Thursday, September 24, 2015

Metaphors We Teach By, Part Two – More on the Rhetoric of Emancipation, Jacques Ranciere on Equality

At a K through 12 school like mine, if I were to ask my sophomores, how many of you are painters?, there might be a couple hands raised in a given class, but if I travelled down to the ECC (Early Childhood Center) and asked the same question, I imagine a swarm of hands would shoot into the air proudly and enthusiastically. What happens between Kindergarten and 10th grade? Where do all the painters go? One answer might go like this: we begin to divide up the world for them; through our language, our conceptual binaries, students start seeing the world as one made up of amateurs and experts, of inferior intellects and superior ones; they start seeing themselves as having strengths and weaknesses, things they’re good at and things they’re not. And this got me thinking: How do we cleanse the doors of their perception? How do we inspire students to claim back their place as painters again?  After all, “…it’s not a matter of making great painters; it’s a matter of making emancipated [students]: people capable of saying, ‘me too, I’m a painter,’ a statement that contains nothing in the way of pride, only the reasonable feeling of power that belongs to any reasonable being. ‘There is no pride in saying out loud: Me too, I’m a painter! Pride consists in saying softly to others: You neither, you aren’t a painter.’ ‘Me too, I’m a painter’ means: me too, I have a soul, I have feelings to communicate to my fellow-men” (Ranciere 67). When did high school students stop believing that they have something to communicate? How can we get them to paint their masterpieces again?

Yesterday in class, we were reading one of Macbeth’s soliloquies from Act One, and a student continued reading until I interrupted: “Ok, stop,” I said. The class directed their eyes towards me as I asked, “Do these opening lines mean anything to you?” Blank stares were accompanied by silence. “You guys are having a hard time understanding the language, right?” Gradually there were confessional nods across the room. “Well, let’s walk through it, phrase by phrase, and see what’s troubling us.” We went through it, and sure enough, the students unpacked every word and those they couldn’t (such as verb phrases like trammel up) there were footnotes supplying the meaning. I did nothing other than reinforce/redirect their will and attention towards the text; the students were the ones who constructed the meaning, albeit slowly, but with no problem. They could do this, but why did they stare blankly at me the first time I asked? Why weren’t they doing it? Were they convinced that Shakespeare was “above their heads”? Had I contributed to their self-contempt?

French philosopher Bernard Stiegler in Taking Care of Youth and the Generations (2010) makes a connection between the loss of responsibility and the infantilization of youth in contemporary culture. His definition of education reads as follows: “…education is our name for transmitting the social competency that produces responsibility… [which] leads to ‘maturity’” (2). Stiegler worries about education (on a philosophical level) because students are not taking responsibility for their own capacity to exercise intelligence (or their own capacity to be painters!). Students aren’t to blame, however. It’s a cultural issue, says Stiegler, one that involves difficult questions about the social practices of adult culture. After all it is the language games of adulthood which dulls their sense of wonder, namely their capacity to fancy themselves as painters… So this got me thinking about Jacques Ranciere’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation (2007).

Ranciere’s work explores the pedagogy of a French Enlightenment figure named Joseph Jacotot who courageously posited the following claims:

1. All men have the equal capacity to exercise intelligence
2. All men have the equal capacity to instruct themselves

Both principles contradict directly certain “common sense” assumptions that shape our daily pedagogical practices as teachers. Take principle 1. We often concentrate on the rhetoric of outcomes as well as metaphors of progress, which in my opinion conflicts with Ranciere’s radical strategy to treat principle 1 as a fact of nature, not as a hoped-for destination to be reached. Equal intellectual capacity is not an idealized, pie-in-the-sky goal; it’s a practical starting point. Students are equally intelligent the day they walk through the classroom door, no progress is needed in terms of improving the intellect. Ranciere writes, “There aren’t two sorts of minds. There is inequality in the manifestations of intelligence, according to the greater or lesser energy communicated to the intelligence or by the will for discovering and combining new relations; but there is no hierarchy of intellectual capacity. Emancipation is becoming conscious of this equality of nature” (27). Underperforming students are not lacking in capacity nor are they less intelligent in some sense; instead, the real challenge is revealing the student’s intelligence to his or herself.  “…Our problem isn’t proving that all intelligence is equal,” Ranciere writes. “It’s seeing what can be done under that supposition” (46). Differences in student performance and success, says Ranciere, has more to do with the amount of Will and Attention one has exercised towards a given task than with one’s capacity for “natural talent” or “superior intelligence.”

Ranciere urges us to shift our pedagogical focus and language away from concerns about outcomes and to direct it toward how we frame the learning experience from the very outset. This means emancipating students before teaching them, namely convincing each learner of the idea “that every common person might conceive his human dignity, take the measure of his intellectual capacity, and decide how to use it” (17). This gets back to making students aware of the fact that they can take responsibility for their own capacity to be intelligent. Ranciere urges the educator to “give not the key to knowledge, but the consciousness of what an intelligence can do when it considers itself equal to any other and considers any other equal to itself” (39). It’s not about knowledge as much as about empowerment; it’s more about the outset than the outcome.  Our culture makes this shift difficult, however, due to the industry’s obsession with results, data, and progress, which puts a lot of pressure on students and teachers alike.

Jacques Ranciere
In reference to principle 2, Ranciere advocates for learning as doing, meaning the teacher’s role is more about creating a learning environment where students want to do, where students want to exercise their capabilities. When students aren’t performing, one’s first instinct should be to focus on the learner’s Will and Attention, not their Intellect. As Ranciere states, “There is stultification whenever one intelligence is subordinated to another. [However] a person – and a child in particular – may need a master when his own will is not strong enough to keep him on track,… but that subjection is purely one of will over will” (13). Thinking back to my situation in English class yesterday: the students could do the work, so my task was to focus on redirecting their will and attention to see it through. What I didn’t have to do was “explicate” the Shakespearean text. Too much explication stultifies a learner, for “It is the explicator who needs the incapable and not the other way around; it is he who constitutes the incapable as such. To explain something to someone is first of all to show [the student] a world divided into knowing minds and ignorant ones, ripe minds and immature ones, the capable and the incapable, the intelligent and the stupid” (6). I do think there are times when explication is necessary but it need not be the default modality for facilitating learning. Instead, one’s default should be to address them as people “under the sign of equality.”  “What stultifies the common [student] is not the lack of instruction, but the belief in the inferiority of their intelligence” (39). Too often, I rely more on explication, instead of targeting the student’s will in order to awaken her own intellectual capacity so she can explicate the subject matter for herself and for her peers. To put in Gilles Deleuze’s terms, when the teacher explicates, the students need only trace that which has been explained for them (a.k.a. rote regurgitation); when the student explicates for herself, she is mapping her learning experience in her terms.

To get back to Stiegler, students need to take responsibility for their own capacity to exercise intelligence, but we must guide the process by practicing a language of emancipation that worries less about quantifiable outcomes and more about the authenticity of the learning environment we invite them to inhabit and explore. As Ranciere claims, “[Students develop] their intellectual capacities as the circumstances demand… They develop the intelligence that the needs and circumstances of their existence demand of them” (51).  It's our job to make such demands but we must do so while treating them as equals. And who knows, maybe some will start painting again.

Whoever teaches without emancipation stultifies. Whoever emancipates doesn’t have to worry about what the emancipated person learns  –J. Ranciere

Ranciere, Jacques. The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007.

Stiegler, Bernard. Taking Care of Youth and the Generations. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010.


  1. I am excited for students to take responsibility for their learning capacity. Lately, I have been thinking of myself and has a kind of intellectual trainer – – modeling myself after our school's athletic trainers. Which student is exercising one muscle over all the others? Which student could stand to put a little more metaphorical weight on the bar? Which assessments and pedagogical challenges reveal whole-mind health? Not sure that this way of thinking complements, contradicts, or complicates what you describe as an opening principle of equality.

  2. Thanks, Joel, for the comment. I see no contradiction, and I love the training metaphor. Sports programs at schools like ours do an amazing job at empowering students. At Oakridge, for instance, all athletic programs are inclusive which, to me, sends a powerful message at the very outset of a given season: namely, you're included; you matter and we can't wait to see you do great things. Thanks Joel!!