easier to ally Rancière with the conventions of liberal educational philosophy, and possibly with contemporary departmental politics.  None of this is necessarily intended by Biesta personally, of course, but abstracting the work of education from its context in radical politics clearly offers risks.

The same abstractions affect the final section of Biesta’s article, when he cites Rancière to warrant becoming engaged in educational politics. Biesta advocates dissensus, 'an interruption of the police order' (2010: 59).  It is probable that he does not mean radical university politics, of the kind that Rancière once embraced, or even contemporary forms of student strikes and occupations, but it is important to specify in more detail.  Without specification a call for more interest in educational politics could mean anything, it is suggested below.

Finally, Biesta (2010: 41) suggests that Rancière’s method is evident in the merging of voices discussed earlier. This form is to a large extent consistent with his ideas on emancipation in that the writing itself tries to avoid a position of mastery. He refers to this as a ‘‘topographical’’ way of writing that articulates  “an egalitarian or anarchist theoretical position that does not presuppose this vertical relationship of top to bottom”. 

However, this style is not used in all the other works, especially the critiques of rival approaches, so this cannot be the only method. Instead, Rancière’s method is better grasped as a kind of ‘deconstruction’ (Reid in Ranciere 2012) borrowed from Foucault, but pursued initially with the vigour and black humour of a soixante-huitard.  Biesta notes echoes of Foucault, of course, and has pursued the relation in another essay (2008), but he does not explore the implications for the earlier work. I do though --here

If we pursue these issues into Rancière’s  actual work, we can see the ways in which it differs from liberal educational thought.  We will also be better able to engage critically with it, instead of just revisiting the eternal struggle between traditional and progressive, a likely tendency noted in Biesta’s article itself in a note at the end (Biesta 2010: 59).


Biesta, G. 2010. A New Logic of Emancipation: the Methodology of Jacques Rancière.  Educational Theory,  60(1): 39 -59.

Bosteels,  B. 2011 Reviewing Rancière. Or, the persistence of discrepancies. Radical Philosophy 170: 25--31.

Rancière, J. 1991. The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation, trans and with an intro by Kristin Ross, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Rancière, J. 2012 [1983] Proletarian Nights: The Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth Century France . London: Verso.

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