Rancière and Education
Jacques Rancière (b. 1940) has been prominent among Anglo cultural theorists since the late 1990s. Bringing disparate strands of critique together – aesthetics, politics, literature, and importantly, education – Rancière has since the early 2000s also become influential among educational theorists. Rancière studied philosophy under his mentor, the structuralist/Marxist Louis Althusser, at the École Normal Supérieure in Paris. After publishing Lire le Capital with Althusser, however, Rancière turned to denounce Althusser with the publication of Althusser’s Lesson (Althusser 1996; Rancière 1974). This latter work reflects on the milieu of student uprisings in 1968 Paris and rejects the pretense of a theorist who guides the masses. In 1999, he joined the philosophy department at the Centre Universitaire de Vincennes, subsequently the University of Paris. He retired from there in 2000, professor emeritus.
Rancière’s work spans the topics of literature, politics, aesthetics, and, significantly, education. It can be said that among the major continental theorists of the post-structuralist, post-Marxist era, Rancière is the first to open up the literary/political/aesthetic trinity with an extensive educational component. Thus, one need not translate his theory into education; rather, one can grapple in the mother tongue with the work of a superb theorist who also theorizes education. Rancière’s major works include the following. The Philosopher and His Poor, wherein he argues that Western philosophy has, since Plato, defined itself as at odds with laborers (2003). The Nights of Labour documents workers’ manifestations in the context of coming to voice, rather than in the context of following some sort of theoretical orthodoxy (1991b). The Politics of Aesthetics describes the aesthetic dimension to reconfiguring human sensibility in order to bring about political acts (2004) and, importantly, Rancière’s book on education, The Ignorant Schoolmaster, which chronicles the pedagogical adventure, and the educational theory, of Joseph Jacotot (1991a).
In The Ignorant Schoolmaster, published in 1987 and translated into English in 1991, Rancière uses the historical figure of the nineteenth-century schoolmaster, Joseph Jacotot, to theorize education and its relation to truth, emancipation, and equality. In this work, the story is told of Jacotot, an exiled French schoolteacher who discovered in 1818 an unconventional teaching platform that spread across Europe. Many considered Jacotot’s deviation from instructional norms, as his radically egalitarian pedagogy, dangerous to the social fabric. Jacotot, knowing no Flemish, found himself teaching students whose language he didn’t know. Finding success with this “ignorant” method, Jacotot went on to formulate a philosophy of “universal education,” the foundation of which was both a linguistic radicality and an epistemological break. “Universal education” was founded on (1) the arbitrariness of language and (2) the separation of will from intelligence.
Jacotot’s was a philosophy of “intellectual emancipation” finding great currency among a wide set of educators. As Jacotot professed, one need not teach that which one knows, and one should refrain from knowing what one teaches. Indeed, one must not teach what one knows. When one teaches what one knows, there is a “particular inequality that normal pedagogical logic operates” (Bingham and Biesta, p. 4). However, when one teaches that which is unknown to the teacher, “the teacher is first of all a person who speaks to another, who tells stories and returns the authority of knowledge to the poetic condition of all spoken interaction” (Bingham and Biesta, 6). Such a pedagogy would enable even illiterate parents to teach their children how to read and write. It should be noted that The Ignorant Schoolmaster is written with a vacillating voice that blurs the boundaries between Rancière’s thought, on the one hand, and the subject matter of Jacotot’s teachings and philosophy, on the other. Educational scholars as well as general cultural theorists tend to treat the work as a statement of Rancière’s theoretical perspective in spite of this vacillating voice.
Before outlining some of Rancière’s major educational contributions, attention to key Rancièrean concepts – ones that inform his overall oeuvre – is warranted. Rancière is an extremely consistent thinker, with the exception, perhaps, of his turnaround with regard to Althusser’s thought. Thus, each of Rancière’s key concepts serves to elucidate various elements even in works where these concepts are not specifically mentioned. “Police” is Rancière’s name for the management of human modes of life, society, and human passions. Rancièrean policing has nothing to do with human beings who are employed by the State, but rather the ordering of what gets to count as discourse and purposeful action. Rancière’s “police,” writes Eric Méchoulan, “as power practices and social life styles, builds inequalities, but such a construction has to appear natural” (4). The “distribution of the sensible” is a phrase of Rancière’s that further clarifies the police order. This distribution “refers to the implicit law governing the sensible order that parcels out places and forms of participation in a common world… [it] produces a system of self-evident fact of perception based on the set horizons and modalities of what is visible and audible as well as what can be said, thought, made, or done” (Rancière 2004, p. 85). Whereas the distribution of the sensible offers up modalities of perception, the police order represents an organization of bodies based upon this distribution.
This is what a distribution of the sensible means: a relation between occupations and equipment, between being in a specific space and time, performing specific activities, and being endowed with capacities of seeing, saying, and doing that “fit” those activities. (Rockhill and Whatts, p. 275).
“Dissensus” is Rancière’s term for the creation of a fissure within the distribution of the sensible and within the police order. A critical artistic work, for example, can lead to dissensus when it produces a new perception of the world and creates a commitment to its transformation. “Dissensus,” writes Rancière, “is the demonstration (manifestation) of a gap in the sensible itself… [It] makes visible that which had no reason to be seen; it places one world in another…” (2010, p. 38). Dissensus consists of three parts: the production of sensory inconsistencies, the development of an awareness of these inconsistencies, and then a mobilization of individuals based on these inconsistencies. Central to both Rancière’s educational theory and his political understanding of the police and dissensus is his notion of “subjectification.” “Subjectification” “…is the process by which a political subject extracts itself from the dominant categories of identification and classification. By treating a wrong and attempting to implement equality, political subjectification creates a common locus of dispute over those who have no part in the established order” (Rancière 2004, p. 92). Subjectification is the coming into subjectivity of one who has participated in dissensus.
A verification of equality is an operation which grabs hold of the knot that ties equality to inequality. It handles the knot so as to tip the balance, to enforce the presupposition of equality tied up with the presupposition of inequality and increase its power. (Rockhill and Watts, p. 280).
In constructing an intervention on language, Rancière follows what has become an inevitable path in French theory after the “linguistic turn” (Rorty). Namely, it now seems incumbent on French theorists to offer a unique commentary on, or a usage of, language theory. While Rancière has refused the notion that his work has a theoretical anchor in language theory, he has stated that his thinking grew when, after studying Joseph Jacotot, “I became more sensitive to the fact that words are never definitions of things or states of things but are like weapons exchanged in combat, in dialogue” (Boustinduy). Thus, language is arbitrary. There are no words that are more privileged than others to tell a given story. The philosopher’s words are not any more important than the joiner’s. The sociologist’s words are no more important than the poet’s. The teacher’s words are not any more important than the student’s.
All of the above concepts are discernible, if not explicitly mentioned, in Rancière’s major educational work, The Ignorant Schoolmaster. However, this educational work also brings various of its own themes to the fore. Each of these themes constitutes a major educational contribution by a theorist whose work has a uniquely educational dimension.
Rancière Among Educational Theorists
Jacques Rancière, with the publication of The Ignorant Schoolmaster, positioned himself as an unprecedented educational theorist. He established an iconoclastic approach to education through his recuperation of Joseph Jacotot. Rancière’s work can be seen in contrast to three prevalent educational perspectives that dominated the twentieth century into the beginning of the twenty-first century. Education has commonly been described in one of three ways. These ways roughly correspond to the traditional, progressive, and critical models of education. As a traditional project, education is conceived as a platform for disseminating a common set of learnings. These learnings will, in turn, enable citizens to share a common language for use in the public sphere. Such learnings may or may not derive from the experiences of the students since traditional education is not concerned with the private lives that students have had in the past, but with the common knowledge that needs to be fostered so that they can speak with others in the public sphere.
Progressive education shares the same liberalist tendencies of traditional theory, but progressives are more concerned about the bridge to be constructed between private experience and public life. So while the progressive orientation shares the desire to create a common body of knowledge that will enable citizens to communicate in the public sphere, progressives insist that a common body of knowledge can only be understood from the particular experience of each particular person. Thus, one must link private experience to public discourse. Critical education, in turn, considers traditional and progressive models to be lacking. For criticalists, education itself is identified as a tool that has been used by various oppressive interests to foster inequality. Education must be changed so that it no longer serves hegemony. Education must be refashioned so that it no longer impedes democracy, emancipation, and enlightenment.
In contrast to these three views, Rancière offers a divergent alternative. First, Rancière’s recuperation of Jacotot is at odds with the traditional figure of a knowledgeable teacher whose role it is to disseminate his or her knowledge. Instead, Rancière’s teacher is “ignorant,” willingly unknowledgeable about subject matter. Further – and here is where numerous readers of Rancière go astray – Rancière’s account has little to do with progressive pedagogy. As Rancière puts it, “The distinction between ‘stultification’ and ‘emancipation’ is not a distinction between methods of instruction. It is not a distinction between traditional or authoritarian methods, on one hand, and new or active methods on the other: stultification can and does happen in all kinds of active and modern ways” (Bingham and Biesta, p. 6). And finally, Rancière’s contribution is not to be confused with the work of unveiling carried out by critical pedagogy. Rancière is explicitly critical of Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of reproduction, “a discourse deriving its authority from the presumed naivete or ignorance of its objects of study” (Rancière 1991a, xi). Insofar as criticalist education is largely indebted to such notions of reproduction, and to programs by which educators might combat reproduction, Rancière’s pedagogical logic is different still from critical pedagogy.
In contrast, Rancière offers an assault on the very notion of educational epistemology. While other paradigms have worked within such an epistemology, Rancière claims that any schooled epistemology is a matter of inequality. He wants to break with “the particular inequality that normal pedagogical logic orchestrates…” where instruction normally serves to “split the intellect in two, to consign to the everyday life of students the procedures by which their minds have heretofore learned everything they know” (Bingham and Biesta, p. 4). Rancière insists that knowledge of the teacher must not correspond with knowledge of the student. Instead, the will of the teacher must be matched to the will of the student without their knowledges being commensurated. It is the commensuration of knowledges that leads to knowledge comparisons and student stultification. Only through a de-tethering of knowledge-knowledge comparison can intellectual emancipation obtain.
Having briefly outlined Rancière’s key contributions and the distinction between his work and the work of other educational theories, two distinct themes of Rancière’s educational work will be detailed: educational emancipation and educational truth. At least since Immanuel Kant’s essays ‘What is Enlightenment?’ and ‘On Education,’ emancipation has been construed as an Enlightenment goal of education. Schools have been construed as places fostering “man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage” and a release from “man’s inability to make use of his understanding without the direction of another” (Kant 1992, p. 90). The Enlightenment project of the school has been an effort to bring students to a place of autonomy and rational thinking. However, Rancière’s work demonstrates that this Enlightenment project of emancipation is problematic. Emancipation, so construed, is “something that is done to somebody” (Bingham and Biesta, p. 30). So while emancipation “is oriented towards equality, independence and freedom, it actually installs dependency at the very heart of the ‘act’ of emancipation” (Bingham and Biesta, p. 31).
In contrast, Rancière proposes a form of emancipation that is done actively. Rancière notes that “nobody escapes from the social minority save by their own efforts” (2007, p. 48). This form is proposed both in politics and in education. In politics, Rancière documents the emancipation of French workers by French workers, “who, in the nineteenth century, created newspapers or associations, wrote poems, or joined utopian groups were claiming the status of fully speaking and thinking beings” (Rancière 2003, p. 219). This sort of political emancipation does not happen with the help of others; it happens at the hands of French workers themselves. Likewise in education, the students of Jacotot do not achieve intellectual emancipation with the help of someone else. Rather, they read, speak, and write French through repetition and verification on their own. Intellectual emancipation in education is thus a practice wherein explication no longer takes place. It is a practice where students take up a position as speakers, speakers who have as much right to make sense of the world as any other person, any other explicator who might pretend that students are somehow not equal to the task.
Another significant contribution is Rancière’s educational conception of truth. Once again, Rancière departs from traditional, progressive, and critical models. Each of these dominant models partakes in an Enlightenment orientation toward truth. Each considers truth to be a desirable, attainable goal, one that can be arrived by perfecting the insight of humans through the enlightening process of education. For these dominant models, education is a vehicle by which one arrives at truth. Rancière demonstrates that this Enlightenment model of truth is shored up by the notion that truth needs to be explained in schools. Thus, the Enlightenment model of truth – embraced by dominant educational theory – actually reinforces the notion that education should be explanatory.
Truth is not told. It is whole, and language fragments it; it is necessary, and languages are arbitrary. It was this thesis on the arbitrariness of languages – even more than the proclamation of universal teaching – that made Jacotot’s teaching scandalous. (1991a, p. 60)
Rancière uses Jacotot’s example to demonstrate the fact that truth does not depend on the particular language of a particular expert. No one has a monopoly on explicating truth because truth is not amenable to explication. Whereas explanatory pedagogy assumes that language can be a vehicle toward truth, Rancière reminds us that such a perspective depends on a rather simple, language-as-clear-window paradigm.
Significantly, Rancière demonstrates that the school has become a symbol for the Enlightenment orientation toward truth. The school, as an institution, is posited as a place where people speak with words that are more knowledgeable than the words spoken outside of school. Those knowledgeable words, in turn, are supposed to bring students to truth. This model informs schools, and it also informs society at large. Rancière argues that we now have a “society pedagogicized,” where society itself takes cues from the school as to the availability of truth. Truth is, in general, assumed to be attainable through language because in an era of compulsory schooling, each person learns – in school, early on – that truth can be explained through language in a classroom. Thus, when Rancière and Jacotot insist on the arbitrariness of language, he insists that the school is not a primary place for attaining truth because the language of the teacher is no more privileged than the language of any other person.
Jacques Rancière remains a prolific philosopher. His writings will continue to inform educational philosophy because the themes he raises in the areas of philosophy, social theory, aesthetics, politics, literature, and education remain consistent. His new writings will no doubt to inform his older ones, and his educational import will continue to grow as a result.
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