Monday, May 28, 2018

#Ranciere18 - Week One: "Translator's Introduction" from The Ignorant Schoolmaster

Starting this week several of us are reading together (at a leisurely pace) a very important book for me as an educator. In many ways Jacques Rancière's 1987 polemic, The Ignorant Schoolmaster, has become a kind of motivational manifesto for me - a mantra of sorts that keeps me focused on what matters most in my role as teacher. My loyalty to its message, at times, has inspired mockery and disbelief in others: You can't possibly believe that all students are equally capable of being intelligent? After all, this is the book's central thesis: "ALL people are equally intelligent" (xix).

So what's your gut response to such a statement? Does one wince with disbelief? What do we mean when we say "intelligence"? What does it look like when it's being demonstrated? How can we measure it or should we even ask that question? 

Which of the following images, for instance, showcases a greater display of intelligence?

"The hierarchical division of head and hand" (xviii).
One of Rancière's targets is the myth that there are different types of intelligences that can be arranged spatially/directionally in terms of hierarchies (low to high). Such space reifies (or makes natural) the gap between the knowing and the ignorant; the explicators and the listeners; the capable and the incapable; the ones who must be heard (subject groups) and the ones who need not be heard (subjugated groups). But common sense says this is the case, right? I mean, some of us simply know things that others don't, and it's on us to tell them what they need to know. Right? If teaching were defined as the act of transmitting knowledge, then yes, perhaps this is just "how things are" and teachers are tasked with leading the ignorant out of the cave by showing them/explaining to them the Truth of things. But perhaps the task of the teacher needs to be re-conceptualized, not as "a kind of muscular theoretical heroism" to enlighten the masses, but as an authority who demands the equally intelligent to chart their own truth:

The problem is not to create scholars. It is to raise up those who believe themselves inferior in intelligence, to make them leave the swamp where they are stagnating – not the swamp of ignorance, but the swamp of self-contempt (101-102).

It is the explicator who needs the incapable and not the other way around; it is he who constitutes the incapable as such (6).

There aren’t 2 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 (27).

Whoever teaches w/o emancipation stultifies. Whoever emancipates doesn’t have to worry about what the emancipated person learns

Emancipation is 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).

Our problem isn’t proving that all intelligence is equal. It’s seeing what can be done under that supposition (46).

The last quote here brings up some questions for me: Does R posit the equality of intelligences for strategic purposes alone? In other words, is he trolling/provoking us in some way? OR Is he simply stating upfront that one cannot prove nor disprove his thesis, therefore why not make Pascal's wager? 

A few more thoughts...

The Lesson of Althusser

Both Rancière's teacher and mentor, Louis Althusser may be France's most influential Marxist thinker from the 20th century. Rancière, however, turned his back on Althusser's anti-humanist, structuralist program, which can be seen in R's student-centered, agency-focused approach to pedagogy. Althusser was a big believer in the master-student relationship: "'The function of teaching,' Althusser wrote in 1964, 'is to transmit a determinate knowledge to subjects who do not possess this knowledge. The teaching situation thus rests on the absolute condition of an inequality between a knowledge and a nonknowledge'" (xvi). 

For Althusser, emancipatory education was only possible if we recognize the present impossibility for students to be equal (with each other or with the master) and instead focus our reformist energies toward distributing more equally the same quality of instruction (by well-trained, enlightened masters) among all students of all classes. I want to suggest that Rancière reverses this claim: It is impossible to make the distribution of instruction equal, but we can assert axiomatically that all students (and teachers) are naturally, equally intelligent. The hard work of pedagogy is ac/counting for this. If schools are unequal spaces for equal intelligences, the task of pedagogy becomes political, namely demanding those who are not "counted" in the unequal space of schools to assert their equal right to be counted. 

The image above does not make a case for unequal intelligences: each animal has the equal, verifiable capacity, but the learning space or environment created by the administration of the "same exam" does not equally verify or account for each animal's natural capacity. The space (and method of verification) is unequal, not the students.

The Practice of Equality: Our problem isn’t proving that all intelligence is equal. It’s seeing what can be done under that supposition.

Rancière speaks of his thesis as being an axiomatic starting point, a pure concept in Kantian terms that orders the way we experience the landscape of learning. Even if one thinks his claim is strategic or performative, and less a statement about capital "T" truth, there's still something of value to be investigated - namely, how the pure concept of equality reshapes the space-time continuum of our learning landscapes.

We as educators have a lot to say about the hard work of "closing achievement gaps," but the space-time continuum of a world occupied by unequal intelligences is one where the gaps can never be fully overcome. According to Rancière, the grim-visaged war of unequal intelligences will never completely smooth its wrinkled fronts. By starting with the pure concept of equal intelligences we begin to close the spatial and temporal distances between the learned and the learner, between the master and the student. 

Ultimately, we need to rethink starting points, instead of outcomes, which can make us sound reckless in the ears of certain administrators. I think of the example of the Hubble Telescope. No one knew what was out there or what would be the outcome of pointing the world's most expensive observation device into a void of complete darkness. I'm sure some people thought the original scientists were reckless for proposing it, but here we are years later still discovering the infinite wonders of a universe that proved to be much larger than anyone could initially have imagined. What can we do if we start with equality of all intellects? What have we mistaken for darkness that on second look could reveal an infinite amount of wonders beyond our imaginations?

This has been a post for the #Ranciere18 Reading Project. Please feel free to comment and join the conversation.

If you want to get more involved, our google doc is here and our group is here. Email me at if you want editing access to the Google Doc.