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Jacques Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster

(download the complete text at the link above)

Rancière, in the early 1980s during a heated national debate on education in France, wrote his wonderful little book The Ignorant Schoolmaster, in which he looks back on “the great thinker of emancipation,” the post-French Revolution era schoolteacher Joseph Jacotot. Jacotot’s great insight was that the teacher needn’t be an expert who transmits and explicates knowledge.  Rather, one can teach what one does not know, and the capacity for intelligence is shared equally.  This hypothesis of capacity is truly revolutionary, particularly within a technological society in which the “experts” have seized control of all institutions of power.  Pure scientific transmission of knowledge was never possible, and the advancement of this myth has contributed to the obscuration of the act of interpretation itself that underlies human knowledge.  Rancière’s work is important in that it challenges the myth of Progress via his critique of teaching through explication.   He begins from an assumption of equality, as opposed to explication which posits inequality.  This “pedagogical fiction of our time [has] been cast on a global scale,” and therefore “any critique of progress… must intervene on the level of the progression, the speed or pacing, the practice of historical writing itself.”  Rancière intervenes in such a way with his book, interpreting the past in order to place “equality- virtually- in the present.”[1] Early educational reformers, such as John Dewey, speculated that future technologies may allows for the types of changes that seemed impossible to implement a century ago. Rancière’s method may not depend upon technologies, yet the opportunities they create for the reexamination of received concepts allows for the reintroduction of the lesson of intellectual emancipation, of learning as a practice, or equality as something “to be verified.”[2]


[1] Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster. xix-xxiii.

[2] Ibid. xxii.

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