catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 17 :: 2011.09.30 — 2011.10.13


A dangerous adventure

Imagine that you have discovered that every lesson you have ever been taught was flawed. Imagine that the flaw lies in the very idea of a lesson. How would you share your knowledge? Teach it? With what? A lesson?

Such is the problem around which the book The Ignorant Schoolmaster negotiates itself. At once the story of a French literature professor and a meditation on the act of teaching, this book by the philosopher Jacques Rancière is sure to establish itself as a classic for anyone interested in theories of education.

But the book, which is witty and beautiful even if dense and theoretical at times, is much more than another theory about how we should teach our kids or run our schools. It is itself a lesson or a series of lessons; its subtitle reads, “Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation.” Each lesson is also an un-learning, both a vision and a revision, as Rancière attempts to completely overhaul our assumptions about what education is, what it is for and how it works.

On the surface, the book recounts a strange series of events that unfold when a professor in a Flemish-speaking part of The Netherlands in the early nineteenth-century teaches a work of French literature to his students. This may seem like an unremarkable event. The remarkable thing, however, is that he teaches the work in French to students who do not speak French. Nor does he speak Flemish.

When his attempts are wildly successful, the professor, Joseph Jacotot, has an unsettling realization that changes everything. He realizes that his students’ ability to learn had nothing to do with the knowledge that he possessed. Quite the contrary: his students learned precisely because he shared their situation of ignorance.

This realization leads Jacotot to closely examine the situation of power that is created and perpetuated whenever any sort of instruction is happening. Each instance of instruction involves a student, a teacher and the subject matter. Normally the student must pass through the teacher to get to the subject matter. In Jacotot’s experiment, however, the student and the teacher were placed at equal distances, with the subject matter between them, so to speak. The power that the act of teaching conferred upon the teacher was neutralized. The situation was no longer about one intelligence (the teacher’s) dominating the intelligence of another (the student’s). Instead, the two intelligent beings were able to encounter the subject matter as equals.

Jacotot comes to believe that most methods of education, however progressive they might seem, actually serve to suppress or stultify (the term in French is abrutir, which literally means “to make like a brute) the intelligence of the student. They always tend to reinforce the idea that a subject cannot be understood without the guidance of a master. Rancière writes:

Unfortunately, it is just this little word, this slogan of the enlightened — understand — that causes all the trouble. It is this word that brings a halt to the movement of reason, that destroys its confidence in itself…the child who is explained to will devote his intelligence to the work of grieving: to understanding, that is to say to understanding that he doesn’t understand unless he is explained to.

Thus, it is possible to work toward perfect explanations and perfect testing, while making a child less and less intellectually liberated.

Soon Jacotot develops a new method he called “Universal Teaching.” In his method, one does not have to know the subject that one taught nor does one have to have any previous teaching experience. “To emancipate an ignorant person,” Rancière  writes, “one must be, and one need only be emancipated oneself, that is to say, conscious of the true power of the human mind.”

The cornerstone of Jacotot’s method is the conviction that all intelligences are equal. This is, of course, not a biological fact, but a working hypothesis, so to speak. Jacotot is adamant that teaching (in the sense of emancipation rather than explication) that does not begin with this conviction is doomed to fail. He believes that if a teacher assumes that a student is of a lesser or different intelligence from himself then he would only reinforce this fact by his attempt to bring the lesser intelligence “up to his level.”

Due to its success, news of Jacotot’s method spreads throughout Europe and, for a brief time, several governments and organizations attempt to institute it on a large scale. The method, however, proves to be ineffective in producing predictable, measurable results and is quickly abandoned in most cases. It is a method that communicates with the will of the student and not the intellect. It can be used to teach a student something the student wants to learn, or, we could say, to help the student learn that he is able to teach himself. It is not effective, for example, in creating made-to-order soldiers or businessmen.

So what does this little blip on the intellectual radar have to do with us today? Does this interesting little story have anything to say to our situation in which the cost of higher education is increasing uncontrollably while leading less and less to a secure job, where programs like Head Start struggle for funding and one in four Americans will not read even one book this year? It is probable that Jacotot’s method is just as impossible on an institutional level now as it was when he discovered it. However, just because something cannot become institutionalized does not mean that it has nothing to do with institutions. Institutions, after all, are made of people, and Jacotot’s great discovery is that when we remember that these people are people of intelligence, we are less prone to simply reinforce inequality. For Jacotot, “equality was not an end to attain, but a point of departure, a supposition to maintain in every circumstance.” And perhaps we should become like Jacotot in another way was well: perhaps when we begin with equality and practice it, we will experience education as the adventure that it should be, a dangerous adventure in which we all can share complicity.

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