Rancière and Equality


(This post is the second part of a reflection on Jacques Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster.)
Philosophy of Education is an unjustly neglected branch of Political Philosophy (at least these days). (Amy Gutmann’s Democratic Education is one important exception to this neglect.) If we care about oppression or inequality and think there is an obligation to build institutions to mitigate them, education is fundamental. A powerful minority can maintain that dominate and stratify; in contrast, maintaining institutions that avoid this necessarily requires the support and participation of a substantial part of the population.
Emancipation and equality are the two major themes of The Ignorant Schoolmaster. To grasp Rancière’s views about equality some background is helpful. His first book, Althusser’s Lesson criticizes Louis Pierre Althusser for distinguishing between intellectuals and the working class. Intellectuals, according to Althusser, come to understand the ideology and false consciousness that subordinates the working class. The working class act, but are ignorant and thus need the intellectuals to lead them. Much of Rancière’s work is based in the archives of the French labor movement. Rancière takes the statements of the workers seriously and rejects attempts by intellectuals to speak for the poor.
How then should we understand the apparent inequalities between leaders (intellectuals and others) and the general population? Elites tend to believe that they are naturally superior: after all, they have succeeded in the best schools, outperformed their (supposed) peers, learned more, accomplished more. In a similar vein, a frequent refrain among the left is that the working class fails to support policies in their interest and participates in their disenfranchisement and disadvantage. One convenient way of explaining this (perceived) failure of the masses to act in their own interests is that they are befuddled by an ideology – a false understand of reality impedes them. A solution is for intellectuals to reveal this reality, giving them the tools to liberate themselves (or perhaps follow a leader who will liberate them).
Rancière’s response is that “The inequality of intelligence explains the inequality of intellectual manifestations in the way the virtus dormitiva explains the effects of opium.” (49) When we look for inequality, we will find it, but this tells us little about its causes. We cannot infer from inequality in learning an inequality of nature.
There is also a tendency to presuppose inequality based on the “love of domination” (80):
Even today, what is it that allows the thinker to scorn the worker’s intelligence if not the worker’s contempt for the peasant – like the peasant’s for his wife, the wife’s for his neighbor’s wife, and so on unto infinity. Social irrationality finds its formula in what could be called the paradox of the ‘superior inferiors’: each person is subservient to the one he represents to himself as inferior, subservient to the law of the masses by his very pretension to distinguish himself from them (86).
Why is there the need for so much stress on inequality? If inequality were truly natural, little work would be needed to establish ranks. Rather, people’s ranks would be self-evident. When argument is needed to prove natural inferiority, then this inferiority itself should be treated as dubious. In fact, distinctions have their roots not in fundamental differences between people, but from their similarities: the justification of inequality is response to the equality of intelligence. It is accomplished through the perfection of instruction and of explication. This includes the professionalization of teaching so as to insure that incompetent people do not teach. Though this is done in the name of equality, its effect is to create distinctions between masters and students, knowers and learners, schooled and unschooled, good and poor students. This results in ranking people, creating inequalities.
Rancière’s problem is similar to the problem that confronted Paulo Freire: how to break the circle of stultification. How can we begin the circle of 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’s answer is simple: everyone has learned something by her or himself. Recognizing this capacity to teach ourselves is the basis for an intellectual revolution For Rancière, “our problem isn’t proving that all intelligence is equal. It’s seeing what can be done under the supposition.” (46)
In the final chapter, Rancière reiterates the duty of Joseph Jacotot’s disciplines:
They must announce to everyone, in all places and all circumstances, the news, the practice: one can teach what one doesn’t know. A poor and ignorant father can thus begin educating his children: something must be learned and all the rest related to it, on this principle: everyone is of equal intelligence (101).
Rancière continues:
The problem is not to create scholars. It is to raise up those who believe themselves inferior in intelligence, to make them leave the swamp where they are stagnating – not the swamp of ignorance, but the swamp of self-contempt, of contempt in and of itself for the reasonable creature (101-2).

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