Mastering Masterlessness

In Articles on 27 March 2011 at 11:02 am

by Nina Power

‘The most important quality of a schoolmaster is the virtue of ignorance’: Rancière in 2010 returns in an essay to the fundamental thesis of his 1987 book, The Ignorant Schoolmaster, in which he had told the story of Joseph Jacotot, a curious kind of schoolteacher who proposed that those who were uneducated could learn on their own, and that teachers could in turn teach things that they didn’t know. 

Banking Method: Like Jospeh Jacotot, the radical pedagoge Paulo Friere rejected the idea that teachers “deposited” knowledge in passive students. Illustration by Dylan Miner.

Rancière’s rescue of the historical Jacotot has proved to be enormously important for anyone interested in the relationship between pedagogy and equality. It is, as he puts it ‘[retelling Jacotot’s story is] not an amusing journey into the history of pedagogy, but a matter of timely philosophical reflection on the way in which pedagogical logic and social logic bear on each other.’  The hierarchies of the classical educational model are inseparable from other social hierarchies – class, and the cultural and intellectual capital which underpins the way in which class operates in practice. In a sense, we all know this – but trying to understand how to undermine it, whether as pupil or teacher, is another thing altogether.

At certain historical moments, the relationship between teachers and their students starts to shift: we saw it happening during the occupations and student protests of late 2010. To be sure, there are those who refused and continue to refuse to listen to their students’ protestations, but no doubt they also refused to listen to them before. Rancière has a name for the position held by such teachers: ‘the axiom of inequality’. This austere-sounding formulation, the very opposite of Jacotot’s practice, is predicated on the idea that one side possesses knowledge and the other ignorance: education becomes the performance of endlessly reiterating this supposed gap between master and student via a process of explanation. However: ‘Explanation offers itself as a means to reduce the situation of inequality where those who know nothing are in relation with those who know. But, this reduction is, rather, a confirmation.’

The ignorant schoolmaster is, on the other hand, committed to what Jacotot calls ‘the equality of intelligences’, the simple but radical idea that ‘there is only one intelligence at work in all intellectual training.’  Radical, how? This idea destroys the fantasy that there are those who possess knowledge and those who do not; it undermines the relation of dominance and subordination that is the very structure of schooling and of society in general. The ignorant schoolmaster is ignorant, above all, of inequality – which is to say that he or she sees it everywhere, because it is everywhere, but not in the very people he or she is supposed to ‘stultify’ as Rancière puts it, to keep in their place, to make docile for the service of the economy and the preservation of social order.

The ignorant schoolmaster does know a couple of things, however, namely that what is crucial in any emancipatory project is a notion of capacity, and a notion of will. Capacity because everyone is capable – and has already learned how to speak in whichever way one can. And will, because will is needed to break through both the misconception of the teacher that his or her student is incapable of knowing as much as they do, and to convince the unconfident student that he or she is precisely capable of knowing as such. But can an education predicated on the equality of intelligences, capacity and will overturn existing hierarchies? Liberal ideas regarding the centrality of education for the construction of good citizens stumble when confronted with brutal economic realities and entrenched inequalities: what ‘good’ can a radical vision of pedagogy have against such facts? How can we even talk of education without first changing the very society it forms a central part of?

Rancière admits that ‘Society … presents itself as a vast school, with its savages to civilize, and its problem students to put right.’  So not only is school a microcosm of the social whole, but the social whole itself is modelled on the school system (and how many people, especially in Britain, can escape the cultural and political domination of those who were privately educated?). Overturning the way in which ‘the school and society symbolize each other without end’  might require something even more radical than Ivan Illich’s suggestion that we ‘deschool’ society; we must perhaps also desocialise the school. What might this mean?

We could attempt to break the very image of learning inherent in the educational model as we currently have it: why must education be restricted to those hours and days spent semi-incarcerated in classrooms and corridors? A broader definition of what it means to learn would entail that we might eliminate such oppositions as student/teacher. If everyone is simultaneously student and teacher (I teach you how to make bread, you tell me what Deleuze means by societies of control), then everyone is simultaneously ignorant and knowledgeable, and there would be no good reason to listen to anyone more than anyone else. Unless of course you want to!

‘On Ignorant Schoolmasters’, Jacques Rancière, published as Chapter 1 of Jacques Rancière, Education, Truth, Emancipation, by Charles Bingham and Gert Biesta (London, Continuum: 2010), pp. 1-24.

Nina Power is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Roehampton University. She is the co-editor of Alain Badiou’s On Beckett and his Political Writings. Nina has published widely on topics including Iran, humanism, vintage pornography and Marxism. Her book One Dimensional Woman is published by O-Books. She also blogs regularly at Infinite Thought.


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