The Ignorant School Master: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation by Jaques Ranciere

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Ranciere is a French thinker and philosopher who emerged on the scene about the same time as Foucault and Derrida. His works have become widely influential in the past few decades and have influenced multiple fields from political philosophy, literary and film theory, architecture, aesthetics, history to sociology. He was a student of Louis Althusser before breaking off with him and is currently a professor of philosophy at European Graduate School. In education however, we still haven’t engaged with his ideas as much as we should have. Despite the fact that he is one of the few contemporary philosophers and thinkers from the French intellectual tradition who is still arguing for democracy and equality which are central to the discourse on education even in the contemporary age. One major work of Ranciere written for educationists is ‘The Ignorant School Master’.

In the ‘Ignorant School Master’, Ranciere wishes to revisit certain principles on which the modern education system stands. To do this he tells the story of Joseph Jactot, a teacher who was given the job of teaching Flemish students, the trouble was that he himself did not know any Flemish and the Flemish students did not know French. What emerges is an interesting philosophical experiment that is hinged on the fact that humans can spontaneously learn a new language if they pay attention to it and this can be done without any explication.

This experiment for Ranciere can potentially change the way we look at teaching as a profession. ‘Equality’ in its most radical shape and form is at the heart of this change. In fact, in his thesis ‘equality’ is also at the heart of the dead lock that teaching as a profession is facing. The deadlock for Ranciere is created by this very assumption of an informed teacher that has a claim on knowledge against the uninformed ignorant student.

This figure of the informed teacher is at the heart modern professions and all theories of professionalism that Ranciere’s work implicitly displaces, assumes an informed autonomous figure that can take the role of the professional.

The title ‘The Ignorant School Master’ stems from the displacement of this professional. The word ‘Ignorant’ here is put to argue against the hierarchy of intelligences that are considered necessary in modern classrooms, in contrast to that this book argues for a certain equality of intelligences between the student and teacher that the word ‘Ignorant’ grasps.

Jospeh Jactot was a Lecturer in France who was exiled to Netherlands when the regimes changed. He was appointed a professor by the generosity of the king there. The problem was that Jactot did not speak Flemish and students did not speak French. To develop a minimal link Jactot picked up the Biingual edition of Telemaque and with the help of an interpreter Jactot asked the students to learn the French text with the help of this Bilingual edition that has French and Flemish side by side. He asked them to repeat the same exercise once half the text was done.

His own expectations from this exercise were minimal, this was just a last resort for Jactot. But the experiment exceeded Jactot’s expectations, students showed marked improvement in their understanding of the French. Jacktot was a progressive teacher and understood that teaching is not about cramming, but what Jacktot found from this experiment were not arguments for this progressive form of the teacher as Ranciere points out to us, Jacktots observations completely displaces the modern idea of the teacher itself for Ranciere:

“…..he knew that teaching was not in the slightest about cramming students with knowledge…..but he knew equally well that students had to avoid the chance detours where minds still incapable from distinguishing the essential from the accessory….In short, the essential act of the master was to explicate…..” (p, 3)

These chance detours, the underlying chaos in learning that institutions are trained to look at with suspicion in teaching-learning spaces, was found to be the very essence of learning. It is in this way Ranciere is not just questioning inequalities such as caste, class, gender etc that exist, but he is taking all these debates back to the very asymmetry between the teacher and the student that has to be assumed for classrooms to function at the center of which is the model of explication.

It may seem that this asymmetry is a necessary aspect of a teacher-student relationship but not according to Ranciere; according to him there is a circular logic at the heart of sanctioning of this asymmetry. Ranciere points out, that if a student is given a book to understand a series of reasonings, and then a teacher who explicates is just another series of reasonings to explain the book. Then what can the teacher tell that the book fails to do, and if the book fails then why not have another teacher to explain the last teacher. In other words can’t we have another level of explicative process, another teacher maybe to explain this last system of reasons, thereby making this process infinite? This for Ranciere leads to a logical fallacy, a loop that can only be stopped by making a teacher the sole judge of where it has to stop:

“So the logic of explication calls for the principle of regression ad infinitum: there is no reason for the redoubling of reasonings ever to stop. What brings an end to the regression and gives the system its foundation is simply that the explicator is the sole judge of the point when the explication is itself explicated.” (p, 4)

Today tuition centers are again showing the problems with this logic, where we see that teachers at school are no longer enough and we suddenly feel another level of explication to be necessary-the tuition centers. 

This does not mean that Ranciere is talking about absolute equality in everything. In fact, he is arguing against ‘equality’ as a goal, which means he is arguing against modern notions of absolute equality. For Ranciere instead of making equality as a goal, ‘equality’ should be thought of as a presupposition, a starting point through which differences has to be accounted for:

“But our problem isn’t proving that all intelligence is equal. Its seeing what can be done under that supposition. And for this, its enough for us that the opinion be possible- that is, that no opposing truth be proved.” (p, 46)

In fact, Ranciere is conscious of the fact that things in nature are never completely equal. He creates a distinction between ‘will’ and ‘intelligence’. He agrees that there is a need for a hierarchy of ‘will’ to be there, it is the hierarchy of intelligence that he points where the problem lies. The role of teacher still remains, it just shifts from verifying whether the student has learnt to whether or not the student has paid attention:

“He will not verify what the student has found; he will verify that the student has searched. He will judge whether or not he has paid attention.” (p, 31)

This shift for Ranciere from taking equality as a goal to a presupposition is only possible because there is something about intelligence itself that calls for this equality. Ranciere points out many times that it is a fact that people learn things all the time without feeling the need for others explicate things to them. This for Ranciere wouldn’t have been possible if there wasn’t anything about intelligence that could create certain conditions for equality. When two people understand each-other it is exactly this equality that Ranciere sees:

“Intellegence is not a power of understanding based on comparing knowledge with its object. It is the power to make oneself understood through another’s verification. And only equal understands an equal. Equality and intelligence are synonymous terms, exactly like reason and will.” (p, 73)

This kind of notion of equality especially in the context of theories of language acquisition is not unfounded now days. Most courses to teach language are built upon this ability of the learner that he can spontaneously learn a new language on his own, moreover, we also know now that language can never in itself be completely taught only the right conditions for learning a language can be created. These insights have very much gained ground in teaching language and arguments to extend these to other subjects are also present.

It is in this way Ranciere is not only articulating a new teaching model but is also shifting the way society recognizes a teacher and his profession. This also paves the way for Ranciere’s conversations with thinkers like Bourdieu who critique the notion of equality and dismiss it as a cruel thing in itself; Ranciere’s distinction between ‘equality’ as a presupposition and a goal come in handy for him to articulate a counter-critique, where he argues that all notions of equality also cannot be just left out and dismissed.

But it is not only equality that Ranciere is concerned about in a work like this. Through equality he is trying to understand the relationship emancipation shares with education. For Ranciere education that does not emancipate stultifies. Ranciere is pointing at a problem with the claim that- ‘there are two levels of intelligence, one that is used for academic work where reason is used, and the other which the common man uses for his daily activities’- this for him is a false claim. It is here he is talking to sociologists directly:

“….there are not two levels of intelligence that any human work of art is the practice of the same intellectual potential…….He who makes a distinction between the manual work of the worker or the common man and clouds of rhetoric remains stultified.” (p, 36, 37)

This book is essentially trying to make an argument, albeit a little before its time, but one that is now being made in cognitive sciences that how a child learns mathematics or science is not very different from how he learns his first language. All these things can be learnt from the environment if the child pays ‘attention’. In fact, this equality of the ability of every child being able to learn his first language no matter what is well established now. In the whole third chapter Ranciere builds upon establishing this relationship between formal learning and child learning language and even other tasks from his environment are linked to this. This is radically different from how sociologists like Bourdieu analyzed schooling through the lens of cultural capital. Kristin Ross in his introduction to The Ignorant School Master writes while developing a Ranciere’s critique of Bourdieu:

The working class youth are excluded from the university because they are unaware of the true reasons for which they are excluded. Their ignorance of the true reasons for which they are excluded is a structural effect produced by the very existence of the system that excludes them (La Reproduction)

For Ranciere, there is a tautology at the heart of this analysis that is just broken by the Sociologist himself, who can reveal the underlying oppressive structures. In contrast to this Ranciere’s proposal is that this stultification of the masses happens by the very nature of the logic used by the sociologist himself, where his analysis is put on a pedestal over the lives of the masses. In contrast to this, Ranciere’s claim is that emancipation cannot take place by making structural reforms in a manner that system becomes equal for everybody. This for Ranciere would be to use equality as a goal and will never work. Instead Ranciere’s proposal is to make equality a starting point of the discussion itself, a presupposition through which all other inequalities can be negotiated and engaged with. This can be done when learning is targeted at individuals rather than societies as a whole: “Universal teaching can only be directed to individual never to societies” (p, 105)

 The shift in the discussion in the teaching community that such a book is seeking is that teaching should not be about whether a student has learnt or not but whether he has paid attention or not. What he gets from his attention can be completely up to him/her.

The Ignorant School Master is a ground-breaking work that I feel is will more gain more and more readership as the time goes on. The question it is addressing is that of ‘emancipation’, ‘equality’ and ‘democracy’ in education and how these keep on becoming more important as time passes.. Inequalities that education produces are no longer just thought of linked to the society that education system is a part of but also seen to be the function of education system itself. In this context works like these are very important to be read and engaged with so that new ways to think about these problems can be found.

However, Ranciere’s exploration of education does not account for certain issues that may make it seem that this book is far away from the ground realities. For instance, the argument for not judging students on what they have learnt doesn’t practically stem from just stopping this explication process but from a social need to use education as a structuring force that guides citizenship. Thus, no matter how we see it, education does have a social function, even if it contradicts the ethos of the universal teaching as Ranciere points out. Education in modernity cannot be only conceptualized as a tool for individual emancipation; it is also a tool of social control. This clash between the ‘individual’ and ‘collective’ no longer can just be dismissed as external to the teaching learning process in modernity. In the same manner to articulate the role of teacher with ‘ignorance’ that means subject knowledge to now play a role in the teaching process at all needs to be relooked and better understood.

Regardless of the above critique it is also true that the way to interpret such works is not to see them as policy documents which can immediately be applied in their totality. These provide new ways of thinking and experience, association with which in any partial manner slowly and gradually gives birth to new horizons and ideas to frame our existing problems. For this purpose, this is a very important and relevant work which we all should engage with.


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