_The Ignorant Schoolmaster_, Chapter 4: “The Society of Contempt”
Posted by joespencer on January 30, 2010
[Note: for unknown reasons, the online text jumps from page 75 to page 82, and I have no way of finding out what the missing section is. Thus, I fear we are missing a crucial part of the chapter’s argument. Also, I do not focus on many of the key points in the chapter, only those that especially caught my fancy; please feel free to discuss other key points in the comments.]
I especially enjoyed this chapter, because it is one about application; specifically, how application applies to mindset. After focusing primarily on abstract principles of intelligence and inequality, Ranciere offers a somewhat jolting first sentence to beginning chapter 4: “There is no such thing as a possible society. There is only the society that exist” (75). This is significant for Ranciere’s approach to intelligence, because, as has been repeated many times thus far, it is better to work from a principle than towards it. In a rhetorical tweak of Platonic dualism, European idealism, and Jacotot’s contemporary Romanticism, Ranciere argues for a collapse between the immediate and the vision, the dream and the reality.
However, I argue that it would be wrong to completely separate Ranciere’s (or more specifically, Jacotot’s) mindset from what is considered Romantic discourse, because the beauty of this mindset is to be found in the process of application—that the end product is not as important as the journey designed to get there. This is where Ranciere’s distinction between “theory” and “method” is especially poignant, particularly to our primarily pragmatic senses: Ranciere (Jacotot) is more interested in the overall mindset than the mechanical particulars. Rather than debating about “factual” realities and intended results—remember, Ranciere dismissed these types of conclusions in chapter 3—we are to acknowledge limitless capabilities of the mind, the equality of intellectual potential, and proceed accordingly.
There are obvious faults with this theory: we, as human beings, are prone to know the end of the beginning, and are more focused on the finished line than the starting point. “Show us proven results!” we proclaim, “And leave these abstract, over-optimistic mindsets out of our students’ education!” However, a reaction like that would overlook the benefits of Ranciere’s vision: his approach allows freedom in expression and application, enough so to include varying dynamics under the larger umbrella. He does not desire us to overhaul our pedagogical methods, just insert them into a larger ideological framework based on the potential of students’ minds.
In the ensuing “war” of minds that Ranciere describes, he takes aim at what he sees as the primary opponent to this theory: “rhetoric” (83). Serving primarily as a “distraction”—notice that Ranciere seldom speaks of outright “falsehoods,” only “distractions”—Ranciere argues that rhetoric shields the truth rather than embodies it (same critique as Nibley, anyone?). Continuing his critique on language from the last chapter—where, if you remember, he argued that language only “fragments” truth—he claims rhetoric leads to an intellectual hierarchical structure of “superior inferiors” taking ideological possession over other minds. (Echoes of the French Revolution certainly influenced Jacotot’s thought, here, which also influenced in very similar ways Hegel’s slave-master dialectic.) Ranciere’s solution is to cut past the rhetoric to the simple truth of intellectual equality—a message that would have been even more powerful in post-Revolution France.
The final message of chapter 4 touches on the relationship between intellectual emancipation and society; specifically, is it possible to completely overhaul an intellectually suppressive nation? Here is where Jacotot (through Ranciere) diverges from his French contemporaries: he argues that forced emancipation from suppression will in the end only be suppression itself. Similar to what we understand as the law of agency presented in the Plan of Salvation, intellectual emancipation can only be achieved in a state of freedom leading to personal choice. “There cannot be a class of the emancipated,” he reasons, “but any individual can always, at any moment, be emancipated and emancipate someone else” (98).
Emancipation cannot be given, it can only be chosen, because it is not a commodity to give. That, I feel, is the most important message of Ranciere. As a teacher, I can offer facts, ideas, and other intellectual materials, but the progression of intelligence can only be achieved individually, and the teacher’s role is primarily to place the student on the road to emancipation.
Also, on a somewhat tangential note, I have come to appreciate Ranciere on another level. This last week I read Louis Menand’s excellent diagnosis of the American University, titled The Marketplace of Ideas. His main thesis, that the professionalizing of the University has furthered the distance between the “ivory tower” and the rest of the world, has caused me to reflect on what the real role of an intellectual should be. Thus, Ranciere’s plea for a collapse between the “elite” instructors and the “common” students rings especially important to me, especially if his take-home message can be distilled (and likely simplified) for a broader audience. But most importantly, I have deep respect for Ranciere if he can take his historical subject, Jacotot, and not only use him as a tool through which to add to the school of intellectual history or philosophy, but to draw pedagogical lessons for our world today. I wish we saw more of such a desire.