The Ignorant Schoolmaster

01 May 2013
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the-ignorant-schoolmasterThe Ignorant Schoolmaster

Stefan Szczelkun

In his book, The Ignorant Schoolmaster, Jacques Rancière sets out the radical theory that is the core of most of his later work and is based on his archive discovery of the works of Joseph Jacotot (1770 - 1840). What follows here is an edited version of the first chapter of Stefan Szczelkun's summary of the book.

In 1818 Joseph Jacotot, a 48-year-old lecturer in French literature, discovered the principle of what he called 'universal teaching' - that 'anyone can teach what they don't know'.

He got a job teaching French to Flemish students when he himself didn't speak Flemish. He found a dual language edition of the French classic, Télémaque (1699), and, using an interpreter, asked his students to learn the French part by heart with the help of the translation. Memorising a long text was a classic humanist method of instruction, but the results more than surprised him. The students' comprehension of the text was amazing, without  the benefit of his usual teaching commentaries and explanations, but that was not all. They had also learned to write in good French without any instruction in grammar.

The role of what Jacotot called explication struck him with a life-changing force. Explication, he says, promotes preferred readings and normative mind-sets rather than engaging the thinking capacities of the student. Teaching reduced to explication is mere training in the modes of academia rather than an intellectual adventure, or thought freed from constraints. Even more radically, he saw explication as the core of the reproduction of social inequality. What he had discovered was no less than the key to emancipation from class society.

Jacotot thought about the way we learn language as infants: 'They hear and retain, imitate and repeat, make mistakes and correct themselves, succeed by chance and begin again methodically, and, at too young an age for an explicator to begin instructing them, they are almost all - regardless of gender, social condition, and skin colour - able to understand and speak the language of their parents.' (p. 5)   But this general intelligence, this great primal act of self-instruction is ignored as soon as formal education begins. When that happens it is assumed that the student cannot understand adult knowledge without being guidance by an expert.

'The revelation that came to Joseph Jacotot amounts to this: the logic of the explicative system had to be overturned. Explication is not necessary to remedy an inability to understand. On the contrary, that very inability provides the structuring fiction of the explicative conception of the world. It is the explicator who needs the ignorant and not the other way round; it is he who constitutes the incapable as such." (p. 6)  Explication produces the circle of powerlessness that is the generative principle of the social world - in other words of inequality. The whole nexus of superiority and inferiority is continually reproduced by the pedagogic rituals of 900 years of humanist education.

Education as it stands does little to nurture intelligence; it simply trains intellectual servants; it fills brains with an ideology of superiority; it induces a submission to 'the hierarchal world of intelligence.'  Jacotot called this the principle of enforced stultification.

Jacotot's method 'was above all a method of the will.' (p. 12)  He was not interested in instruction, which he thought 'smelled of the bridle', he was interested in emancipation, so that 'every common person might conceive his human dignity, take the measure of his intellectual capacity, and decide how to use it.'  (p. 17) 

At this stage of the book we begin to realise how radical this vision is. There is, for a start, no essential curriculum. 'Whoever teaches without emancipating, stultifies. And whoever emancipates doesn't have to worry about what the emancipated person learns. He will learn what he wants, nothing maybe.' (p.18)

It is easy to pick holes in this argument. The reader's mind goes into a flurry of 'what ifs', but what struck me most forcefully was that this was what I had intuitively felt about the academic system ever since I had learnt that universities had originally been founded nearly a thousand years ago to train cadres to manage the early European city states. It had a resonant truth that I found refreshingly articulated my inchoate feelings.

Rancière argues in great detail against all the possible objections to the ignorant teaching what they don't know and declares  that the student must 'say what she sees, what she thinks about it, what she makes of it.' (p.20)  The first principle of universal teaching is that the student 'must learn something and relate everything else to it.'

The genius of our school-teachers and university lecturers has been to cultivate the educated child's sense of his own superiority over  those who have not yet learned such and such, those who did not get five A stars, while still feeling inferior to the professors who sit in judgement over him. This sense of superiority/inferiority imposed by the school system is more like a mind-cage than empowerment.

Stefan Szczelkun's full text can be found at

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