Rancière, J. (1991) The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation, trans and with an intro by Kristin Ross, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Translator’s Introduction

[Locates Ranciere in French soc of ed – pass on if not particularly interested]

When this book first appeared, in 1987, it appeared only marginal to the radical interests of sociologists of education.  The hero, Jacotot,  was working in France in the 1830s.  Rancière was also a maverick, originally an Althhusserian, then a major critic.  His research interests turned on 19th century workers’ archives, and he wrote about their desire for emancipation.  This book could be seen as a curiosity piece, but it is best seen as a fable ‘that enacts an extraordinary philosophical meditation on equality’ (ix). 

The French context is important, May ’68 and the aftermath, the decline of the left and the emergence of Bourdieu (and Foucault).  Bourdieu always seemed to offer the best explanation of the events, developing a critique of education, but also explaining the conservative nature of social structure as reproduction and distinction.  Bourdieu and Passeron’s The Inheritors suggested that the main role of university was reproduction of inequality, and this was followed by Reproduction and Distinction, which showed how class division was ‘minutely catalogued in the tiniest details of posture or daily behaviour’, a welcome diversion from conventional Marxist politics.

Ranciere attacked the project on the grounds that it assumed that the excluded were unaware of the mechanisms of their exclusion.  Oddly enough, social critics gain status by showing how democracy is unlikely are especially in the guise of a science.  In practice, it all turned on a tautology—

‘1.  Working class youth are excluded from the university because they are unaware of the true reasons which they are excluded (The inheritors). 

2.  Their ignorance of the true reasons for is a structural effect produced by the very existence of the system that excludes them (Reproduction).’ (xi), [the quote derived from Rancière,L’Empire du Sociologie]

Another way of putting this tautology is to argue that the system is able to reproduce because it is unrecognised, and it is unrecognised because it deliberately produces misrecognition [what is tautological about this?].  It is convenient, that the system can forever hide itself, and it implies that only sociologists can see through the system, not teachers or students.  The real point was to produce sociology as a science ‘through a naturalizing objectification of the other’ (xii).

[As an aside, try Magri’s mild and largely implicit criticism of Deleuze (in Negotiations) as a permanent  aporia. Deleuze cannot make up his mind politically – first of all it is radical desire that will break through repression, then it is advanced schema of repression that will control us all; we all need to become revolutionaries and experiment with becomings, but we also have to be very cautious and not end up in micro-fascism or self-destruction. As soon as he analyses one pole, he wants to reopen it all and rethink it, and often come to opposite conclusions. Deleuzians can pose as revolutionaries, knowing there are always good reasons in the master’s work why they should not actually be revolutionaries because it is far too risky.]

Bourdieu’s was a popular project too by offering the pleasures of demystification and the unveiling of the structuralist mechanism, and the justification for progressive practice [it was apparently incorporated by the socialist administration of Mitterrand].  One minister of education, Savary, set out to establish a new radical educational community, an egalitarian atmosphere in schools focusing on the “whole personality” of the child, and compensatory education in priority zones, which included ‘specially designed curricula’ (xiii).  His successor hand and these reforms and focused instead on ’”republican elitism”’, back to basics, a restoration of grammar, rigid examinations and selection (xiii).  The debate got mixed up with a more general one about French identity.  The transition to republican elitism was facilitated by a polemic by Milner, who talked of a plot against knowledge, and who attacked pedagogy as an empty science.  Advocating the rigours of the Third Republic, he argued that teachers should just focus on transmitting knowledge, and the inequality between teacher and student was necessary and helpful.

Rancière agreed with Milner that it would be wrong to cut back on formerly transmitted knowledge, and provide a special curriculum for working class kids, and immigrants.  Maternal ism and education was infantalising.  But the past regime was tainted by ‘the hygienic project of moral formulation’ (xv), and the debate was couched in the wrong terms – the old education was never fully involving, and scholarly passion always reflected the interests of the elite.

Both Milner and Rancière had been disciples of Althusser, and belong to that of circle that included  Balibar and Debray—but both have moved on considerably since, in an era characterised by the defeat of European worker movements in Europe, May ’68 which demolished orthodox Marxism, the recuperation and turn to the free market, and the development of the New Philosophy and post structuralism.  Nevertheless, Althusser had also argued that teaching should be about to transmit indeterminate knowledges and was thus inevitably in egalitarian.

Rancière’s approach was different in his Lesson of Althusser. He read  Althusser predominantly is an educational theorist, pointing out that he’s only political intervention was to deal with student discontent expressed in the French communist party.  Students themselves had already begun to criticise pedagogical relations and the reproductive function of education, the arbitrariness of exams, and ‘the ideology of individual research’ (xvi).  Althusser said that students should first learn about Marxism and then conduct proper scientific analyses; then focus on the quality of knowledge rather than pedagogy; focus on the ideology in the content of teaching.

Rancière argued that the science/ideology distinction was simply to justify pure knowledge and the privilege of those who possessed it.  It left becoming an academic as the only option for students.  The general illusions can only be dispelled following ‘a kind of muscular theoretical heroism on the part of the lone theorist’ (xvii) [shades of Deleuze here too].  This is why Althusser had to denounce May ’68, only to pretend to discover its potential later following solitary research—the result was the notion of the school as an ideological apparatus.  May ’68 was not the proper moment for the all knowing philosopher: this ‘is to eternalize the division of labour that grants [philosophy] its place’ (xviii).

Does philosophy have any other authority than its privileged place?  How did it speak for those in assumes to be ignorant?  This is where the project of conducting archival research becomes important, since it shows a number of figures who have emancipated themselves from necessity, and who have openly claimed the right to contemplation and thought. [British authors who have done something similar are a superb and encouraging read – Thompson, E. (1968) The Making of The English Working Class, Harmondsworth: Pelican Books, and Rose, J. (2002) The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, London: Yale University Press.] Rancière apparently describes this as an irruption of negativity, in a good sense, of the rejection of the necessity of constantly doing something, and a rejection of positivism.  The archival research has been paralleled with a critique of bourgeois intellectuals and their claims to speak for ‘the privileged other of political modernity, the worker’ (xix), and this leads to a critique of explication.

The educational theories of Bourdieu, Milner and Althusser are all founded on the notion of inequality—they begin with it, and then prove it, and then are obliged to rediscover it over and over.  This extends even to those who want to do progressive reforms of schools.  As a result, the future reconciliation is always distant, ‘a distance discursive he invented and reinvented so that it may never be abolished.  The poor stay in their place’ (xix), and pedagogues remain superior to their students.

The answers to make equality a presupposition instead, the centre of practice in the present.  And this is what provided by Jacotot’s story, his experiments and his subsequent experience.  The assumption is that everyone is equally intelligent, and it follows that prior knowledge is not necessary, nor is explication of.  Explication in fact creates incapacity, supports the equality of the wider society, and infantilises students.  It uses metaphors based in terms of velocity, speed or slowness. In our own time, pedagogy and its fictions have been globalised, so that the developing nations will never catch up.

Rancière develops his argument further to critique the idea of progress as additive, of conventional history as additive.  Historians need to create an alternative, to capture the unique experience of the past, to serve as an episode of the present [compare with Foucault’s archaeology], to be interrogated politically. Rancière seems to offer a simple narrative structure a recounting, one of the exercises seen as crucial in the book, and one which assumes equality with the reader.  But there is also a moment where the identity of the narrator becomes unclear— Rancière’s voice merges with Jacotot’s, and his commentary extends and dramatises,continues Jacotot’s account.  This links the past with the present, and there is one basis for this in that both writers are experiencing post revolutionary politics.  The uncertainty helps the reader locate the account in the present, and evokes questions such as the connections between the commentators of the 18th century and the sociologists of the 20th, satirical possibilities, the strange irruption or untimeliness of the piece as an opposition to the seamless tautologies of modern sociology and structuralist linguistics.  The book returns the notion of equality to the centre, ‘against the seamless science of the hidden’ (xxii) that says it is impossible.  Promoting equality means celebrating a number of small concrete acts and actual moments, that resist institutionalisation –hence the final irony of the title, because Jacotot had no school.


[And now some quick notes on the book itself]

This is an admiring commentary on the work of an early pedagogue (Jacotot) who discovered that he could teach people even though he knew nothing about the subject. It works  if we assume a fundamental equality of ability between all concerned – if people can learn to speak their entire language, they can learn anything else that is human. The big pedagogic mistake is to do explication – this assumes that learners must have expert mediators, and they can never match the expertise of those mediators. [It also gives that ‘stage managed’ tone to questions, where the pedagogue already knows the answer and the learner just has to guess it, to the boredom of both. Much better to ask genuine questions, but that involves choosing topics at least where you really do not know the answer – about modern club culture or leisure activities, or actual practice which you do not do yourself,  for example]

However, this gives no credence to the modern fashion for teaching languages by only speaking them. This pedagogy is based on books or other texts (like prayers) which serve as the neutral ground between learner and teacher. And the pedagogy is very unfashionable – students learn by heart the whole book, in the original language of the book in some cases,  and are tested frequently on their knowledge of it [I don’t know who corrects the pronunciation – but spoken facility is not the point? However, it raises a point which Deleuze would be critical about – doesn’t all this community learning lead to consensus and ‘common sense’? Or does the pedagogue have a hidden role here in keeping it all open, dragging the readers onwards – to elite culture? Can the pedagogue really abandon his elite culture in general? It reminds me of those awful school English lessons I used to have where there were apparently no right answers when it came to poetry appreciation – but it was clear there were wrong ones, and nasty proles like me tended to offer them, as a sign of our irredeemable vulgarity].

 Quite high powered books were used too – Télémaque (a classic text about Telemachus, the son of Ulysses) . Memorising gives a sense of mastery, and all good learners have done it including famous philosophers [ and certainly loads of famous social theorists have been translators first]. Quite a few of us do it in a sort of implicit and shamed way, thinking it is not ‘the right way’ – I spent a lot of time memorising my best bits for my PhD oral exam, but contrived to make it look spontaneous [see below],and have done the same for presentations since.

Once you have learned the book you can proceed to other operations. Reading, for example, can be pursued by asking people to look at the first words in the text which will be the same ones that they have memorised. They can be asked to look for those words elsewhere, asked to write the words, to focus on the letters in them and so on. Learners are also tested for understanding: it is not enough to parrot back the words, they have to think about them and comment on them. Ranciere claims a fundamental equality persists because it is all new to the pedagogue too. His hero deliberately set out to teach painting or the piano even though he could not paint or read music. He helped someone learning Greek, although he did not know it himself, by asking the learner to isolate and write down some Greek words then point to them in the text -- mistakes were a sign of insufficient attention at least.

The book is full of examples of how Jacotot argued his case against sceptics. The bourgeoisie, including senior academics, were invited to examine student work (the tests were things like asking them to write something which commented upon and extended the texts they had read, making reference to them  – or they were given short texts to read by the visitors and then asked to extemporise). Most visitors agreed this was quality work -- although one professor found a minor error ( a missing accent). The conclusion is that it is perfectly possible to go from a narrow base to think about and comment upon anything: ‘everything is in everything’.

I also liked the way Jacotot/Rancière addressed scepticism from the students too. He would brook no excuses. When they said they ‘can’t’ do anything he argued this meant that they could but did not want to. When they dismissed academic learning as elitist tosh, he pointed out that their own pride in their common sense or their practical expertise was also elitist, and, very often, their contempt for ‘ordinary people’ was  strong.

[I am reading this at the same time as reading Hume, in bed at night, for fun, and I wish they would get together. Hume says there is nothing dishonourable in sceptical philosophy even if it seems absurd from the point of view of common sense – everyone has their specialisms. What’s wrong with inquiring about the foundations (sic) of common sense perceptions? etc]

I am also starting to worry that this is getting very French and that an educated mind is being seen in elitist terms—the ability to spout on about anything at short notice that Bourdieu sees as the required oral style at least.

The argument was pursued through various 19th century philosophical disputes about will and intelligence, and picks up en route early claims that the physiological study of brains will solve all these problems (brain science in those days was phrenology).  The ultimate conclusion is that human beings have will, they act, and they use their intelligence to do so.  Here is a nice bit:

Intelligence’s act is to see and to compare what has been seen.  It must seek to repeat, to create the conditions to re –see what it has seen, in order to see similar facts, in order to see facts that could be the cause of what it has seen.  It must also form words, sentences, and figures, in order to tell others what it has seen.  In short, the most frequent mode of exercising intelligence, much to the dissatisfaction of geniuses, is repetition.  And repetition is boring.  The first vice is laziness.  It is easier to absent oneself…  “I can’t” this one of these absence sentences.  “I can’t” is not the name of any fact.  Nothing happens in the mind that corresponds to that assertion (55).

Lots of goodies are tucked up in that quote including the view that language is an arbitrary expression of intelligence (early opponents were French linguistic colonisers – we recognise them still in structuralism,and not just Althusserian stuff). Language does not form communities, but collections of people struggling to understand each other. The willed struggle to understand the somewhat arbitrary utterances of others is really what lies at the basis of the teaching efforts based on books that neither the teacher nor the student know. [Note that this attempt to understand others, to learn from others is precisely what Deleuze seems to be against in his dislike for conversation and discussion – he alone can pursue the truth and mixing with intellectual inferiors would only be distracting]. Gaining knowledge is therefore improvising, doing, a kind of poetry, artisanal. It can be guided and introduced gradually so as not to frighten people.

[One example is to teach painting by first asking kids to talk about pictures, train their attention etc. Rancière admits this will not produce excellent painters, but says it is more important that people do not feel they cannot paint – another section which will be cited in support by progressives. Would you like surgeons trained on the same basis? One clear and radical implication emerges for me though – intelligence cannot be assessed, even progressively. If we have to have it, it ought to measure different things, like technical competence, and be far more modest].

Effective writing and speech is a craft and should be learned eg by studying poets. Their goal is to translate thoughts into words AND allow people to countertranslate, investing each word with an ‘aura’ (69) [the ‘readerly‘ text in Barthes – the danger is that this becomes the incomprehensible blathering or delirious text like Deleuze. Be fair though –maybe Deleuze really is writing readerly texts?] [This is the very opposite of rationalised ,definitional ‘effective teaching’ as she is currently known in quality stuff, of course]. This implies that the reader/listener is of equal intelligence, capable of adding meanings that the poet cannot – intelligence is equality.