Sunday, 14 April 2013

The ignorant schoolmaster

JosephJacotot.jpg Just a few words about Rancière's The Ignorant Schoolmaster (Stanford University Press 1991). This book is a lot of things. Most immediately, it's the story of Joseph Jacotot, the teacher and educational philosopher who, while in exile in Brussels, discovered that students could learn perfectly well without any explanations from the teacher. Even the ignorant, he concluded, can teach. He called his method that of "intellectual emancipation".

It's also a story about the practice of equality. Not equality as a legal fiction, but about what happens the moment we really treat each other as equals. Equality, Rancière suggests, is real and a property of the people themselves, not a construction or semblance created through the public sphere of citizens.
We aren’t saying that the citizen is the ideal man, the inhabitant of an egalitarian political heaven that masks the reality of the inequality between concrete individuals. We are saying the opposite: that there is no equality except between men, that is to say, between individuals who regard each other only as reasonable beings. The citizen, on the contrary, the inhabitant of the political fiction, is man fallen into the land of inequality. (Rancière 1991:90) 
As Kristin Ross points out in her preface, the book is an attack on Althusser and Bourdieu, both scholars who personified the attitude of what Jacotot called the "old master", the master standing above the masses and pretending to possess superior knowledge. However, this passage shows that Rancière also attacks the idea of the public sphere as described by Habermas and Arendt. Both of the latter describe this as a sphere or realm where the semblance of equality is created among citizens through a systematic bracketing of real inequality.

This latter attack deserves a little more attention than I think it has been given (at least that's what I feel after a cursory look at the secondary literature). The attack is interesting, given that this public sphere, this realm of citizens, is surely what appears in Rancière's later writings as the "police", the order of the sensible.

In this book Rancière appears to adopt a position in regard to this realm that is close to Jacotot's, i.e. a kind of enlightened quietism which reminds me of Buddhism: ”the reasonable man [must] submit to the madness of being a citizen, while trying to safeguard his reason” (ibid. 91). Rather than rebelling against the dominant order, this "reasonable man" lives inside it while recognizing its madness and untruth. Emancipation, then, is purely intellectual, not a matter of actually challenging existing power relations. In later writings, Rancière instead tends to stress the need for this otherworldly reason to erupt into the fake order and shatter it. When what intellectuals speak about as the people or the masses raise their voices, "subjectivizing" themselves, they also upset the order that has been set up without asking them. Attacking that realm means that he, like Nancy Fraser, associates the realization of equality or truth with the eruption into this order of what is incompatible with it. But unlike her, he believes in no dialectical expansion of the order to make it more inclusive or egalitarian. The citizen is irremediably lost.

I must confess that while reading I scribbled down so many objections to Rancière's ideas that the margins have turned into quite a mess. Is the method really so egalitarian? Surely even an ignorant master is a master - isn't inequality rooted in the very institutional setting rather than in the teacher's pretense to possess knowledge? Is it really convincing to portray emancipation as a purely intellectual liberation? Do all explanations really have to be inegalitarian - how about dialogue and searching together?

But I agree with what I take to be the central thrust of Rancière's and Jacotot's method: that anyone can learn and that learning is possible without a teacher or master thought to possess superior knowledge. That’s how researchers learn. They learn by themselves or by talking to each other. I’ve always thought that all human beings are equally smart, provided that they are interested. Those who do bad in school are usually also those who are uninterested in the subjects (but they may be geniuses at car motors or true connaisseurs of football or fashion or whatever). The appearance of inequality stems from the fact that some are interested in things that are socially valued while others aren’t. I'm not sure Rancière provides much help when it comes to how these social values, and the power relations on which they rest, could be changed, but he does remind us that we can at least try to practice equality. Doing so is not just a matter of ethics, of showing proper respect. It's also a matter of not deluding ourselves, as we tend to do when we judge as the world does.

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