by Jacques Rancière
The Emancipatory Master
In this case, that constraint had taken the form of the command Jacotot had given. And it resulted in an important consequence, no longer for the students but for the master. The students had learned without a master explicator, but not, for all that, without a master. They didn’t know how before, and now they knew how. Therefore, Jacotot had taught them something. And yet he had communicated nothing to them of his science. So it wasn’t the masters science that the student learned. His mastery lay in the command that had enclosed the students in a closed circle from which they alone could break out. By leaving his intelligence out of the picture, he had allowed their intelligence to grapple with that of the book. Thus, the two functions that link the practice of the master explicator, that of the savant and that of the master had been dissociated. The two faculties in play during the act of learning, namely intelligence and will, had therefore also been separated, liberated from each other. A pure relationship of will to will had been established between master and student: a relationship wherein the master’s domination resulted in an entirely liberated relationship between the intelligence of the student and that of the book— the intelligence of the book that was also the thing in common, the egalitarian intellectual link between master and student. This device allowed the jumbled categories of the pedagogical act to be sorted out, and explicative stultification to be precisely defined. There is stultification whenever one 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 subjection is purely one of will over will. It becomes stultification when it links an intelligence to another intelligence. In the act of teaching and learning there are two wills and two intelligences. We will call their coincidence stultification. In the experimental situation Jacotot created, the student was linked to a will, Jacotot’s, and to an intelligence, the book’s— the two entirely distinct. We will call the known and maintained difference of the two relations— the act of an intelligence obeying only itself even while the will obeys another will--emancipation.
This pedagogical experiment created a rupture with the logic of all pedagogies. The pedagogues’ practice is based on the opposition between science and ignorance. The methods chosen to render the ignorant person learned may differ: strict or gentle methods, traditional or modern, active or passive; the efficiency of these methods can be compared. From this point of view, we could, at first glance, compare the speed of Jacotot’s students with the slowness of traditional methods. But in reality there was nothing to compare. The confrontation of methods presupposes a minimal agreement on the goals of the pedagogical act: the transmission of the master’s knowledge to the students. But Jacotot had transmitted nothing. He had not used any method. The method was purely the student’s. And whether one learns French more quickly or less quickly is in itself a matter of little consequence. The comparison was no longer between methods but rather between two uses of intelligence and two conceptions of the intellectual order. The rapid route was not that of a better pedagogy. It was another route, that of liberty— that route that Jacotot had experimented with in the armies of Year II, the fabrication of powders or the founding of the Ecole Polytechnique, the route of liberty responding to the urgency of the peril, but just as much to a confidence in the intellectual capacity of any human being. Beneath the pedagogical relation of ignorance to science, the more fundamental philosophical relation of stultification to emancipation must be recognized. There were thus not two but four terms in play. The act of learning could be produced according to four variously combined determinations: by an emancipatory master or by a stultifying one, by a learned master or by an ignorant one.
The last proposition was the most difficult to accept. It goes without saying that a scientist might do science without explicating it. But how can we admit that an ignorant person might induce science in another? Even Jacotot s experiment was ambiguous because of his position as a professor of French. But since it had at least shown that it wasn’t the master’s knowledge that instructed the student, then nothing prevented the master from teaching something other than his science, something he didn’t know. Joseph Jacotot applied himself to varying the experiment, to repeating on purpose what chance had once produced. He began to teach two subjects at which he was notably incompetent: painting and the piano. Law students would have liked him to be given a vacant chair in their faculty. But the University of Louvain was already worried about this extravagant lecturer, for whom students were deserting the magisterial courses, in favor of coming, evenings, to crowd into a much too small room, lit by only two candles, in order to hear: “I must teach you that I have nothing to teach you.” The authority they consulted thus responded that he saw no point in calling this teaching. Jacotot was experimenting, precisely, with the gap between accreditation and act. Rather than teaching a law course in French, he taught the students to litigate in Flemish. They litigated very well, but he still didn’t know Flemish.
The Circle of Power
The experiment seemed to him sufficient to shed light: one can teach what one doesn’t know if the student is emancipated, that is to say, if he is obliged to use his own intelligence. The master is he who encloses an intelligence in the arbitrary circle from which it can only break out by becoming necessary to itself. To emancipate an ignorant person, one must be, and one need only be, emancipated oneself, that is to say, conscious of the true power of the human mind. 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: a circle of power homologous to the circle of powerlessness that ties the student to the explicator of the old method (to be called from now on, simply, the Old Master). But the relation of forces is very particular. The circle of powerlessness is always already there: it is the very workings of the social world, hidden in the evident difference between ignorance and science. The circle of power, on the other hand, can only take effect by being made public. But it can only appear as a tautology or an absurdity. How can the learned master ever understand that he can teach what he doesn’t know as successfully as what he does know? He cannot but take that increase in intellectual power as a devaluation of his science. And the ignorant one, on his side, doesn’t believe himself capable of learning by himself, still less of being able to teach another ignorant person. Those excluded from the world of intelligence themselves subscribe to the verdict of their exclusion. In short, the circle of emancipation must be begun.
Here lies the paradox. For if you think about it a little, the “ method” he was proposing is the oldest in the world, and it never stops being verified every day, in all the circumstances where an individual must learn something without any means of having it explained to him. There is no one on earth who hasn’t learned something by himself and without a master explicator. Let’s call this way of learning “universal teaching” and say of it: “In reality, universal teaching has existed since the beginning of the world, alongside all the explicative methods. This teaching, by oneself, has, in reality, been what has formed all great men.” But this is the strange part: “ Everyone has done this experiment a thousand times in his life, and yet it has never occurred to someone to say to someone else: I’ve learned many things without explanations, I think that you can too. . . . Neither I nor anyone in the world has ventured to draw on this fact to teach others.” To the intelligence sleeping in each of us, it would suffice to say: age quod agis, continue to do what you are doing, “learn the fact, imitate it, know yourself, this is how. nature works.” Methodically repeat the method of chance that gave you the measure of your power. The same intelligence is at work in all the acts of the human mind.
But this is the most difficult leap. This method is practiced of necessity by everyone, but no one wants to recognize it, no one wants to cope with the intellectual revolution it signifies. The social circle, the order of things, prevents it from being recognized for what it is: the true method by which everyone learns and by which everyone can take the measure of his capacity. One must dare to recognize it and pursue the open verification of its power— otherwise, the method of powerlessness, the Old Master, will last as long as the order of things.
Who would want to begin? In Jacotots day there were all kinds of men of goodwill who were preoccupied with instructing the people: rulers wanted to elevate the people above their brutal appetites, revolutionaries wanted to lead them to the consciousness of their rights; progressives wished to narrow, through instruction, the gap between the classes; industrialists dreamed of giving, through instruction, the most intelligent among the people the means of social promotion. All these good intentions came up against an obstacle: the common man had very little time and even less money to devote to acquiring this instruction. Thus, what was sought was the economic means of diffusing the minimum of instruction judged necessary for the individual and sufficient for the amelioration of the laboring population as a whple. Among progressives and industrialists the favored method was mutual teaching. This allowed a great number of students, assembled from a vast locale, to be divided up into smaller groups headed by the more advanced among them, who were promoted to the rank of monitors. In this way, the masters orders and lessons radiated out, relayed by the monitors, into the whole population to be instructed. Friends of progress liked what they saw: this was how science extended from the summits to the most modest levels of intelligence. Happiness and liberty would trickle down in its wake.
That sort of progress, for Jacotot, smelled of the bridle. ‘A perfected riding-school,” he said. He had a different notion of mutual teaching in mind: that each ignorant person could become for another ignorant person the master who would reveal to him his intellectual power. More precisely, his problem wasn’t the instruction of the people: one instructed the recruits enrolled under one’s banner, subalterns who must be able to understand orders, the people one wanted to govern— in the progressive way, of course, without divine right and only according to the hierarchy of capacities. His own problem was that of emancipation: that every common person might conceive his human dignity, take the measure of his intellectual capacity, and decide how to use it. The friends of Instruction were certain that true liberty was conditioned on it. After all, they recognized that they should give instruction to the people, even at the risk of disputing among themselves which instruction they would give. Jacotot did not see what kind of liberty for the people could result from the dutifulness of their instructors. On the contrary, he sensed in all this a new form of stultification. Whoever teaches without emancipating stultifies. And whoever emancipates doesn’t have to worry about what the emancipated person learns. He will learn what he wants, nothing maybe. He will know he can learn because the same intelligence is at work in all the productions of the human mind, and a man can always understand another man’s words. Jacotot’s printer had a retarded son. They had despaired of making something of him. Jacotot taught him Hebrew. Later the child became an excellent lithographer. It goes without saying that he never used the Hebrew for anything— except to know what more gifted and learned minds never knew: it wasn't Hebrew.
The matter was thus clear. This was not a method for instructing the people; it was a benefit to be announced to the poor: they could do everything any man could. It sufficed only to announce it. Jacotot decided to devote himself to this. He proclaimed that one could teach what one didn’t know, and that a poor and ignorant father could, if he was emancipated, conduct the education of his children, without the aid of any master explicator. And he indicated the way of that “universal teaching”— to learn something and to relate to it all the rest by this principle: all men have equal intelligence.
People were affected in Louvain, in Brussels, and in La Haye; they took the mail carriage from Paris and Lyon; they came from England and Prussia to hear the news; it was proclaimed in Saint Petersburg and New Orleans. The word reached as far as Rio de Janeiro. For several years polemic raged, and the Republic of knowledge was shaken at its very foundations.
All this because a learned man, a renowned man of science and a virtuous family man, had gone crazy for not knowing Flemish.
Translated by Kristin Ross
Jacques Rancière /The Ignorant Schoolmaster/ Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation
Stanford University Press
© This book is printed on acid-free paper
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