Stultification and Emancipation: Rancière’s Ignorant Schoolmaster


 Earlier this month I blogged about the radical pedagogies of Ivan Illich and Paulo Freire. Jacques Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster in some respescts completes this trilogy of how well-meaning, progressive forms of education can be the most powerful tools of domination and hierarchy, leading students to become instruments in their own oppression.
The Ignorant Schoolmaster is a series of reflections on the radical schoolteacher Joseph Jacotot who founded a radical method of pedagogy that takes its basis from the presumption of the equal intellect of all human beings. The book begins with an experiment by Jacotot who was approached for lessons by a group of Flemish students. The only problem was that they did not speak French and Jacotot could not speak Flemish.
Jacotot realized that they had to find some common ground to communicate and suggested using a bilingual edition of Fénelon’s book Télémacque, a philosophical novel that follows Odysseus’s son Telemachus on his journey to find his father. Jacotot asked the students to read the book and write their thoughts in French. To his surprise, the students managed to write coherent, informed responses in French.
This led Jacotot to rethink his pedagogical method. The standard method sees the master – the teacher – transmitting knowledge to students by explication. The teacher begins with simple ideas and progresses to more complex ones until the ignorant students achieve the teacher’s level of mastery. This method is thought necessary: how else can ignorant people acquire knowledge?
This reasoning seems infallible except for the fact that the Flemish students were able to form intelligent thoughts in French without the intervention of a teacher.
The reasoning for the necessity of instruction also runs up against a paradox. According to the model in which the teacher explicates the material to the student, the teacher’s explications take the place of the book. This raises the question of why this is necessary: why do we need a teacher to explain books? Furthermore, if the person can’t understand the book, why should we suppose that listening to a teacher will help? Rancière writes, “the logic of explication calls for the principle of regression ad infinitum: there is no reason for the redoubling of reasons ever to start.” (4) Why not stop with the relationship between the student and the book?
A second piece of evidence is children’s ability to learn their maternal language. Nobody ever explainsgrammar to children. Rather, they hear language, they’re spoken to, they repeat and imitate, and, eventually, they come to speak well. This remarkable feat is often forgotten in the processing of educating.
Jacotot concluded that explication is not needed for people to understand. Rather, incapacity itself is the motivation to learn. The pedagogical myth of the need for the expert teacher is based on the assumption that there are unequal intelligences: “the superior intelligence knows things by reason, proceeds by method, from simple to the complex” whereas the “inferior intelligence” receives the knowledge from the master.
Jacotot came to call this standard form of teaching, the principle of explication the “principle of enforced stultification(abrutir).” (7) (Abrutir means to make stupid or to turn into a brute.) It is not that the teacher intends this result. The lectures may be vibrant, interesting, and clever. (Indeed, lectures of this sort may be more dangerous…) Rather, the process itself creates a hierarchy that convinces people not to use their intelligence:
The child who recites under the threat of the rod obeys the rod and that’s all: he will apply his intelligence to something else. But the child who is explained to will devote his intelligence to the work of grieving: the understanding, that is to say, to understand that he doesn’t understand unless he is explained to. He is no longer submitting to the rod, but rather to a hierarchical world of intelligence (8).
In this case, the child loses his intelligence altogether in the process of being “educated.”
Jacotot’s experiment forced him to “leave his intelligence entirely out of the picture” and led him to conclude that “Understanding is never more than translating, that is, giving the equivalent of a text, but in no way its reason.” (9) The students used the same technique to understand Télémacque that they used to learn their native language:
By observing and retaining, repeating and verifying, by relating what they were trying to know to what they already knew, by doing and reflecting about what they had done (10).
All their effort, all their exploration, is strained toward this: someone has addressed words to them that they want to recognize and respond to, not as students or as learned men, but as people; in the way you respond to someone speaking to you and not to someone examining you: under the sign of equality (11).
The ability of people to learn without a teacher shouldn’t surprise us. We do it all the time when it is necessary. Jacotot himself was largely self-educated, learning math, chemistry, and Hebrew in response to different circumstances, including as an instructor for the Bureau of Gunpowder and secretary to the Minister of War after the French revolution. This led him to note that he did have a role in the students learning French: he told them to do so. Their intelligence came to understand the book, but the motivation – the will – came from him. From this he concluded:
There is stultification whenever one’s intelligence is subordinated to another. A person – and a child in particular – may need a master when his own will is not strong enough to set him on track and keep him there. But that subject is purely one of will over will. It becomes stultification when it links an intelligence to another intelligence (13).
Curiously, this has implications for the so-called “Socratic method” which is often thought to develop critical thinking. In response, Rancière and Jacotot suggest that it “represents the most formidable form of stultification. The Socratic method of interrogation that pretends to lead the student to his own knowledge is in fact the method of a riding school master.” (59)
Rancière quotes Jacotot:
He orders turns, marches, and countermarches. As for him, during the training session he is relaxed and hast the dignity of authority over the mind he directs. From detour to detour, the student’s mind arrives at a finish that couldn’t even be glimpsed at the starting line. He is surprised to touch it, he turns around, he sees his guide, the surprise turns into admiration, and that admiration stultifies him. The student feel that, alone and abandoned to himself, he would not have followed that route (59).
In contrast, emancipation occurs when the person’s intelligence obeys only itself. Jacotot’s account of the intelligence, the will, and emancipation had radical implications. First, it becomes possible to instruct without knowledge: “The ignorant person will learn by himself what the master doesn’t know if the master believes he can and obliges him to realize his capacity.” (15)
Jacotot’s goal was not instruction – the standard progressive form of education in which the knowledgeable instructed the less knowledgeable. This could only lead to stultification, teaching whatever the instructor considers relevant to the purposes to others. Rather, it was the much more radical emancipation: “that every common person might conceive his human dignity, take the measure of his intellectual capacity, and decide how to use it.” (17)
Rancière writes:
What stultifies the common people is not the lack of instruction, but the belief in the inferiority of their intelligence. And what stultifies the “inferiors” stultifies the “superiors” at the same time. For the only verified intelligence is the one that speaks to a fellow-man capable of verifying the equality of their intelligence. The superior mind condemns itself to never being understood by inferior (39).
The simple point is that people are often made stupid because they believe they’re stupid: being taught that you can only learn with a teacher leads to the loss of the confidence to use one’s own capacities. 

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