In 1815 Joseph Jacotot, a professor of law and mathematics in Dijon, found himself exiled to Belgium after the Bourbon Restoration in France. Fortunately, he was able to continue his teaching career thanks to the King of the Netherlands, who helped him obtain a position as a lecturer in French literature at the University of Louvain. The problem? A large number of his new students spoke no French, and he himself spoke no Flemish. Instead of trying to teach in Flemish or impelling his students to learn French, Jacotot took an unprecedented third option: he gave his students a bilingual edition of François Fénelon’s Les aventures de Télémaque and asked them simply to learn the French text with the help of the facing Flemish translation. And when the students finished the text, he asked them to go back through it again and again until they could recite it. When it came time to assess the students’ progress, Jacotot found, to his surprise, that his experiment had been a wild success—the Belgian students wrote about Télémaque perfectly clearly in French, “as well as many French could have done.” Even though Jacotot had not technically “taught” his students anything, they had learned all the same.
One hundred and fifty years later, the French philosopher Jacques Rancière made Jacotot’s story the cornerstone of his new theory of “intellectual emancipation.” France at that time was still grappling with the aftermath of the May 1968 student protests, a period of nationwide upheaval in which traditional social institutions—especially educational ones—were cast into radical doubt. As translator Kristin Ross explains in her introduction, the protests ignited a series of debates about the role of educational institutions in perpetuating the inequalities that had given rise to the protests in the first place. Were such institutions responsible for the exclusion of working-class and immigrant youths from universities and thus from upward social mobility? And if so, what kind of educational reforms would it take to rectify this problem? Rancière’s response in The Ignorant Schoolmaster addressed conceptual as well as practical aspects of the problem: the schoolmaster owed her existence, Rancière claimed, to the “pedagogical myth” that her intelligence was superior to her students’. Her ability to teach lay in her ability to “explicate” a body of facts, repeatedly if needed and in ever-simplified ways, until her students grasped it. But Jacotot’s experiences proved precisely that, if learning meant acquiring such a body of facts, a student didn’t need a teacher in order to learn—all she needed was a text. The pedagogy that Jacotot practiced consisted not of “the subjection of intelligence over intelligence” but of “the subjection of will over will;” the teacher’s job was to “set the student on track and keep her there.” Since it took no specialized knowledge to teach, anyone could teach anything. But that also meant that a sufficiently motivated student needed no teacher at all. She could make do just fine as long as she had a text; freed from her dependence on teachers, she could truly be called “emancipated.”
It was the summer after I graduated from college—that is, at the culmination of my experience in the American educational system—when I read The Ignorant Schoolmaster, and my first reaction upon finishing it was a mixture of disbelief and exasperation. Of course I’d had bad teachers throughout my career as a student, but Rancière’s characterization of the “master” as a paternalistic tyrant seemed to me grossly overblown—hysterical, even. Not only because I had never felt subjugated by any sort of institutional machine in which my teachers were supposedly the cogs, but also because, when I thought about it, I realized that none of the good teachers I’d had (and I’d had quite a few) had approached teaching as a project of “explication” in Rancière’s sense of the term. My most vivid memory from my middle school days was of my eighth-grade geometry teacher, who’d told us point-blank on the first day of school that he wouldn’t be teaching us any lessons from our textbook during class time. It was our responsibility to read the lesson, do the assigned homework problems and check our answers in the back of the book beforecoming to class—class time was reserved for questions about homework problems we’d gotten wrong without understanding why. In college, my professors asked me for my impressions, challenged me to prove my claims, drew parallels between my viewpoints and those of my classmates and brought up other thinkers and texts pertinent to the problem under discussion—but never once did they “teach” by simply explicating the texts we studied. Rancière’s thesis, I decided, was based on needless hyperbole.
And then I started studying in France.
Gone were office hours. Gone were open-ended discussion questions. Gone were syllabi and, with them, any timetable for reading texts on our own while keeping up with the topics professors introduced in class. Class time consisted of an hour and a half of lecture accompanied by the constant, furious refrain of clacking as students transcribed the professor’s every word on their laptops. Each class was assessed on the basis of one exam or written assignment at the end of the semester that, in most cases, was never returned; after a few weeks a grade was uploaded online, marking the end of our engagement with that particular professor and that particular class. It was a scene that was utterly alien to me and my preconceptions of what teaching (or, for that matter, learning) meant. But the longer I stayed in France, the more I realized that there was indeed a logic that structured the educational system. To teach was to transmit a body of facts—at best, the professor’s interpretation of a text, at worst, a summary of the text itself—and what better way to do so than to expound that information directly, by lecturing? When students asked questions, they were primarily questions of comprehension: What did the professor mean by a certain term? Was there a contradiction between two points the professor had made? The questions with which professors in turn punctuated their lectures (“Are you following me?”, “Was what I said clear?”) revealed that they too saw the successful acquisition of facts as their main goal. The teacher’s job was to transmit; the student’s job was to retain.
Once placed in the context of French attitudes towards pedagogy, Rancière’s thesis becomes much more plausible (and perhaps even necessary). For if a teacher’s job is to transmit a body of facts to her students, the same facts that can theoretically be found in a text, why can’t she simply be replaced by a text? To put it more baldly, how is going to class any better than reading a book that treats the same topic? At this point one could argue that there is a je ne sais quoi in the teacher’s body language and her tone of voice, a vivifying effect in her very presence, that makes physical attendance superior to a solitary reading experience; furthermore, face-to-face time with the teacher gives students the opportunity to ask questions, even if such opportunities are limited. But all that these objections do, as a former philosophy professor of mine liked to say, is “move the bulge in the carpet.” If it is the audio and visual aspects that matter, then the figure of the teacher is still under threat—by the rise of massive open online courses (MOOCs) and the subsequent proliferation of recorded lectures, if not by the text or the article per se. And the teacher’s ability to respond to questions, though less amenable to outsourcing, is of doubtful value if the question-and-answer period takes up only a fraction of class time. Even if one were to insist that these benefits are significant enough to make class attendance worthwhile, doing so would simply confirm that the central, characteristic activity of the teacher—lecturing, it would seem—is indeed in some way nonessential.
But if the transmission of facts is not what characterizes a teacher, what does? In other words, Rancière’s thesis raises the Platonic question: What is a teacher? Taken, of course, in the Platonic sense: What is an ideal teacher? This question is at the core of recent debates in the Anglo-American sphere about the role of the teacher, most notably in the humanities, with some prominent voices arguing that it is not the teacher’s responsibility to make “judgments” about the texts she studies with her students while others claim, on the contrary, that it is in fact her judgments that distinguish her activity as a teacher. Few have explored, however, how both conceptions of the teacher are responses to the figure of the schoolmaster that Rancière so thoroughly critiqued. Underlying Rancière’s study is the problem of authority (or, as Rancière prefers to characterize it, “inequality”): What gives the teacher the right to teach her students anything at all? If we trust our teachers with our education, it must be because we acknowledge that, on some level, they know more than we do. But in the model that Rancière sketches out, it is the text and not the teacher that knows more than the student; thus all pretensions to authority on the part of the teacher are derivative and, for that reason, illegitimate.
One way to preserve the notion of pedagogical authority—and guarantee the continuing relevance of the teacher—is to situate that authority in a realm where texts and other apparatuses are of little help. In this view, the role of the teacher has less to do with the discipline in which she is specialized than with the cultivation of sensibilities that transcend the context of any individual text or any individual class. Talk of “self-awareness,” “aesthetic empathy” and the perpetual specter hanging over American higher education, “critical thinking,” places the value of the teacher in her interpersonal talents; what the teacher teaches thus turns out to be a sort of general attitude toward life, unmoored from specific disciplinary commitments and adaptable to any occasion, be it a later class, a job or even a major life decision. And we must admit that such a conception of the teacher is far from alien to us. While expanding the scope of pedagogical influence to the realm of the ethical is an undeniable overreach by the schoolmaster’s standards, it is a natural consequence of the way we imagine the teacher-student relationship. Our middle school teachers lead overnight field trips and our high school ones double as sports coaches; by the time we get to college, it is second nature for most of us to relate to—and evaluate—our teachers as models of a practical kind of savoir faire.
The appeal of this characterization lies in the way it speaks to an intuition felt, at some point or other, by all of us who have experienced (or pursued) a closeness with our teachers. Rancière’s sketch of the schoolmaster strikes us as hyperbole because we find it unthinkable that a teacher might not ask about our background, lend an ear to our personal struggles, extend career and life advice, keep in touch well after we have left her class. It is clear to us that effective pedagogy must turn on what the teacher offers but the text cannot—that is, personalized, face-to-face interaction. And as a result we are accustomed to evaluating our teachers based on how deeply they invest in the interpersonal dimension of the pedagogical relationship. In the most heartening of cases, we do so on the assumption that education is not merely an intellectual affair; our understanding of our teachers is incomplete, we believe, if we do not take into account something of their disposition and behavior. But what happens when the interpersonal dimension comes to define the teacher, when the teacher’s activity is seen as that of counseling, entertaining, reprimanding and babysitting her students independent of any disciplinary commitments at all? Such a conception of the teacher, far from subverting Rancière’s thesis, actually corroborates it: the teacher should not—indeed, cannot—influence how the student engages with the text, so the only viable options are to beef up other dimensions of the pedagogical relationship or else write her out of the relationship altogether.
The alternative is to claim that what the teacher teaches is anchored in her disciplinary knowledge, that her authority does not apply primarily to the realm of the ethical but to the realm of the academic. The teacher cannot avoid imparting “judgments” when she teaches—in fact, it is because of these judgments that she has any influence on her students in the first place. But articulating this position is a delicate game: What exactly is a judgment? When the term is invoked, it is generally understood to mean a judgment on something. Thus the teacher who makes judgments on texts is obliged to offer authoritative theses about them, whereas the one who refrains from judgments, in failing to do so, can be deemed indiscriminate, wishy-washy, intellectually lazy. But is the teacher who says things about a text simply saying what the text says? In other words, is the judgment-making teacher any different from the schoolmaster? If making judgments consists of pronouncing summaries or even interpretations of a text, it is clear why such a conception would still be subject to Ranciere’s objection. For such a teacher would be nothing but the transatlantic counterpart of the schoolmaster: there would be little value in her classroom presence, given that she could easily be replaced by the text she draws from or one she could herself compose.
In order to be tenable, then, the argument for a judgment-making teacher must mean something broader by “judgment.” There is of course a sense in which the teacher exercises her judgment in designing the syllabus for her class and deciding which texts will feature in it (and, correlatively, which texts will not). But judgment is more than a matter of text selection. The teacher makes judgments when she picks certain passages to emphasize and questions to pursue. She makes judgments, in the discussion seminars that are so widespread in American curricula, when she chooses how to respond to student comments—which ones to elaborate on, which ones to let drop, how to make them build upon one another. She makes judgments when she gives feedback on assignments. She makes judgments when she recommends supplemental reading and areas for further research. Teaching, in this sense, is not a question of judgment or no judgment, but of the quality of and logic behind the judgments the teacher makes. And learning does not mean learning what the teacher’s judgments are, but learning, after observing and then being guided by the teacher, how to make one’s own judgments.
It is clear, by the end of his account, that Rancière considers the descriptive basis of his study to have prescriptive consequences: it is precisely because the teacher can be replaced by a text that educational institutions as we know them can be overthrown. No longer do students have to depend on authority figures, with all the oppressive hierarchies that they perpetuate, in order to learn; once emancipated, each student becomes her own master, her power to learn restored to its rightful place. Obviously, this is a recommendation that the mainstream educational establishment in France has been slow to embrace, assuming it recognizes redundancy as a problem in the first place. But for a culture like ours that is far more skeptical of Rancière’s premise—namely, that the text can do everything the teacher can—the significance of his critique should be judged not by its conclusion but by the way it compels us to reexamine how we ourselves define the business of education. To begin with, dismissing Rancière’s “myth of inequality” as a myth becomes harder once we have to specify in what respect exactly the teacher and the student are unequal. The ability to acquire rote, factual knowledge? Sure—in that case, the basis for inequality certainly disintegrates when the student gains access to alternative sources of knowledge. But even in the most emancipated classrooms, the teacher must be unequal to her students if she is to teach them anything; inequality might refer to the teacher’s emotional maturity or her aptitude for dialogue, but it does not vanish altogether. Likewise, Rancière’s assertion that the teacher can be replaced by a text is not meant to serve as a justification for tossing out the text once we identify functions only the teacher can perform. On the contrary, it is at its most thought-provoking when it prods us to imagine a way that the teacher can work with texts if her activity is to include them.
Rancière presents a world inverted, the logical endpoint of the line of thought that takes teaching to be simply a matter of one-way transmission. But alien as we may find that world, he helps us see the distinction between the kind of knowledge that can be gleaned in solitude from reading and that which can be developed only through exchange with a capable interlocutor. As long as the teacher makes use of a text, she must engage with it in a way that surpasses mere transmission. But neither does our ideal of the teacher require a total rejection of the schoolmaster’s assumptions, given the pitfalls of quashing pedagogical authority entirely or confining it to the realm of the ethical. Rancière’s professed goal may be to overturn all institutional authority, but his lesson to us is one of balance—how to acknowledge the principles that underwrite intellectual authority, but also to understand what invoking those principles really entails.
Image credit: Camille Stromboni (CC / BY Flickr)