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_The Ignorant Schoolmaster_, Chapter 1: “An Intellectual Adventure”

Posted by joespencer on January 9, 2010

What follows is (1) an interpretive summary/commentary of/on chapter 1 of The Ignorant Schoolmaster, followed by (2) a series of questions I think might be raised in light of the reading and which we might productively engage.

The Chapter in Summary

I: Introduction

In a word: “Joseph Jacotot . . . had an intellectual adventure.” A series of circumstances had set him up to be quite happy with teaching “like all conscientious professors,” but another series of circumstances set him up to try an experiment that dispensed with his usual approach: he had his students learn French completely on their own simply by working with a bilingual edition of Fenelon’s Telemaque. The experience thus constituted a genuine event, an (intellectual) adventure in the strongest sense.

Let me here just point out what seems to me to be a handful of key words, phrases, and sentences for Ranciere. (1) “Chance.” Given the highly privileged role the word “chance” takes up later in the chapter, it is certainly significant that it is given so prominent a role on the very first page of the chapter: “Chance decided differently.” (2) “The minimal link of a thing in common.” The entire methodology Jacotot formulated and Ranciere is going to exposit depends on this “minimal link,” on this “thing in common.” Of course, at least at the philosophical level to which Ranciere wants to take the discussion, what is ultimately at work in such a “minimal link” is not made clear yet. (3) “Explication.” This notion is introduced very carefully here as the method of “conscientious professors,” not the methodology of sloppy or lazy professors. Carefully introduced here, this notion is carefully elucidated in the following section. (4) “Or, if [the schoolmaster’s explications] weren’t [superfluous], to whom and for what were they useful?” This question, with which Ranciere ends the introduction to the chapter, is crucial. In many ways, the rest of the book is an extended answer to this question.

II: The Explicative Order

Here Ranciere—as noted above—works through a philosophical elucidation of “explication.” This “order” is, of course, the old order, the one that Jacotot’s adventure had overturned. The point here is to lay out the rationality (or lack thereof) of the explicative approach to teaching. Ranciere here offers two critiques of the basic logic of the explicative order, both of which are meant to work out clarifications of what is really at stake in the explicative order.

The first of these critiques is that the logic of explication leads to an infinite regress: if it is necessary to insert a series of reasonings between the student and a series of reasonings, it would seem to follow that another series of reasonings could or even should be inserted between that series of reasonings and the now-mediated series. And of course, this can be done ad infinitum. The second critique: because a child cannot be explained to until she has already learned (in a decidedly non-explicative way) to speak, there is something subtly sinister about the sudden imposition of the explicative order when learning has reached a certain level. As Ranciere puts it: “Now everything happens as though [the child] could no longer learn with the aid of the same intelligence he has used up until now, as though the autonomous relationship between apprenticeship and verification were, from this point on, alien to him.”

But these two critiques serve only to clarify that what is really at work in explication is not explication, but the explicator’s role as judge, as the figure who both “sets up and abolishes” the standard “understanding” of the material in question. Moreover, as Ranciere point out, this amounts to a privileging of the oral over the written (a privileging that goes all the way back, incidentally, to Plato’s Phaedrus). Ranciere then turns to a second critique of the basic logic of the explicative order: because a child cannot be explained to until she has already learned (in a decidedly non-explicative way) to speak, there is something subtly sinister about the sudden imposition of the explicative order when learning has reached a certain level. As Ranciere puts it: “Now everything happens as though [the child] could no longer learn with the aid of the same intelligence he has used up until now, as though the autonomous relationship between apprenticeship and verification were, from this point on, alien to him.” Still more systematically: “The pedagogical myth . . . divides intelligence into two. It says that there is an inferior intelligence and a superior one.” And by so splitting intelligence, explication “substitut[es] the spirit for the letter, the clarity of explications for the authority of the book.”

Still more penetratingly, Ranciere provides an answer to the question with which he closed the introductory section of the chapter: “It is the explicator who needs the incapable and not the other way around; it is he who constitutes the incapable as such.” The explicator explicates in order to stultify, in order to create a pupil (slave?) who needs a teacher (master?). So it is that “the child who is explained to will devote his intelligence to the work of grieving: to understanding, that is to say, to understanding that he doesn’t understand unless he is explained to.” But why would a student ever give in to this? Ranciere provides a hard answer: “Later he can be an explicator in turn.” It is almost as if the student can only give into the explicative order if she is seduced by the master’s flattery.

III: Chance and Will

Two points here.

First, Ranciere formulates what I would like to call an ontology of writing—less an ontology specific to writing as such than a model of universal ontology drawn from what is at work in the written as such. He does this primarily here: “There is nothing behind the written page, no false bottom that necessitates the work of an other intelligence, that of the explicator; no language of the master, no language of the language whose words and sentences are able to speak the reason of the words and sentences of a text.” In a word: “There is nothing beyond texts except the will to express.” Texts are, as texts, purely immanent. No oral logos determines their meaning. (This is what Roland Barthes referred to as the “death of the author.”) Writing, as writing, is purely immanent, and Ranciere wants (axiomatically) to allow that immanence to be used to debar the authority of the oral (and hence non-literary) explicator.

Second, the above “ontology of writing” implies something about what it is to learn: one learns by “chance and will.” One learns by moving “the way children move, blindly, figuring out riddles.” More: the above “ontology of writing” implies something about what it is to be human: “the human child is first of all a speaking being.” (I find here a subtle but important critique of the larger Freudian project, but I won’t go into that now.) If “the world” is nothing more than texts and so many wills to express, then: “All [the learners’] effort, all their exploration, is strained toward this: someone has addressed words to them that they want to recognize and respond to, not as student or as learned men, but as people; in the way you respond to someone speaking to you and not to someone examining you: under the sign of equality.” By flattening the world of intelligences (by equating it with the world of writings), Ranciere thus can claim that what Jacotot was formulating was, as a “method of the will.” This point will be clarified in the next section.

IV: The Emancipatory Master

Ranciere’s task here is to make very clear one crucial point: “[Jacotot’s] students had learned without a master explicator, but not, for all that, without a master.” In a word: the alternative model Ranciere is providing is not a model, strictly speaking, of “self-education.” It is a model in which the master or teacher has been transformed into the emancipatory master. Ranciere exposits this point so nicely that I will just quote him: “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 allows Ranciere to make a further point of clarification, one that will become very important in later chapters of the book: emancipatory teaching is not a method. Where a master must determine the method to be employed, emancipatory teaching does not happen at all. In emancipatory teaching, “the method was purely the student’s.” It it thus, according to Ranciere, impossible to compare emancipatory teaching, taken as a method, with other methodologies. These are of an entirely distinct order. Again, this point will become crucial later in the book.

V: The Circle of Power

Two final points.

First, Ranciere compares two “circles,” the circle of power, and the circle of powerlessness. The latter of these is the circle (or cycle?) created by stultification. Althusser—Ranciere’s own master—would have called it “the reproduction of the relations of production.” The former—the circle of power—on the other hand is a circle that, as Ranciere says, “can only appear as a tautology or an absurdity.” (In other words, it is, in essence, indiscernible.) The circle here is not unlike the hermeneutic circle: in order to understand a text, one must first understand the text. If one is to learn without a master explaining what must be known, one must come to know what is already known. “In short, the circle of emancipation must be begun.” What, then, is behind such emancipatory learning? In a word: “imitation.” And so “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.” Why? Because “the social circle, the order of things, prevents it from being recognized for what it is.” (Again: it is indiscernible, though it is everywhere at work.)

Second and finally, Ranciere formulates a nice bombshell saying that sets the whole of the rest of the book in motion: “all men have equal intelligence. And this, it seems to me, is the stumbling stone of the entire book—in all the right ways.


The following questions, wherever they ask about teaching specifically, all assume a specifically LDS classroom—whether in the shape of a Sunday School class, a seminary classroom, a family home evening setting, a fireside, or even a sacrament meeting talk.

(1) What place should chance have in the classroom? Is it fair to suggest that to “teach by the Spirit” is in some way connected with allowing for chance in the classroom?

(2) While recognizing that Ranciere will have much more to say in subsequent chapters about the “minimal link” or “thing in common,” what can we say might serve as such a minimal link in the classroom? Is there anything uniquely Mormon that should or should not serve as such a minimal link?

(3) Is there anything strikingly Mormon about Ranciere’s privileging the written (and its associated ontology) over the oral? Might this reflect on what I have elsewhere (and repeatedly) referred to as Mormonism’s theology of writing?

(4) Is there any similarity, in the end, between the pedagogical myth’s splitting of intelligence into two and the Book of Abraham’s splitting of intelligence into two (if not into much more)? Woudl the rejection of the explicative order entail the rejection of the understanding of eternity as a hierarchy of intelligences?

(5) How might Ranciere’s notion of “will” be linked up with the Mormon notion of “agency”? Does that perhaps provide a way of making sense of what appears—at the level of the word—to be a contradiction between Ranciere’s discussion and Mormon notions of (the hierarchy of) intelligence?

(6) Does the disentanglement of will from intelligence, particularly as this allows for the recognition that emancipation is not without a master, provide a way to see Mormonism’s hierarchical nature as emancipatory rather than oppressive? Can the priesthood as an ordering principle in the Church be regarded as an imposed hierarchy of wills meant only to emancipate intelligences that are, in themselves, ultimately equal?

(7) Is the classroom hierarchical enough to allow for emancipatory masters? Can the circle of power actually be closed in the classroom, or can that only be done in a situation where there are grades or some other imposing mechanism in place?

(8) What does Ranciere mean by “all intelligence is equal”? Might this very claim be true only inasmuch as it is pronounced or pursued? In other words, might it be less a claim about being than about truth?

(9) Insert your burning question here.

69 Responses to “_The Ignorant Schoolmaster_, Chapter 1: “An Intellectual Adventure””

  1. Julie M. Smith said

    Joe, thanks for this post and for organizing this project.

    My thoughts:

    –I take this topic very seriously: I taught before I had kids, I homeschool my kids, and I am very interested in how the Gospel is taught.

    –For obvious reasons, his virtually instant dismissal of the parent as teacher rubbed me the wrong way.

    –I’ve only read the first chapter, so perhaps I’ll need to modify this as I read on, but I got off the bus near the end of the first chapter, where he wrote that “all men have equal intelligence.”

    All I could think about at that point were Mao’s barefoot doctors. But even they were given some rudimentary training!

    All men do not have equal intelligence. Our latest adventures as foster-parents-in training has made clear to us that, given the realities of pre-natal substance exposure and early trauma, all people do not even have an equal capacity to learn.

    To pretend that all men have equal intelligence is to dismiss the value of any intelligence any one holds that anyone else does not, by defining it away.

    –The rub, however, is how we treat the inequalities that are manifest in the student-teacher relationship. Particularly from a Mormon perspective, we want to be sure that we don’t confuse superior knowledge on one topic with ultimate worth. Even in a secular setting, we are far better off if our teachers model for students how to gain knowledge rather than present themselves as the source of knowledge. (In my education classes, this was known as taking to role of the guide on the side instead of the sage on the stage.) People sometimes criticize homeschooling since one parent is unlikely to have the knowledge of a half-dozen high school teachers in variety of subjects; my response to that is that when I say “I have no idea; let’s learn about that!” I’m doing my child a greater service than if I were to say “They were abolished in 1981.”

    –I nearly fell off my chair when he said (in effect; I have to leave in two minutes and can’t find the citation): Who cares if it takes a little longer to learn French?

    I do. Given the myriad fields of knowledge and life opportunities out there, we do our students a disservice to allow them to (or require them to) re-invent the wheel.

    –This chapter might seem abstract to some, but he’s getting at debates that are behind the pedagogy and curriculum of every classroom in America: Should the kids be given the formula or the paradigm or the phonics rule, or should they need to find it themselves? I’ve already expressed my feelings about the time-wasting aspect of discovery-based learning; I’ll add that I think it unfairly privileges those children who are good at pattern recognition. Maybe Flemish speakers can learn French from a text, I don’t know as I don’t know either language, but I can guarantee you that a person of normal intelligence could sit with the Hebrew Bible for the rest of her life and never figure out the rules behind those damn verbs.

    My two minutes are up.

  2. joespencer said


    So far as his “dismissal” of the parent as teacher goes… where does he make that move? On my reading, it is precisely for the parent as teacher that he is arguing. I’m wondering where we’re reading differently.

    As for “all intelligence is equal”: the concerns you raise are precisely what fuel my question #8. It is obvious that intelligence is not equal, at least as things are. I wonder if we should read Ranciere not as making a descriptive claim, but as doing something a bit more complex. When I have a few minutes, I’ll try to spell out what I’ve got in mind there.

  3. KirkC said

    I’ve read the text and will be weighing in on this thread either tomorrow or Monday. I have 15 little girls running around my house at the moment for a birthday party! Nice read so far.

  4. […] _The Ignorant Schoolmaster_, Chapter 1: “An Intellectual Adventure” […]

  5. Julie M. Smith said

    “So far as his “dismissal” of the parent as teacher goes… where does he make that move?”

    At the top of page 5 (in the version you linked to) he says “This is what the master has over the father . . .” and makes the case that the father doesn’t have enough distance to teach the child.

  6. Julie M. Smith said

    Actually, looking at it again, I’m no longer clear if he is agreeing or disagreeing with that ideology.

    I need someone to explicate it for me. ;)

  7. J. Madson said

    I think that ideology, that places the explicator, ie master, over the father or any other is what he is in fact arguing against, That is the ideology that his chance experiment is deconstructing. Or at least thats how I read it.

    As to intelligence being equal, I would have to know what one means by intelligence. How is the author using this word? To a certain extent, intelligence is defined precisely by the rules and structures of the ideology or master/student relationship that the ignorant schoolmaster is rejecting.

  8. sjames said

    As I read it Ranciere is critical of explicatory pedagogies and the Master teacher who relies on explanation as a means to achieve learner ‘understanding’. From the Master teacher’s perspective he argues that the father lacks the objectivity or distance between self and subject required to provide an ‘intellectual’ or ‘explicatory’ treatment of a particular subject. Ranciere, however, is looking to provide greater intellectual autonomy to the child or learner through a ‘democratisation’ of teaching where the ‘scholar’ and his\her ways of knowing are replaced by the ‘ignorant’ or naive teacher/father (p35 beyond Ch 1) who uses ‘native’ intelligence to ‘follow’ (and later to facilitate) the child/learner as they make their way to understanding in a form of self-teaching (as exemplified in the story of the learning of French).

    As Julie refers, these issues have been, and are still played out in education theory and practice. Generally we see progressivist methods which have promoted greater learner autonomy (akin to Ranciere’s emancipatory orientation) giving way to more explicit and direct forms of teaching involving strategic interventions by teachers at particular points in learning: historically, from teacher-centred to child-centred approaches, now to more ‘learning-centred’ pedagogy with a greater focus on learning as socially constructed, with attention being paid to the kinds of interactions and participations teachers and learners engage in.

    The question for me is whether Ranciere’s reading of our classrooms can be sustained, and whether his privileging of the ‘authority’ of the individual learner, through radical democratisation, is made at the expense of the need for a greater focus on the social milieu in which learning occurs. In Vygotskian theory, for example, narrowing the distance between known and unknown is a collaborative (social), example-led enterprise a model not unfamiliar in many LDS classrooms.

  9. joespencer said

    As I read Ranciere, Julie, he is on page 5 playing “explicator’s [devil’s] advocate” in order to make (philosophical) sense of the explicative order. In other words: from the explicator’s point of view, here is what the master has over the father…. But Ranciere’s point (along with Jacotot) is precisely that this order must be overturned.

    My wife, for example, stumbled on a review of The Ignorant Schoolmaster that praised everything in Ranciere (politically), but pointed out that the only failing in the book was precisely its obviously conservative return to an emphasis on family, etc.

    In response to J.: As for the question of what Ranciere means by “intelligence,” am I reading you right as saying that what Ranciere (through Jacotot) is proposing is precisely to dispense with systems and methodologies that would define intelligence? If so, I entirely agree with you. Intelligence only requires definition within the explicatory order, precisely because intelligence is only unequal there. Once that order is overcome, it is perhaps no longer necessary to bother with a definition, because learning is a question of will.

  10. Robert C. said

    Just a quick comment for now (I haven’t finished the reading yet…): I think Julie’s question (#31) is an important one to address. I think we have to clearly demarcate a difference between knowledge and intelligence—perhaps in a way that is ultimately compatible with the distinction between the tree of knowledge and the tree of life. Barefoot doctors lack knowledge, and so to put them to work without giving them knowledge (in the form of technical training) is to misapply Ranciere’s main point. I’ll elaborate on this point after I’ve finished the reading….

  11. Julie M. Smith said

    One more thought, just for fun:

    Acts 8
    29 Then the Spirit said unto Philip, Go near, and join thyself to this chariot.
    30 And Philip ran thither to him, and heard him read the prophet Esaias, and said, Understandest thou what thou readest?
    31 And he said, How can I, except some man should guide me?

  12. joespencer said

    Well, yeah, Julie, but… seriously… Acts? ;)

  13. sjames said

    Excellent scripture!
    31… And he desired Philip that he would come up and sit with him.

  14. sjames said


    A most engaging post with much to think about… so to some ‘burning questions’.

    Please forgive my preoccupation with details here but I find it difficult to accept the Ranciere assumption that children learning to speak is essentially a process void of explication when various language acquisition and learning studies show how children’s speech is scaffolded by parents, caregivers, etc in a process of helping them to make sense of the world around them. Explication is somewhat fundamental. That is, children don’t just learn to speak, sense-making and speaking are not separate events but co-existent and mutually informing. The argument that somehow the child’s intelligence is autonomous, that the ‘autonomous relationship between apprenticeship and verification’ is not a mediated relationship is to accept a particular theory of psychology, would you say?

    And yet, Ranciere seems to suggest that explication creates dependency for the child who comes to an ‘understanding that s/he doesn’t understand unless he is explained to’. If so, what of Ranciere’s autonomous view of a child’ intelligence to act in its own way, to find understanding?

    I confess I’m uncomfortable with notions that only writing is ‘purely immanent’ (speaking can also be immanent and I think your question 1. allows for that); also that there is nothing beyond the text (consider JimF’s post on Reading the OT and the notion of ‘models’ whereby texts are constituted by and constitutive of orders of things beyond that referenced in the lexis( eg event domination as a structural feature of some Hebrew texts carrying meaning at a level other than at the level of the words themselves).

    I would be interested at some point if you would say more about question 3, and the kind of Mormon writing you are referring to. (Historically writing has been looked upon with some suspicion because of this privileging, and the status accorded to it by privileged classes with access and the means to its production. There is an argument that with the displacement of oral traditions has come the displacement of communal ways of speaking and hence forms of knowing. Ranciere seems to be alluding to something similar.)
    Much Mormon writing also falls into the category of ‘speech written down’, at such times orality may form a model for textuality thus blurring the distinction between the two (the reverse is also true). So I assume by ‘writing’ you mean more than encoding?

    • BHodges said

      Thanks for part one. The thing that stuck out to me most in the first chapter was the idea that the “student was linked to a will, Jacotot’s, and to an intelligence, the book’s…”

      I think this idea, along with the example of the child learning to speak through wishing to understand rather than first learning all the rules of grammar, etc., hint at the desire of the student being a crucial factor in the learning process. So far the comments have seen focused more on the role of the teacher or explicator or master, but I think the best explicator in the universe isn’t going to help a student whose own will isn’t bent on learning and growing. The fact that the students had the desire to learn the French was pretty remarkable and obviously played a large role in the outcome (though like Julie I am having doubts about whether things would have gone so well if they were trying to learn Hebrew, or say, Chinese). How does this apply to an LDS setting? How does the ignorant teacher get the students interested in caring enough to begin with? Does the book touch on that issue?

      • sjames said

        Thanks Joe,

        1. I think Ranciere goes too far in his deprecation of explication (explanation, illumination, clarification) – or perhaps Im going too far in my assessment of what he is saying. As children don’t learn to speak by explicitly learning rules of grammar the example doesn’t seem particularly to add to Ranciere’s case – as it just doesn’t happen. There is a sense (not acknowledged by Ranciere) that intelligence is distributive (not entirely one’s own), but a product of particular socialisations, linked to particular persons, places and speech activities (Karen #17 provides a good example of how things are worked out between her and her son – shared understandings are developed relationally and situationally, not solely on the basis of a child’s ‘intelligence’). Ranciere constructs the Master in a particular teaching-learning relation, which I dont think is generaliseable, and for me, not solid ground for his argument. Valuing children’s intellect, curiosity, dispositions to learn etc goes without saying, but is Ranciere only offering ‘discovery learning’, and do we have the (life)time to discover all we need to know without explication?

        2. I guess I haven’t got a grip on what you mean by ‘writing’, after all we never just write, we always write something – and form, function, ideology, context, sociality are all elements of writing that carry meaning in the process of organising experience (which is how I look at writing). Textuality in writing, is then really intertextuality, a social-relational construct, not purely a cognitive (immanent)one, – else how could we understand each other without bringing to bear the defining influences of other texts, and our knowledge of social/cultural convention. There are schools of thought which treat writing as ‘autonomous’ or purely the product of mental operations, which is my sense of Ranciere’s orientation (though I may not have him right just yet) I lean more towards the notion that it is a ‘social’ practice, hence my struggle to reconcile with the thinking that writing ‘does not inherently draw on anything external to itself’.

        3. I would be interested to look at this sometime.

  15. joespencer said


    (1) I think you’re equivocating with the word “explication,” are you not? I think Ranciere would completely agree that “sense-making and speaking are not separate events but co-existent and mutually informing.” For a child to learn to speak through explication as Ranciere understands the term would be for the child to begin by being taught grammar—a patent impossibility. I don’t think Ranciere means by emancipatory or non-explicatory teaching that someone learns through some kind of mystic contact with the divine. Rather, his point seems to me just to be that children use their own intelligence to make sense of what others are saying; they don’t need (nor could they yet make sense of) the explications of a master.

    In a word, I just don’t see your first two paragraphs here actually engaging what Ranciere is talking about.

    (2) You’ll have to explain in greater detail what makes you uncomfortable about the idea of writing as purely immanent. I’m not suggesting that there can’t be anything but writing; just that writing, taken as writing, does not inherently draw on anything external to itself.

    (3) So far as getting some of the details of my idea of a Mormon theology of writing on the table, I’ll have to get back to it at some point. There is a whole lot to say about it, and I’ve only begun serious work on it (and I expect to be working on it for a while). But I will say, at the very least, that I find the Levi-Straussian/political critique of writing (as in Tristes Tropiques) completely unconvincing.

  16. BHodges said

    Oops, did my comment go in the wrong place?

  17. Karen said

    I think Ranciere has an odd (but interesting) writing style that means we have to be very careful when reading him. I know I have a hard time untangling Ranciere’s words from Jacotot’s words. Though it takes me a while to figure it out each time, I like his ironic/sarcastic style of setting up the opposite point of view (here, the “Old Master”) as he tries to explain his own. So, for me, I think it’s a bit of work to actually find out where Ranciere himself is talking to us. (Therefore, if you think I’ve attributed a position to Ranciere that is not his, please correct me.)

    A few thoughts.

    Julie, I homeschool too but it was actually this very book that convinced me to try it. By the end of the book we’ll have to compare thoughts on homeschooling and see where we are thinking the same or differently.

    About a child learning to speak –
    I think we have to be careful here in that Jacotot/Ranciere, whichever one, :), is not saying that if we were all placed in bubbles a part from each other for 100 years we’d all end up with the same amount of learning. The teacher does influence the child, and the child is not learning independent from anyone else. (His emphasis on a book provides some hint here: the student is reading a book that explains something to him.) The teacher does play a role, but Ranciere wants to rethink what that role could amount to.
    In learning to speak, the parent does play a huge role. But the child is the one thinking through what to try out, watching our responses, figuring it out. There isn’t some list of words that every child is taught in the same order and says in the same way. Every 2 year old says words a bit differently, had different vocabularies, tries things out in funny ways that makes us laugh, etc. By age 4 or 5 though most any child can communicate with other children and adults and be understood. I think this is what Ranciere is getting at: the children use their own paths to figure out language. Not because they are in a bubble, but because they try things out and watch how we react: when my son Jonah says “ju” I get him “juice,” so he knows he’s on the right track. When he says “do do no somono” and I don’t do anything but laugh, he’s gotta decide how to communicate in a better way. He’s not alone, but our responses are not systematic teaching.

    When Julie talked about the “guide to the side” way of teaching, I think that is exactly what Ranciere is calling for. (There are quotations later in the book that sound much like this one, but I don’t want to jump ahead yet.) When Julie said, “my response to that is that when I say “I have no idea; let’s learn about that!” I’m doing my child a greater service than if I were to say “They were abolished in 1981.”” – That is exactly what Ranciere means by an “ignorant” schoolmaster. It means, I think, that you are always a student and ready to learn along side your student. You never assume you know it all. You are open to the idea that your student might stumble across something you don’t know, or think of something in a way you hadn’t thought of before. You are always ready to learn.

  18. Karen said

    The principle of equal capacity to learn, I think, is strong in scripture though it may appear in different terms. For example, the D&C 130 says that we have advantage in the world to come if we learn more by our “diligence and obedience” – not if God gave us the gift of a greater intelligence. (I will admit that the scriptures use the word “intelligence” in a way that promotes hierarchy, such as Abraham’s discussion with the Lord on one intelligence being above another, but I don’t think that it’s fair to pull these words out of context and compare them just yet.)

    But the idea of equality, particularly equal capacity to learn spiritual things, is apparent in scripture, is it not? When Laman and Lemuel have not inquired of the Lord “for the Lord maketh no such thing known unto us” (1 Ne 15), Nephi is immensely frustrated with them. I think Nephi is assuming they have an equal capacity to understand their Father’s vision, they just haven’t done the work to ask and study it out.

    I assume that we believe, as members, that we each have an equal capacity to learn from the Spirit? Though Ranciere of course won’t talk about that, it is a factor we will have to consider in our classrooms, and I think the teacher-student attitude Ranciere promotes does help us see how we could treat our students differently. I think it provides a good model, in other words. Whether or not we believe every person has an equal capacity to learn Greek (I have my opinions I’ll leave out for now), we can believe that every person has an equal capacity to learn spiritual things. And that can change how we teach spiritual things. Though I may have my thoughts on this or that passage in Alma, I am always open to the idea that someone in the class can teach me something. I can still share my own thoughts, but I always assume I’m ignorant before the scriptures. I don’t know more about what Alma meant than Alma does, and neither do my students, so in that sense we are equally ignorant, and equally bound to figure these things out!

    Though as I write this, there is something of Ranciere in my thinking here that I can’t leave out: I still assume that the students can read, reason, think, and question, or else I would have to explain the scriptures (as a book) to them. So I guess it’s more than just a “good model.” I’ll be frank in that I liked to use “ignorant schoolmaster” teaching when I taught Beehives and I thought it went marvelously. I think there is something to this so I hope I can communicate well enough to either share my enthusiasm or else read you all well enough to see where I need to change my thinking.

    • BHodges said

      I like your idea about each being given an oppurtunity to learn here. But if we consider the parable of the talents it could be taken to imply that not everyone will have the equal capacity to do certain things, though judgment will take that into account. I am not exactly clear on how our own choices and behavior may have affected the initial talents we are given for mortality, or if they were innate, but it raises an interesting conundrum.

      You said: “I assume that we believe, as members, that we each have an equal capacity to learn from the Spirit?”

      If the parable of the talents extends to spiritual gifts it would seem not everyone has an equal capacity. D&C 46:13-14 says “To some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he was crucified for the sins of the world. To others it is given to believe on their words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful.” This can help me understand why some of my friends, very sincere people, believe they have never really received an answer to a prayer, especially regarding the Book of Mormon or Joseph Smith. If a person says they didn’t receive an answer it can be an automatic response to assume they did something wrong, or weren’t sincere, etc. I don’t know if that is the best conclusion to draw, though. So do we all have the equal capacity to learn from the Spirit? Evidently we are commended for exercising our agency correctly whether we recognize that we have been prompted by the Spirit or not.

      • Karen said

        Hmm. This does raise some questions, but I see other ways of interpreting the gifts of the Spirit. D&C 46:8 also tells us to “seek ye earnestly the best gifts,” which may mean that even though we may have some given to us early on, we can (and should?) receive more if we desire them. There is also some equality implied in that “to every man is given a gift by the Spirit of God” (v.11).

        My point wasn’t that we will all receive the same answers in the same way, but that the scriptures point out we have a responsibility to learn spiritual things. To me, that commandment implies that we have the ability to learn them, or else it wouldn’t be fair to condemn us for not learning them. I think it’s marvelous that we all learn things differently and have different spiritual gifts. That’s exactly why I like this teaching method in church, because then I am open to what others are learning through their own gifts and own intelligence.

        So, I would think the fact that we have different spiritual gifts actually follows Ranciere quite well. In his theory the students are not equal in amount of knowledge or equal in the way they learn, but equal in intelligence – equal in that they can learn.

  19. BHodges said

    I also got the feeling that the “father” or parent, or “mad man” or ignorant schoolmaster could be an interesting type for an average Sunday School instructor. Only speaking for the people who teach Sunday school in my ward, they aren’t typically the experts, the most studious, etc. I sometimes think that lessons suffer because of the instructor was unprepared, and I don’t think that Ranciere is saying there need not be any preparation at all, but perhaps it can prove a useful model for understanding how such a teacher could still do much good. (Of course, we need an explicator to sit them all down and go through this book with them…) ;)

  20. Karen said

    About the parable of the talents-
    Another way to read this story is that each person had a capacity to increase. The man who buried his talent got in trouble, which says to me the Lord knew he had the capacity to increase his talent but chose not to. We each have differing amounts of knowledge, but we all have the capacity to increase that knowledge.

    • BHodges said

      I like the idea of equality in capacity to increase. To be more precise, do you mean “potential or ability to increase”? For some reason I almost want to read “capacity” with quantitative implications.

  21. joespencer said

    Karen #17,

    I think this is right on. In fact, I think it says more clearly what I was trying to say too briefly in response to Sjames: children do not learn independent of context, but rather precisely because there is a context; but learning because one applies one’s intelligence to the context (this is what Ranciere calls “imitation”) must be distinguished from learning because one is explained to.

    BHodges #18,

    To call the gifts of the Spirit gifts is precisely to say that they go beyond what is equal, namely, intelligence. In other words, doesn’t the instance of gifts of the Spirit confirm, rather than militate against, the idea that all intelligence is equal?

    • BHodges said

      I think it could indicate an equality in the sense that everyone is given a gift or gifts, but if there are any differences amongst the gifts it would seem to be an inequality of sorts, and evidently one that calls for reliance on others, though such lifting is to be mutually beneficial. Perhaps in that sense. I still think the verse in D&C that talks about some given the gift to know and others the gift to believe on their words indicates something of an inequality, though the outcome can be the same. I suppose this would be an inequality based on preference, though.

  22. Robert C. said

    This prior equality, followed by a kind of unequal or diversifying distribution of blessings and gifts is exactly the pattern I found over and over in my second part of the Gospel Principles Lesson #2 (chronologically, 2 posts after this one).

    Colicky kid this week, not finding much reading time, sorry….

  23. KirkC said

    Ok, time for me to chime in here, I have been done reading for a while, but have not had time to post until now. I have not read any of the comments yet because I do not want to give me a bias before I write my own feelings, so forgive me if I repeat anything that is already discussed. I will read the posts afterward.

    Pg. 4, a series of questions is posed. In a nutshell they are asking, why do you need a teacher if you have book? If you cannot understand a book then a teacher will not help. This is something I have been told in my life countless times. I am the first one in my family to ever go to college and that “formal” education is a waste of money because anyone can read a book. Therefore, this passage struck me.

    Pg. 5, gives a great answer to the above inquiry (although somewhat out of context), “understanding is what the child cannot do without the explanations of a master.” I do much better in a lecture setting then with books.

    Pg. 8, “The child who recites under the threat of the rod obeys the rod and that’s all: he will apply his intelligence to something else.” The author concludes the child should submit to the “hierarchical world of intelligence.” In a perfect situation…yes. However, good luck getting most kids (of people) to do this. It is better that children learn by force than not learn at all. I think this is exactly one of the reasons we have Sunday School. If we did not have Sunday School lessons the majority of members could easily go the entire week without opening their scriptures. I would venture to say Sunday is the only day many people ever open them.

    Pg. 8-9, “Understanding is never more than translating…There is nothing behind the written page…no language of the master. Learning and understanding are the two ways of expressing the same act of translation. There is nothing beyond text except the will to express, that is, to translate.” This is my favorite passage. It describes how I view scripture study almost perfectly.

    Pg. 11, the best teachers view students as equals.

    Pg. 11, “What has happened once is thenceforth always possible.” My co-favorite line.

    Pg. 13, this page is great to read as a gospel teacher. I like to let the class struggle with the text. A while back, I got some great advice from a student. He said, “Kirk, I love your classes, but you give people the answers to quickly.” I really took that to heart, and found my classes go better with a lingering question/thought or two. I like to let the class “grapple with that of the book.”

    Pg. 15, can one teach what they do not fully know? I think in a gospel context…yes. I have seen a few good gospel teachers that are not the most knowledge people ever, but do very well at asking questions and leading discussions. I think missionaries are also a good example. They are unlearned, but yet have the spirit and let people come to their own decisions by prayer and study.

    Pg. 18, are all minds equal? Hmmm. I’ll have to think on that ones, but my first thought is no.

    I think this post is long enough for now!

  24. Ben said

    Apologies for not chiming in yet–it’s been a hectic week/weekend. As such, most of my observations have already been skillfully pointed out above. I will, though, offer two general critiques that came to mind while finishing the chapter.

    1. Like several above, I fear that Ranciere is degrading the role of the explicator a tad much, mostly in his, in my reading, relegating a teacher to merely parroting the things found in the text. To me, an effective teacher is one that goes beyond the text, critiques the text, ties various texts together, and offers altering opinions to the text; I don’t see the explicator as a mediator between student and text, but both as complimenting sources covering a broader spectrum.

    2. I fear he is universalizing the education process that is, in turn, a paradox to his overall thesis. While claiming this intellectual hierarchy stultifies the student because it limits their capacity to learn, I think that limiting a student’s education to merely the text will stultify them as well because it lessens their exposure to explication. Julie’s (half?) joking comment in #6 hints at a deeper problem: not everyone comes to the same conclusion when viewing the same text–and often two interpretations can be as contradicting as complimentary. Exposing a student to not only a text but an explicator allows further chances for learning and understanding. (I think of the child throwing spaghetti against a wall to see which ones stick).

    That said, there were definitely some gems in the chapter that I really loved, and hope to get more into them in later chapters.

  25. Ben said

    Oh, and the other main thing that stuck out in my mind: Jacotot (and, by extension, Ranciere) reminds me of a pedagogical version of Schleiermacher on steroids.

  26. joespencer said

    Sjames #14 (second comment),

    (1) I think you’re missing what Ranciere is trying to say. He isn’t at all suggesting that children learn through a kind of abstracted intelligence (intelligence in a bubble), but that their intelligence can applied directly to relations and situations, to the whole fabric of contextuality that you’re referring to. His claim, as I read it, is not that children (or emancipated students) learn independently of such context, but that they learn by applying their intelligence directly to such context (rather than having that context explained to them). So I don’t at all think he’s offering “discovery learning” or anything like it. (Indeed, I think he has little patience for “discovery learning.”) I think he’s simply trying to point out that there is no reason to insert a hierarchically structured “explanation” between a child’s intelligence and the thing the child is going about learning. The emancipatory master (and emancipated teaching is never without a master, for Ranciere; I don’t think this is a model of self-education) imposes the task on the student, but does not provide the explanations. Chance, for Ranciere, is not a question of the randomness of the student’s desire about what to learn, but the randomness of how the student might go about figuring out what s/he is presented with.

    Hence, when you ask whether “we have the (life)time to discover all we need to know without explication,” I think Ranciere would say “Yes!” But I think he would say so precisely because (1) so long as we give into the explicatory order, we have not really lived anyway; and (2) Ranciere seems to me to think that we actually learn faster when we learn under an emancipated master. So far as this second point goes, I think I agree with Ranciere. The more “stultified” we become, the slower we learn.

    (2) So far as writing goes, yes, of course writing bears all the things you mention. And textuality is always intertextuality—I agree. The point is that texts do not need to appeal to something transcendent (some “spirit” of the text that can only be ascertained mystically) that, for Ranciere (and I think I agree with him), is really just an invention of those who hope to garner oppressive power. In other words, to talk about the immanence of the text is not at all to suggest that text is without context, or that the production of text is “purely cognitive” (I’m not even sure what you have in mind there, nor do I have any sense for how a purely cognitive writing would pretend to immanence). To talk about the immanence of the text is to point out—with Roland Barthes—that inscriptions do not have reference to an author in the sense that the author has some kind of authority over the text. It obviously bears connections with the “author’s” historical circumstances, ideologies, etc. But that author, once the writing is written, cannot tell you what the text has to mean, or how it has to be read. Writing, as Barthes says, constitutes the “death of the author.” To say that writing is immanent, then, is to say that there is nothing outside the text specifically that would determine a singular, incontrovertible “necessary interpretation” of the text.

    In short, I couldn’t agree more that writing is a social practice. The point is not to pretend that every text is some kind of monad, but that every text, as text, has wrenched itself free from its author, from authority. (This is why Socrates, in the Phaedrus, worries about writing: it is errant; it goes wherever it wants; it can be “misinterpreted,” etc. That would be death for the Republic!) To speak of writing’s immanence is to say that writing is what breaks with belief in transcendence (in the strong, essentially theistic sense), not that it isn’t enmeshed in a social context.

    I hope this is getting clearer.

  27. joespencer said

    Kirk #23,

    I think you’re trying to embrace both models Ranciere is putting forward, and which he sees as being in conflict. There isn’t—as I read him—any way of reconciling for Ranciere the two models (emancipatory and stultifying).

  28. joespencer said

    Ben #24,

    I wonder if you’re not actually just trying to find a way to allow the teacher to learn alongside the student, rather than to reinstall explication. Both of your points of critique amount to saying “But the teacher has learned interesting things, and those interesting things deserve to be heard.” I think that’s exactly right, and I think you’re trying to spell out a way that they can be communicated without stultifying the student. I think this is a worthy project. Let me see if I can illustrate.

    In a seminary classroom (where I’ve spent a bit of time teaching), I certainly can’t—practically speaking—throw out the scriptures and start forcing my students to learn Hebrew. So, if there is something in Hebrew that might be interesting and shed light on the text, I have got to bring it up myself. However, there are two ways I can do this. I can do it in a way that lets the students know that I am the master of the situation, and that they could not have learned this kind of thing without my help; or I can constantly encourage them to study things like Hebrew, make them aware of resources for looking at Hebrew words without knowing Hebrew, downplay my own “mastery” of Hebrew by making it clear that I just looked it up myself.

    In a word: I don’t think what Ranciere calls stultification results from a teacher’s bringing pertinent information up in a classroom setting if the teacher makes clear (1) that s/he had to work in order to retrieve such information, thus always ensuring that the students know that they can just as well go find that sort of information, and (2) that the teacher’s intelligence is therefore no greater than (is not superior to) the students’. It is not that information is provided that points to stultification; it is that information is provided in such a way as to split the world of intelligence in two that undoes emancipation.

    Any purchase here?

  29. KirkC said

    #27, Joe.

    Yes, I was wondering if anyone was going to pick up on that. I am kind of playing both sides of the field on this. However, I think that is because I am on the fence. I would find myself agreeing on one page, but then disagreeing on the other, and vice vera. After reading some of the comments here I am starting to come up with a more concrete stance, but I am leaning slightly towards emancipatory.

    I am intrigued by where this book is going after chapter one. Because it read more like an essay than a book. It could have easily ended at the end of chapter one, imo.

  30. KirkC said

    Ok, I have thought on this a little more in the last 20 minutes.

    Here are my thoughts:

    I do not think Ranciere is for self-education. I think he would want people to attend universities and not just read books at home. I think the type of teaching Ranciere would like would be akin to the Sunday school notes that Jim F posts on this blog every week.

    The questions are put forth and as one read the text speaks to them. The text is stands alone. The Master simply guides the mind in the right direction to find answers. Thus the quote:

    “Learning and understanding are the two ways of expressing the same act of translation.”

    We learn by the question posed by the Master, and understand by the study of the text.

  31. Robert C. said

    OK, sit down and relax, this got kinda long.

    Now that I finally found time to read this, I want to echo Joe’s #28—I see Ranciere’s main target as a pedagogical attitude of stultification, one that was esp. prominent in the early 1800s, but which has important vestiges today that are too often and too easily ignored and not seen.

    As to discovery learning, I think that done right, this is an extremely em-powering (like Ranciere’s circle of power) way of teaching. But “done right” is the key, and the term is too easily applied to shoddy learning. It’s the same with the case method of learning. The underlying theory of the case method, on my view (or at least the case method done right), is the same as what Ranciere is promoting. The problem is that the approach becomes too “mechanized” and the virtues that the underlying theory is trying to promote get lost in translation(/implementation).

    Or, applied to theology, Sunday school itself is very much structured so as to facilitate this style of learning (to touch on several of Joe’s original questions): the teacher stands before the class with a text that no right-minded teacher would claim to have a mastery of. But, the teacher as an ignorant master, must ask the class to read and interpret the text. In my experience, this is actually not done very often. Usually, the teacher tries to teach the class how he understands the text. Or, the teacher asks the class a kind of discussion question that really has very little to do with the text, and members of the class simply expostulate their own (pre-formed) theories and thinking, and then other students either agree or disagree, and the discussion turns into a stultifyig exercise where no one is really grappling with the underlying text itself.

    For anyone who has really studied Jim F.’s lesson notes, he asks hard questions. It’s infuriating that for me that he doesn’t offer answers. But he (via these written questions) has come to function as an emancipatory master precisely because he has provoked me to try and answer these questions using my own intelligence (and access to inspiration, revelation, etc., I would add).

    Now, in practice, if a teacher simply tried to read off Jim’s questions as a method of teaching, I think this would, more often than not, fall flat. But that is because we have a largely stultified culture in the church—and in colleges more generally, is largely my experience. This is why, for example, more often than not, undergraduate classes are not taught like graduate seminars, where graduate seminars tend to be conducted on a very egalitarian basis where the teacher or a student is in charge of leading a discussion regarding a particular paper (which is precisely the way that Jim teaches his undergraduate classes, to his credit!). So, in practice, I think the Sunday school (or FHE-, home-, visting-, etc.) teacher must really grapple with the text ahead of time, so that if the questions fall flat, the teacher can poke and prod the class, and suggest possible interpretations that she has already begun (but only begun! but with great rigor…) to think through for herself, but then only offer these interpretations to the class as merely an example of how the text might be read, ultimately in an effort to prod others to do more of the same.

    In the end, I think this is Ranciere’s main point: in place of stultifying transmission of “savant”-like (p. 13) knowledge, is prodding!

    And isn’t this Nephi’s same plea?:

    Wherefore, now after I have spoken these words, if ye cannot understand them it will be because ye ask not, neither do ye knock; wherefore, ye are not brought into the light. . . . And now I, Nephi, cannot say more; the Spirit stoppeth mine utterance, and I am left to mourn because of the unbelief . . . and the ignorance, and the stiffneckedness of men; for they will not search knowledge. . . . (2 Nephi 32:4ff)

  32. joespencer said

    Robert, in #31, says:

    “Or, the teacher asks the class a kind of discussion question that really has very little to do with the text, and members of the class simply expostulate their own (pre-formed) theories and thinking, and then other students either agree or disagree, and the discussion turns into a stultifyig exercise where no one is really grappling with the underlying text itself.”

    I think you’ve put your finger, Robert, on something important here. Often enough, precisely the kind of thing you articulate here is what is used as a makeshift version of Ranciere’s emancipatory teaching. To say that all intelligence is equal is not to say that “everyone’s opinion matters”; but rather to say that “everyone equally has the capacity to work on truths.” I think that’s a crucial distinction.

    • BHodges said

      It is crucial, and it clarifies one of my main objections (for lack of a better term) to the chapter. That is, I got the feeling that it was leaning too far to the idea that everyone’s opinion matters equally, all answers are good, etc. I don’t have the text with me currently, but I underlined a part (which may be in the second chapter) that says “what do you think about it” is the most important question to ask a student. In a way, this can be as dangerous as helpful. It has the potential to create an over-reliance upon one’s own opinions. It may lead to a confident ignorance, in other words.

      • Karen said

        Yes, in fact, as we will see later it is exactly that no one’s opinion matters at all, that the point is we are studying a text and not giving our own thoughts. The only “opinion” that matters when we are studying a text is the text’s opinion. We can never think our opinions are truth, as I read Ranciere. A teacher forces students to say what the text says, and never to just give their own answers.

  33. KirkC said

    #31, Robert,

    “For anyone who has really studied Jim F.’s lesson notes, he asks hard questions. It’s infuriating that for me that he doesn’t offer answers. But he (via these written questions) has come to function as an emancipatory master precisely because he has provoked me to try and answer these questions using my own intelligence (and access to inspiration, revelation, etc., I would add).”

    Yes! This is the point I was trying to drive home with my post in #30. Nice articulation of this.

  34. KirkC said

    #32, Karen

    “it is exactly that no one’s opinion matters at all, that the point is we are studying a text and not giving our own thoughts.”

    I agree. However, I wonder how many people in a Sunday school class really believe that none of our “opinion[s] matter.” One things I try to get through to my classes is that we are all trying to learn together, but I still get some “final” answers on a reading of a text every now and again.

  35. sjames said

    #26, Joe, I hope you haven’t missed the irony of your resort to explanation and casting of what Ranciere would have us know and think. This is not to waive the opinions but to note their trajectory. Honestly, I don’t think he is saying what I’m saying.

    Ranciere’s view is still, for me, despite his project of intellectual emancipation, an authoritarian one, for as you note: the master ‘imposes the task on the student’. I don’t think Ranciere escapes the scholar’s dilemma himself: he is quite happy to explicate Jacotot – the challenge of course is for him to provide a rich enough ‘case’ (thanks Robert C) re Jacotot, for us to decide what is meant. One thing that stands out for me is Jacotot’s instruction to his students to learn French (Jacotot’s language) because he couldn’t speak theirs, why didn’t he work with the Flemish? This is glossed by Ranciere who apparently doesn’t see any problem in terms of his ‘equality’ project.

    #31, Robert C, Im not sure the ignorant schoolmaster can be a ‘prodder’ – it does suggest that s\he has an end in mind – some form of closure. The risk of knowing something and hiding it in class, is that we essentially ‘feign ignorance’. In classes I attend and conduct I find it appropriate to provide qualified explications, to acknowledge gaps and incapability; students value explication when they do some explaining, when they explain answers, observations, positions etc. Though we operate in ‘democratic modes’ when opinions are shared and engaged etc. your example is a common one – discussion can become stultifying unless one works to overcome the expectation that closure is required at the end of a lesson.

    #32, Joe, – cant see how “everyone equally has the capacity to work on truths.” unless ‘capacity’ is an unmediated universal endowment. Capacity building is what is required. In this regard the question is not ‘what do I need to know?’, but ‘how is it done, how do I work on truths?’. A bit like teaching someone to fish, I suppose.

    #32, BHodges, – agree, see Nibley’s: Zeal without Knowledge

    #32, Karen, some subscribe to the view that meanings are in people, not texts :)

  36. KirkC said

    “some subscribe to the view that meanings are in people, not texts.”

    I have wondered about this quite a bit actually. Does scripture give our lives meaning, or do we give the scriptures meaning?

    I think the text must speak for itself. The actual meaning is within the text, not within the understanding of man.

    God gives scripture to a prophet. The prophet writes down words. We read those words. The words are what are studying, not the meaning we (or someone else) attaches to those words.

    • KirkC said

      Therefore, the scriptures give our lives meaning. I do not think we should put final meaning into the scriptures.

      I think this is actually opposite to what is generally taught in church. We are taught in church from the time we are young what the scriptures “teach.” Even in lesson manuals we are given “right” answers. The answers given are intended to direct our lives. This would be an example of us giving the scriptures meaning.

      These (#35/36) are two totally different ways of reading scripture, and thus the line sjames used in #34, “some subscribe to the view that meanings are in people, not texts.”

      *sorry to put this in two different posts, I hit the button before I was finished.*

  37. Karen said

    “some subscribe to the view that meanings are in people, not texts.” Yes, some people will, but are we talking about “people” or about Ranciere? I realize we can all have our own opinions, but let’s figure out Ranciere first – which is exactly what Ranciere is calling for. Study the text and figure that out first, then you can start comparing other things to it. I suppose this is how I see this project as being the most productive: let’s study out Ranciere and argue about his words first, then, once we’ve read the whole book, let’s debate its merits and compare it to other methods.

  38. joespencer said

    Sjames #35,

    (1) Actually, I don’t think there is an irony: first, this is not a teaching situation; second, I don’t believe my explanations of the text at all impose an intellectual hierarchy. In other words, to see an irony here is, I think, to misunderstand Ranciere. And lest that word “misunderstand” be taken as a still more ironic betrayal of irony here, I should add—though carefully: I mean to be rigorous, not rude—that I think the miscomprehension on your part here is a question of will, not of intelligence.

    (2) I think my first point here responds to your concern about Ranciere’s own “explication” of Jacotot’s experience. The difference between emancipation and stultification is not the difference between saying something and not saying something; it is the difference between splitting intelligence in two and splitting will in two. Ranciere does not, in his book, presume that we the readers cannot understand Jacotot himself. Rather, he presumes that we haven’t the will to get to work on it—that we haven’t recognized that we have the task to get to work on it.

    (3) And why can’t capacity to work on truths be an unmediated universal endowment? In fact, I would take it a step further: intelligence (“the mind of man,” says Joseph Smith) is eternal. Not so much an endowment then than an unmediated universal fact. Ranciere’s contention is that this fact (there is no Endower or Giver in Ranciere’s universe) means that everyone can get to work on truths. So far as the “how” goes, Ranciere’s point is precisely that we do not need to learn the “how”. This, I presume, is what he means when he says “the human child is first of all a speaking being” (p. 11). I assume that he means here that the “how” is simply in us, that we only need to garner the will to get to work. Human beings, as human beings, are learning beings, and Ranciere’s point—as I read him—is precisely that they do not need to be taught how to learn. How can someone learn to learn? Isn’t that a patent absurdity? Indeed, the analogy with “teaching someone to fish” is ultimately just a clever way of trying to get around the absurdity of this formulation. The only reason I can teach someone to fish is because they already have the capacity to learn, and so the reason I replace “to learn” with “to fish” is to pretend that I’m not really talking about someone learning how to learn.

    In short, I think you’re trying to play both sides of the fence. Either (a) you need to announce that Ranciere is little more than a terrible fool, incoherently confusing categories (in which case I think you need to do much closer reading of the text in order to make your case; the principle of charity holds even—perhaps especially—in cases of reading fools), or (b) concede Ranciere’s distinction between the two teaching methods and confess that you opt for the explicatory (and inherently aristocratic) model (in which case I think you are totally justified pedagogically, if not politically).


  39. KirkC said

    #36, BHodges, thanks. I think my comments expound a little on the ideas set forth on #32. I also tend to think Ranciere would approve of this approach to scripture. However, I cannot recall if we said what his faith background (if any) was.

    Joe, do you know this?

  40. joespencer said

    I’ve never found any definitive statement about Ranciere’s relationship to religion. He certainly wants to oust it from aesthetics, but I don’t know beyond that.

  41. KirkC said

    I would assume (from one chapter of text, so take it for what it is worth) that Ranciere would have a theory akin to Kant’s phenomenal (physical) and noumenal (spiritual) worlds. In a nutshell, according to Kant, we can understand the phenomaenal, but only God can see the noumenal, because he is outside of time and the rules are different there.

    I only bring this up because it makes me think about the original questions Joe posed, as to how this reading should effect (if at all) our Gospel teaching. Therefore, I wonder what Ranciere would have to say about questions 1-8. This thinking echos Karen in #37, “let’s figure out Ranciere first.”

  42. sjames said

    Joe #38, I apologise if I’m appearing willfully difficult, its apparent I haven’t grasped the Ranciere you have as my reading is different.

    For example, I don’t hold to his implied innatist unconditioned view of intelligence or the intellect, but more a social constructionist view; I’m not comfortable with the dualistic and reifying approach Ranciere employs towards such notions as ‘will’ and ‘intellect'(I consider these as far less universal and more contingent). As a I look further on in the text he appears to align with the Cartesian ways of thinking with which Im not aligned. As suggested I find a contradiction in Jacotet’s (read Ranciere) hierarchical, authoritarian (some would say imperialist) initial positioning of his students in relation to which language they must use, including the way Ranciere’s assumption of ‘will’ reads as unmotivated, unmediated, and unfettered agency which somehow we are all holding back.

    3. My reference here is to Ranciere’s world, not Joseph Smith’s, I haven’t superimposed JS’s definition of ‘intelligence’ on Ranciere’s, and consider there may be some danger in this ‘mingling’. I am wary of reading texts through other texts unless this is the express purpose, or attributing to an author something unexpressed in a text.

    For me, as I have posted above, the ‘how’ is a fundamental issue. I come back to a point I attempted to make earlier that to make the ‘speaking child’ the point of departure for arguing that the ‘how is within us’, and learning is fundamentally a matter of garnering will, is not to acknowledge scholarly work that has provided insight into the socially interactive mediations that ‘produce’ the speaking child, which include direct and indirect demonstrations of ‘how’ from birth. It is to suggest that what makes up the ‘speaking child’ is a universal given. BY extension, it is also to fail to acknowledge that a major reason posited for why children don’t do well at school (in teaching and learning settings) is because they haven’t been taught ‘how’ to do things, but rather teachers assume that they know how, that they possess the cultural capital, or that they will ‘acquire’ the ‘how’ without explicit teaching, this is a particular issue in teaching settings with socially, linguistically and culturally diverse learners.

    Re: Learning how to learn: Teaching learners how to learn is fundamental in much pedagogy because of the recognition that different disciplines, practices, etc.require different ways of knowing and hence learning – here to be learning is not viewed as an autonomous innate condition, but that which requires, among other things, increasing levels of (disciplinary)consciousness over what one is doing and how it is being done (developing the metacognitive).

    For me its not an issue of charity or someone being foolish, Im only suggesting Ranciere is arguing from premises that I don’t agree with or observe in the teaching, learning and scholarship in which I am engaged, and I don’t see the need to ‘concede’ and ‘confess’ to being ‘inherently aristocratic’ if all I’m fundamentally arguing is that his notion ‘explication produces stultification’, is flawed.

    #36 KirkC, re Where meaning lies: I understand your point, however, another way to look at this is if I give you a text in a language you don’t know (say Thai) – will you understand it? Where does meaning lie, if not in the reader who understands Thai. We understand things firstly in terms of things we already understand – which is not necessarily the same as understanding what the writer of a text intends or had in mind.

  43. joespencer said

    Thanks, Sjames. This clarifies things quite a bit.

    As I read Ranciere, he doesn’t engage the scholarship to which you refer simply because he thinks it begins from bankrupt presuppositions. And it seems to me that such scholarship, quite as much as Ranciere, argues circularly.

    But I still wonder whether you’re really engaging Ranciere’s claim. Ranciere, as I read him, quite agrees that he is arguing from premises that you don’t observe in the teaching, learning, and scholarship in which you’re engaged—but that is precisely his point. His point is precisely that all such scholarship presumes an intellectual hierarchy, and so a political notion that Ranciere regards as far more imperialist than what he is setting forth.

    The difference is between “If you learn what I have to teach you, then you will be free because you will be like me” and “If I help you this moment to set your intelligence free, then you will figure out that you are already free, and have always been free.” The former seems much more imperialist to me than the latter. And I don’t see how the former is not ultimately an aristocratic position: you will be free to do what you want once you do what I tell you you have to do, once you have attained the excellence (the ariste) that I prescribe for you.

    In short, I don’t at all see you as arguing in any convincing way that “‘explication produces stultification’ is flawed.” Rather, I see you arguing that anything but explication/stultification is impossible. And I don’t see how that isn’t just a claim that the aristocratic way is the only way.

    How does explication not produce stultification? Or am I right that you’re really just arguing that explication (and hence stultification) is the only way learning can be done?

    • sjames said

      #43, Joe,
      I don’t think he engages the scholarship because essentially he’s working outside the field of teaching, in philosophy – his lens is emancipation, not pedagogy or teaching or learning. One can apply his emancipatory political lens to anything. Some of what he talks about rings some bells: Piaget, Rogers (‘freedom to learn’), Illich (deschooling society), Ashton-Warner, A S Neil and the free school movement, but his work is not unique, not ‘significant’, despite being around for sometime it hasn’t added to the field of education. And I don’t subscribe to the Marxist ‘false consciousness’ view that somehow teachers are all under the spell of ideology – ‘can’t see it’, and need to be freed or emancipated from their false thinking, I think teachers see as well as Ranciere.

      Intellectual hierarchies, intellectual capital, autocratic and recitative teaching, master-apprentice top-down relations etc etc have been worked and critiqued over and over. Paulo Friere’s work has a much higher profile, born out of political struggle, not scholarly observation of the working class; also the work of Paul Willis’ ‘Learning to Labour’. Nor does Ranciere acknowledge the social interactionist thinking which I draw upon in this discussion which is essentially Vygotskyian and the scholars who align: Wells, Cazden, Gee, Lave, Rogoff, Bruner, Lankshear, Giroux, Lemke, hooks, et al – these are but a handful of the scholars at the coal-face of teaching and learning whose work acknowledges the social and cultural divisions and intellectual hierarchies that operate in classrooms, and whose work aims to address these inequities.
      Ranciere’s contribution to my thinking has been his emphasis on ‘equality’ as a point of departure – yet this is clouded by some of the contradictions I see elsewhere in his work, partly created for me in his taking as a point of departure the problems of 19th century pedagogy(cf Robert C #31).

      In your rendering of Ranciere: “The difference is between “If you learn what I have to teach you, then you will be free because you will be like me” and “If I help you this moment to set your intelligence free, then you will figure out that you are already free, and have always been free.” The former seems much more imperialist to me than the latter.” I agree the former is more imperialist than the latter, but I don’t know a single teacher who embodies the first statement – glossed: ‘you will be free and like me, if you learn what I teach’, perhaps it says something about the intelligence and humility of the teachers I know. Hence my argument previously that this positioning of teachers is not generalisable – it simply does not reflect a common reality. As for the second statement – its a stumbling block for me – like KirkC #44, it sounds mystical. Is the Ignorant schoolmaster like the Zen master who says: ‘There is nothing I can teach you, that is your lesson, its your journey.’

      On Explication: its a discursive teaching mode amongst others – Im not elevating it, but Im not discounting it. You ask: “How does explication not produce stultification?” I guess this goes back to definitional work:

      Explication: explanation, clarification, illumination, spelling out, etc.
      Stultification: ‘to render stupid, to treat like a brute’ (Note, p6 Ignorant Schoolmaster)

      I acknowledge there are moments when, to give an answer or explanation, may not be the best facilitating strategy and if provided too often may become a learner’s strategy of choice. Honestly, I don’t see how clarifying or spelling something out, renders someone stupid, unless that is all that is happening. In relation to Gospel teaching, there were times when the disciples could not understand certain sayings of the Saviour (when they were veiled from them) but He did not turn them back to the text, he provided explication – ‘the charitable schoolmaster’. At other times He did not mitigate against the veiling of truth as the Parables exemplify – providing opportunity for the beneficial exercise of their minds – this is a pattern that we can emulate which I think avoids the aristocratic orientation that Robert C #47 refers to.

      Apologies BHodges #47 – the text itself is a tricky one because it relies heavily on its own logic – there are few reference outside the text to provide additional bearing so it does open up conjecture.

      #45 Karen, some similarity but some difference too. Yes, the use of the bilingual text could arguably be claimed to provide an ‘exlanatory’ basis for understanding and tutoring the French. Bilingual texts have been widely used to bridge between L1 & L2.

      • joespencer said


        This helps me a great deal to see where you’re coming from and how you’re reading Ranciere.

        At any rate, I think you’re quite right when you say: “I don’t think he engages the scholarship because essentially he’s working outside the field of teaching, in philosophy – his lens is emancipation, not pedagogy or teaching or learning.” I should say, I think that’s right, but I would add that I think he is nonetheless familiar with the literature—at least the French literature—as some of his other writings make clear.

        But I should say that it is precisely his coming at the question from an explicitly philosophical angle that makes it interesting—and convincing—for me. It’s “significance” for me is not its position in prevailing conversations on education, but its ability to make sense of the classroom (or non-classroom teaching) situation as such. (I personally care very little about the school system.) As I think my original post makes clear, what drives my interest in Ranciere is not what it has to say to questions of “education,” but how it might clarify what it means to read scripture, what it means to read scripture together, what it means to be a part of a “religion of the book.”

        If I’ve expressed any frustration in this conversation, it is because we can’t seem to get to those questions for all we have to say about how the question of the school might entangle itself with Ranciere.

  44. KirkC said

    The difference is between “If you learn what I have to teach you, then you will be free because you will be like me” and “If I help you this moment to set your intelligence free, then you will figure out that you are already free, and have always been free.” Joe (#43)

    The first seem very Platonic, while the second seems almost Buddhist/Eastern.

  45. Karen said

    sjames: Ranciere says something similar to your last point to KickC (we understand things firstly in terms of things we already understand) – “to learn something and relate to it all the rest” pg18. It is interesting that you used this example of receiving a text in a language you didn’t understand – that is what Jacotot did to his students. :) Though of course they had a bilingual edition. So in their case, they did start with something they understood (Flemish) and used that to learn something they didn’t (French).

  46. Karen said

    Here is what I see Ranciere doing in chapter one:

    I think Ranciere’s main point in chapter one is to emphasize that all people can reason and learn, but that not everyone believes that they can. Emancipation means teaching them that they can learn. Page 18 emphasizes that it is not so much a “method for instructing the people” as it is an “announcement.” I see Jacotot caring a lot more that a person recognized they had the power to learn, than he did what fact or subject they learned. Page 18 again: “He will learn what he wants. Nothing maybe.” Ranciere seems to emphasize that he is not calling for a necessarily more efficient teaching method, but for a revolution in the way people think.

    (So though any of us may disagree with some of Ranciere’s basic pedagogical premises, I see his main point so far as not which method is more effective, but that there is an attitude change he feels is revolutionary and true.)

    Ranciere believes that most people think they can’t learn without a master. (This calls to my mind the term “learned helplessness” from my child development class.) Ranciere sees a danger in our normal way of teaching, in that if we always tell a student what to learn, we are in some sense training them that they can’t figure out what to learn without us telling them.

    As I read Ranciere, what he sees as dangerous is not that we explain things, but that we develop attitudes of superiority and inferiority. It is when we believe others can’t learn without us explaining things to them and when we believe we can’t learn without being explained to.

    Note that from page 4, the problem was not that a student went to a book to have the book explain something. The problem (for Ranciere) was when someone stepped in between the student and the book. It was the explication of an explication, if you will, that caused him concern. If someone stops us from reading to read it for us, then stultification begins.

    (Perhaps? this could be the same with a teacher: if a TA always jumps in to reexplain what the teacher has just said, the TA is expressing an opinion that the students can’t listen to the teacher themselves and understand the teacher. It is the jumping in between the student and the material to be learned that causes the concern for Ranciere. As I understand it, when this happens repeatedly, then the student finds it easier to wait for the secondary, outside source to explain it to them, and this laziness is the road to stultification.

    Does anyone have any thoughts on this reading of Ranciere himself? (I’d love to hear thoughts on this reading specifically, rather than thoughts on teaching, if anyone cares to respond to it. Thanks.)

  47. Robert C. said

    I think Sjames brings up valid and interesting concerns that I think we’ll have to address more carefully as we move forward. To use this loaded term “aristocratic,” I think there is a real danger that a teacher in a room of diverse students can teach in a manner that only a few students who are already well educated can really follow. For example, by using scholarly jargon and words, referencing other books and writers, etc., in a way that makes it very difficult for students without prior education to follow. This approach is aristocratic in the sense that it will likely lead to engaged participation and stimulation of only the already-elite students, while those without the prior preparation will not be able to follow, will feel overwhelmed and discouraged, and will feel that the teacher does not care about helping them.

    In many ways, I think this is the heart of Sjames’s concern—or, if it isn’t, it is a concern I would like to raise. And I think Sjames is right that this concern does contradict what Ranciere is saying, at least so far.

    Now, I’m inclined to read Ranciere a bit less militantly, and concede that a certain minimal level of explication is practically prudent so as to avoid this “aristocratic” danger (of basically teaching only to those who have prior preparation). However, the important thing is to make sure that this level of explication is not the end of teaching, but only a first step to get everyone on the same page and, well, speaking the language so-to-speak….

    • BHodges said

      This approach is aristocratic in the sense that it will likely lead to engaged participation and stimulation of only the already-elite students, while those without the prior preparation will not be able to follow, will feel overwhelmed and discouraged, and will feel that the teacher does not care about helping them.

      So it is a lot like this discussion?

      I kid, I kid. Looking forward to the next installment.

  48. joespencer said


    Doesn’t this danger derive directly from the classroom situation?

  49. Robert C. said

    Yes, I think you’re right, Joe. So, how does that square with Ranciere’s thought? Is he talking more generally, so what he says doesn’t directly apply to the classroom situation? Is the classroom itself aristocratically based? What?

  50. RobF said

    I’m jumping in a late here as I finally get around to preparing for my post on chapter 3.

    “I haven’t superimposed JS’s definition of ‘intelligence’ on Ranciere’s, and consider there may be some danger in this ‘mingling’. I am wary of reading texts through other texts unless this is the express purpose, or attributing to an author something unexpressed in a text.”

    Not sure what you mean here SJames, but for me, I’m perhaps mostly interested in how Ranciere’s discussion of intelligence and emancipation can reconfigure how I understand the scriptures and Joseph Smith’s teachings. So far, I’ve been excited by Ranciere’s emancipatory project and can’t help but compare it to what I’ve picked up from Joseph Smith, leading me to ask:

    1) What kind of separations or inequalities do we create in our LDS teaching? Are we separated from God in any meaningful way beyond our declaration that such is the case?

    2) What of the implied distance between a master and a student? Is there a distance between us and God? Does this have anything to tell us about how we relate to God, or how he relates to us? Does God “teach” us and if so how? Through explication? What about learning line upon line?

    3) What of a distinction between explication and story telling? Is it important that much of the scriptures provide story, rather than explication? What about likening these stories to ourselves? Is that a more emancipatory activity than receiving instruction?

    4) Superior and inferior intelligences? What does that mean? Can we take any of this and apply it to the hierarchy of intelligences discussed in the Book of Abraham?

    5) What of Joseph Smith’s “God himself, finding he was in the midst of spirits and glory, because he was more intelligent, saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest could have a privilege to advance like himself. The relationship we have with God places us in a situation to advance in knowledge. He has power to institute laws to instruct the weaker intelligences, that they may be exalted with Himself, so that they might have one glory upon another, and all that knowledge, power, glory, and intelligence, which is requisite in order to save them in the world of spirits.” (King Follett Discourse)

    6) What is the relationship between Ranciere’s emancipation and an LDS view of salvation?

    7) What about explicated explicators? Is there a difference between being an explicated explicator and a Saint having been warned then warning his neighbor?

    8) As Mormons, what might we think of Ranciere’s desire “that every common person might conceive his human dignity, take the measure of his intellectual capacity, and decide how to use it” (17)

    9) What is the role of a gospel instructor? To explicate scripture? To create and then attempt to close a gap in knowledge? Do missionaries do that when they teach? If so, what is the purpose of that teaching?

    10) What is the purpose of asking questions in our teaching? To open up a gap in knowledge that we will then try to fill? Or to encircle an intelligence in a ring of power? And what would that even mean?

    Thanks for letting me go crazy with throwing out my questions as I grapple with this fun text. I hope we’ll be able to address these types of questions here and as we move forward!

  51. […] (We’ve discussed Ranciere’s book here on the blog in a series of posts to be found here, here, here, here, and here. An electronic version of the book, which is unfortunately missing a […]

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