Jacques Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster may be egalitarian, but it is far from anti-authoritarian. Indeed, what’s curious is the way in which the book implicitly argues for the superiority of traditional forms of authority, against the illegitimacy of modern expertise.

Rancière’s book elaborates on the theory of intellectual emancipation propounded by the Frenchman Joseph Jacotot in the early nineteenth-century. Exiled from France after the conservative restoration, Jacotot found himself in Belgium where he was charged with teaching French to native Flemish-speakers. Knowing no Flemish himself, Jacotot was forced to rely on his students’ abilities to glean the basics of French grammar from the bilingual edition of a French novel. This they did, with remarkable results. Thus Jacotot propounded a novel pedagogic theory whose basic principle was that “one can teach what one doesn’t know” (15).

On this foundation, the observation that teaching is not a matter of communicating expertise from master to pupil, Jacotot develops an entire philosophy, which Rancière in turn seems to affirm. (It is hard to disentangle Rancière’s voice from that of Jacotot.) The practice of explication, instruction, and interpretation is denounced. The true pedagogue enables the student to discover his or her own intelligence, rather than to be illuminated by the professor’s. Or rather, it is suggested that all teaching is a matter of harnessing and guiding the student’s will to learn; “explication is the myth of pedagogy,” whose function is not to communicate knowledge but to produce “a world divided into knowing minds and ignorant ones, ripe minds and immature ones, the capable and the incapable, the intelligent and the stupid” (6). For in fact, all intelligences are equal, or of equal capacity–this at least is the hypothesis or opinion that an emancipatory pedagogy sets out to verify.

Hence the radical egalitarianism: all intelligences are of the same kind and “any human work of art is the practice of the same intellectual potential” (36); it is just that sometimes that potential is developed, and sometimes it is constrained. Moreover, one of the foremost forces to constrain the development of natural intelligence is the very educational system that claims that this is its object. The school doesn’t educate; it stultifies.

But hence therefore the strange reversion to traditional authority: the business of education has to be taken from the educational system and returned to the family. Intellectual emancipation cannot be systematized; “universal teaching belongs to families, and the best that an enlightened ruler can do for its propagation is to use his authority to protect the free circulation of its service” (103).

For it is not that Jacotot (or, implicitly, Rancière) would be done with authority: his students “had learned without a master explicator, but not for all that, without a master” (12). If anything, the new master is more demanding than the old one in forever insisting that the student pay attention and direct his or her will to achieving their own potential: “Is this insignificant? Think about everything the demand implies for the student in the way of an endless task” (31).

So it is perhaps unsurprising, if unfortunate, that the family is chosen as the sole legitimate sphere for universal education on the basis that (and here Rancière is directly quoting Jacotot) it “was the sanctuary where the father was the supreme arbiter” (105). The “natural method of the human mind” (105) appeals to the supposed naturalness of patriarchal authority for its implementation.

All this is strangely anti-social in every sense of the term, and it’s not clear how much it jives with Rancière’s later concern with precisely the institution of the social (however precarious and necessarily incomplete). But it ain’t necessarily so. For surely this strong division between natural families and un-natural social institutions itself merely replicates the false dichotomy between pedagogy and instruction.

After all, explicators and instructors are in fact pedagogues, though they are (ironically) ignorant of the fact: “learning also takes place at the stultifiers’ school; a professor is a thing, less easily handled than a book, undoubtedly, but he can be learned” (102). As such, rather than legitimating the authority of the patriarchal family, surely another route towards emancipatory pedagogy would be the further objectification of the professoriat?

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