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_The Ignorant Schoolmaster_, Chapter 3: “Reason Between Equals”

Posted by robf on January 23, 2010

As the discussion leader for this chapter, I suppose I should stand ignorantly at the door, pushing you through to enter and explore with no escape from exercising your liberty, all the while asking each of you what do you see? What do you think about it? What do you make of it?

I’ll try to do that, but as for myself, I found this chapter a great adventure, a veritable playground of ideas. Not a swing set and curly slide type of playground, but a large forest park, with hills to climb and slide back down, caves to explore, and creeks to wade.

In Chapter 3 Ranciere takes on our prior questioning of the equality among intelligences. From the get go he tells us that “our problem isn’t proving that all intelligence is equal. It is seeing what can be done under that supposition” (46). So this is an adventure, not a logical proof. He isn’t here to lead us step by step, keeping one step ahead of us, until we assent to the logic of a superior mind. He invites us to explore the possibility of equality, and see what we can do with it.

So what do you see in this adventure? What do you think about it? What do you make of it?

For my part, I can’t think of intelligences without thinking of Joseph Smith and the Nauvoo days, of the prophet in the woods, spending hours telling his listeners about eternity, and our eternal natures that in some way are “co-eternal” with God. Can we read Ranciere as having something to say about our eternal nature as intelligences, about the project of the Restoration, and building of Zion and eternal Celestial societies?

For my part, as I scrambled over boulders and pulled myself up to through the ravines of Ranciere’s text, I encountered new vistas. Perhaps even an unrecognized and overgrown path to a world where a community of equals could live , where all had one heart and mind, with no poor among them.

Meanwhile, here are some of the hills I climbed, caves I dipped into, and rocks I looked under while playing in the creek. If they sound like fun things to explore, join in–or even better, show us what daring feats of adventure this chapter made possible for you!

1) Not inequality of intelligence, but inequality of attention. As I looked at this gem, I compared it to Joseph Smith’s teachings about the souls of men–that “We consider that God has created man with a mind capable of instruction, and a faculty which may be enlarged in proportion to the heed and diligence given to the light communicated from heaven to the intellect.” And again from the Prophet: “All the minds and spirits that God ever sent into the world are susceptible of enlargement.” What do you see here? What do you think about it? What do you make of it? Is Ranciere, like Joseph Smith, recognizing that there is something equal in all of us that is even “co-equal” with God, something equal to all other similar beings in its being “susceptible to enlargement”?

2) “Man is a will served by an intelligence” (51-52). What do you see here? What do you think about it? What do you make of it? I daren’t say what I think, or how this makes me feel, save that it resonated deep within me, in chambers usually reserved for the most sacred teachings. I am in love with this.

3) “Intelligence is attention and research before being a combination of ideas. Will is the power to be moved, to act by its own movement, before being an instance of choice” (54) What do you see here? What do you think about it? What do you make of it? What would it mean to accept this, and to how might it lead us to treat one another if we recognized this as the foundation of our existence? How might this influence the way we teach in church? What is the importance of attention? Are we really paying attention to what Ranciere is saying in this book, or have we perhaps been at times too quick to dismiss his project as the delusion of an inferior mind? Do we do the same with those we teach at church? Those who just “don’t get it”?

4) “It is the lack of will that causes intelligence to make mistakes. The mind’s original sin is not haste, but distraction, absence.” (55) What do you make of this? Can you see Adam and Eve in the garden making this “original sin”? Can you play out that drama as if you were each respectively Adam or Eve? What more do you see here? What do you think about it?

5) “The first vice is laziness. It is easier to absent oneself, to half-see, to say what one hasn’t seen, to say what one believes one sees.” (55). What do you see here? For my part I wondered, how are we lazy in the gospel? What is the relationship between exercising faith and exercising will to direct intelligence?

6) “The principle of evil lies not in a mistaken knowledge of the good that is the purpose of action. It lies in unfaithfulness to oneself” (57). What do you see here? What do you make of it? What is “unfaithfulness to self”? I wondered about taking this beyond some Ayn Randian notion, to those intelligences that God sent into the world?

7) “The wrong is in diverging from, leaving one’s path, no longer paying attention to what one says, forgetting what one is. So follow your path. This principle of veracity is at the heart of the emancipation experience. It is not the key to any science, but the privileged relation of each person to truth, the one that puts him on his path, on his orbit as a seeker. It is the moral foundation of the power to know” (57). What do you see here? What can you make of it? What is veracity? For Latter-day Saints, what s the difference between honesty and veracity? Is there a difference? Do our temple covenants help us with this kind of veracity?

8) “What is essential is to avoid lying, not to say that we have seen something when we have kept our eyes closed, not to believe that something has been explained to us when it has only been named (59). What do you see here? Couldn’t we spend a whole year on this one? Can we see how everything Ranciere is saying is contained in this statement? Does this shed any light for us on our stories about the Father of All Lies?

9) Ranciere claims that the Socratic method “apparently so close to universal teaching, represents the most formidable form of stultification” because it forces a teacher’s orbit of the truth upon his students. Wow. Am I doing this here by listing so many possible discussion points? What do you see here? What can you make of this?

10) Truth “doesn’t rely on philosophers who say they are its friend: it is only friends with itself” (60). I would love to play in this creek all day! What do you see here? What can you make of this?

11) “Thought is not told in truth; it is expressed in veracity. It is divided, it is told, it is translated for someone else, who will make of it another tale, another translation, on one condition: the will to communicate, the will to figure out what the other is thinking, and under no guarantee beyond this narration, no universal dictionary to dictate what must be understood. Will makes out will.” (62). What do you make of this? What do you see here?

12) Understandings are “the effect of two wills helping each other out” (63). Anyone want to explore this cave with me? What do you see here? What can you make of this? Is this kind of helping work or play?

13) “In the act of speaking, man doesn’t transmit his knowledge, he makes poetry; he translates and invites others to do the same. He communicates as an artisan; as a person who handles words like tools.” (65). What do we see here? What do you make of it? Can we play around with this one? How does it make you feel? What can you do with it?

14) “it’s not a matter of making great painters, it’s a matter of making the emancipated: people capable of saying, “me too, I’m a painter.” (66-67). What can you make of this? What do you see here? Is it enough to just be a painter, or do we want to be great painters? And if we want to be great, what can we make of this: “there are no men of great thought, only men of great expressions” (69)?

15) “We can thus dream of a society of the emancipated that would be a society of artists. Such a society would repudiate the division between those who know and those who don’t, between those who possess or don’t possess the property of intelligence. It would only know minds in action: people who do, who speak about what they are doing, and who thus transform all their works into ways of demonstrating the humanity that is in them to everyone” (71). What do you see here? What can you make of this? I’m gazing out at this vista wondering if Zion is a Rancierian “society of artists”?

16) Is Ranciere crazy? Is this all just pie in the sky? Fuzzy thinking? Or might it be more helpful to accept the assertion that “There are no madmen except those who insist on inequality and domination, those who want to be right. Reason begins when discourses organized with the goal of being right cease, where equality is recognized” (72). What do you see here? What can you make of it? How might this impact our teaching in the church? Do we have to be “right” as teachers? What is the difference between being “right” and being “true to ourselves”?

OK, there’s a lot more in there, but these were my favorites. What were yours? I’d especially love to hear thoughts about eternal intelligences, will, and how Ranciere might help us with building up the Kingdom of God on the earth and establishing Zion. Do we find anything here in Ranciere that can help us better appreciate the following from Joseph Smith:

“The first principles of man are self-existent with God. 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.”

Come. Let us reason together. After a couple weeks now with Ranciere, what do you see? What do you think about it? What do you make of it?

28 Responses to “_The Ignorant Schoolmaster_, Chapter 3: “Reason Between Equals””

  1. RobF said

    OK, I’m a little bummed that after three days still nobody wants to play with me on this :-(

    Since the semester just started for me, I’m trying to figure out how to incorporate Ranciere into my university teaching. It seems much more straightforward in church teaching, as we can focus on the scriptures or lesson materials. In a university setting, where “knowledge” has been carved up and is dished out by disciplines, it seems to be a bigger challenge to go into the classroom as an ignorant schoolmaster. The textbook I’m using this semester, designed by “superior minds” to educate undergraduates, is literally a textbook case in how the university system is set up to perpetuate the separation between student and instructor.

    How might one incorporate a Rancierian approach within the university setting when the expectation is that there is so much material to be conveyed by an instructor through lectures and interrogation happens primarily as testing? If I sit down and read the textbook with the students it feels just weird!

  2. kirkcaudle said

    Rob, I was just thinking the same thing about this thread in regards to nobody responding to it. I have also been real busy with school as of late and have not read chapter 3, but I will…promise!

    I will admit I am a bit surprised that Karen has not chimed in yet, she seems to have a good grasp on the material and has been very active in the other threads.

  3. BHodges said

    I really appreciate the affirmation that “The only mistake would be to take our opinions for the truth. Admittedly, this happens all the time” (45).

    As per your #1 and the inequality of attentiveness. Ranciere believes the leaf analogy is flawed because minds, unlike leaves, are “immaterial.” I think this idea could appeal to us in terms of “intelligences,” in that we believe our identity is more than our physical brain (with the caveat about all spirit being matter, of course). At the same time, taking an immaterial mind as a premise is fine as far as it goes, but overlooks the role our physical bodies have in our abilities, including our abilities to reason, analyze, investigate, pay attention, etc. It sort of takes the conversation off track, I recognize, but it seems there should at least be an acknowledgment of the role a physical body can play in how (or even what!) we can pay attention to.

    (As for the “co-equal” statement, Givens noted that the word can pertain more to age than accomplishment or ability, etc. It has the connotation of co-eval, in other words.)

    I like Ranciere’s statement that “where need ceases, intelligence slumbers.” This attacks the “just-enough” syndrome I feel often in certain college courses. A stronger will can step in and push us on.

    I was fascinated by his comment that Truth is not told, it is a whole which language fragments (60). Could we take even this a step further, arguing that certain language-bound truths are only possible by fragmentation? In other words, “fragmentation” obviously isn’t always a bad thing.

    These are just a few thoughts. This was probably my favorite chapter so far, he talks about laziness, distraction, intellectual orbits, identity, agency, the will, but I am too busy to go in much depth with it. You’ve asked a ton of very interesting questions, I wish I had more time to spend with you on them.

    because it forces a teacher’s orbit of the truth upon his students. Wow. Am I doing this here by listing so many possible discussion points?

    Well, for me it boils down to time! That’s why I like your questions, but would have liked to read more of your own answers for now.

  4. BHodges said

    The textbook I’m using this semester, designed by “superior minds” to educate undergraduates, is literally a textbook case in how the university system is set up to perpetuate the separation between student and instructor.”

    How do you mean? Give me a description of such a book.

  5. RobF said

    It’s just a regular cultural geography textbook, and it does try to ask a lot of leading questions (a la Socrates–which by the way, now more than ever, I like to pronounce so-crates like Bill and Ted). So its set up for a standard class where the students read the chapter each week, and the lecturer then leads the students through the chapter through lectures, or…what? How do I do this without just being a teacher standing up there in front of the class pouring info into their brains? In a church setting, you can read together and discuss. But that feels weird in a university class. Maybe I should just bite the bullet and do it and see what happens? I tried a little yesterday and it just didn’t come off like I would have liked.

  6. BHodges said

    Rob, it seems to me in a college settings things will be difficult based on the different temperaments and expectations of individual students. Some students already do all the reading-and more- and come to class expecting more than a read-through. Other students just want to slide through with as little resistance as possible. “Tell me what to say, test me, and give me my grade.” Some teachers, no matter how excited or interested the student is, can still manage to completely alienate the student anyway. I’ve experienced such alienation in a class with a explicating, boring, annoying professor who was trying to be a stand-up comic and arbitrarily assigned everyone a B+. I loved the subject but the experience left me with a bad taste, even for something I loved.


  7. RobF said

    Tomorrow I think I’m going to break the class into 5 groups and give each group some material to prepare and present to the class. It will get them to wrestle with five key concepts from the current chapter, give them some extra info (the origin and dispersal of the pizza, etc.) that I think will engage them.

    I love teaching in the university, but teaching the gospel from the scriptures is so much more rewarding :-)

  8. RobF said

    What about this idea of God being “more intelligent”? Would Ranciere, upon conversion, say that really God had just applied his will to achieve a greater level of godliness? What is this “intelligence” that Ranciere is talking about? What is the relationship between intelligence and attention? Do intelligences develop greater capacities for attention?

  9. BHodges said

    Rob, as far as that point is concerned, I think it is possible to extend a definition of “knowledge” that includes more than “set facts,” whether logical, definitional, or empirical, etc. I personally believe that God progresses for eternity, including in knowledge, so perhaps his superiority resides as much in his understanding, will, and capability as it does in “facts” or “truth.” What do you think?

  10. joespencer said


    I know, I know! I’m eager to play, but still only half-way through the chapter. I should be through the chapter and ready to play tomorrow!

  11. Karen said

    I have been nervous to approach this chapter without the attentiveness it deserves, because I enjoy this book such a great deal and feel it has a lot to offer us. I haven’t finished rereading the chapter, though I read the book through 2 months ago, but I’ll try to catch up soon. I will say quickly that I loved all the questions and the analogy of play. It really is play, and an “adventure in the land of knowledge.”

    RobF, I’m sure Joe will have some helpful info for you soon, since he is teaching at a university and does use this style of teaching. (They even read the first chapter of this book for their first assignment!) We will have constraints put on us, like testing, expectations of a department, etc., but I think there will always be room to emancipate. I don’t have the answers of how :), but since Ranciere believes it is not a method but a philosophy, I trust that it is possible in any circumstance. Good luck! I’ll be back to discuss soon!

  12. Karen said

    I will comment on my favorite part of the chapter from the last time I read through it:

    “This principle of veracity is at the heart of the emancipation experience. It is not the key to any science, but the privileged relation of each person to truth, the one that puts him on his path, on his orbit as a seeker.”

    Several interesting points:

    1. It is an individual path, one only we can do and one only we can honestly say we are on.

    2. Veracity! Honesty! We work so hard to be lazy, yet if we are simply honest we will be in a situation to receive truth. I believe that is the same way we approach God: if we are honest, we know both that we are weak, but God is great, and through His grace we are joint workers to bring about salvation and study truth. But if we allow our pride to get in the way at any time, we cut ourselves off from that amazing Spirit that we otherwise can enjoy. Being honest is an amazing but simple power!

    3. “orbit as a seeker” – what a beautiful image. I see Ranciere here comparing truth to an immovable planet or star. We can circle around it, be pulled by it, see it, learn about it, etc., by allowing ourselves to be affected by its gravitational pull. What puts us right at the correct place to be in that pull and keep circling in a orbit is our honesty. If we lie, which is always lazy, then we lose that relationship to truth and fall from its orbit. Focusing on that text (etc) and being honest again in our seeking will put us right back in this orbit around truth. What a wonderful description of learning and being honest!

  13. Ben said

    Thanks for this, Robf. Here are a few thoughts from my reading of the chapter.

    I found especially important his distinction between “individuality” and “inequality,” stating that most people misinterpret the former as the latter. To demonstrate his point, Ranciere notes how two babies are born with seemingly equal intelligence, yet are apparently at different positions in later life as a result of differing experiences. “Circumstances become diverse,” he explains, “and [the individual] develops the intellectual capacities as those circumstances demand” (51). Yet, while both individuals have had varied experiences in exercising intelligence—Ranciere’s use of “attention” in this discussion is worth noting—their intelligences remain equal. To make this claim Ranciere requires a paradigmatic shift in the understanding of the word, “intelligence”: “intelligence” is not the end result of gathering truth, but rather the tool used through which to further the will—it is to be exercised, not possessed. To Ranciere, “intelligence” is not a noun, subject, or adjective, but a verb. For instance, approvingly quoting Jacotot (though the mesh of Ranciere and Jacotot throughout the entire chapter makes it almost meaningless to attribute a quote to one or the other), “idiocy” is not the lacking of intelligence, just “the slumber or the relaxation of it” (55).

    This point is drawn out best in what I feel is the most telling sentence: “man is a will served by intelligence” (52). “Intelligence” is not the end result, but the vehicle. Understanding “intelligence” in this way makes many of Ranciere’s other ideas more comprehensible. Instructors cannot give “intelligence” to their students not because they are not learned, because it is not theirs to give; all beings are of equal intelligence not because they have differing backgrounds of education, but because everyone possesses a similar capability of exercising their own intelligence. “The virtue of our intelligence is less in knowing than in doing” (65), he tells us.

    I also found fascinating his discussion of language’s role in teaching. Maybe I’ll come back and share more later.

  14. Karen said

    One more from me. It seems that the elements of “interrogate” and “verify” can work in any situation, big or small, home or classroom. Even if you have a set textbook, you can still ask students what this or that paragraph said and then have them show it in the text. And anyone can open up their books and read that one paragraph right then even if they didn’t do the assignment ahead of time.

    While the material may be presented in a stultifying way, it can still be used to emancipate if you go in trusting them to be able to read and understand what the text is saying and hold them accountable to show it in the text.

    Without trying this myself, this would seem to be a way to apply Ranciere to even a textbook-based class. I’m interested to see how your experiments go, RobF!

  15. RobF said

    So for my university class yesterday I broke the class into four groups, gave them each some supplemental information to go over and look for ways to tie the info into the five main themes of the textbook chapter we are covering this week. They spent a half an hour doing that as I circulated among them and kept them focused on the texts and digging out the concepts there. Then each group had to present what they found to the class, while I asked more questions to keep them focused on finding the material in the text and the supplemental info I gave them. It wasn’t as fun as lecturing, but it went OK. I think this approach might take longer than the traditional lecture style–at least if measured by the goal of covering information. But if the goal is to get these students to master the use of the conceptual frameworks of discipline (in this case cultural geography), I’m hoping these kinds of exercises will help them become more skilled than if they were just presented the information through reading textbooks and listening to lectures.

  16. joespencer said

    Some responses to the original post, first of all:

    Rob’s point 1 – Nice cross-references to Joseph’s sermons. I think it is precisely this kind of thing that makes Ranciere resonate deeply with me.

    Rob’s point 2 – I’m wondering how the formulation “a will served by an intelligence” might be used to clarify the notion of agency—which, as my upcoming post on the GP lesson on agency will make clear, is a terribly murky doctrine.

    Rob’s point 4 – Can you flesh out at all what you see happening in Eden here? I think this is a provocative connection, but I’m not sure I see where you might have been going with it.

    Rob’s points 7 and 11 – Ranciere’s notion of veracity seems to me very close to Badiou’s notion of veridicality: the idea is to assign a qualifier other than “true” to statements of knowledge. Unless truth and knowledge are uncoupled—as in Paul, where truth is coupled with faith, rather than with knowledge—one runs into what seem to me to be insuperable philosophical difficulties. Ranciere’s notion of veracity is exactly the kind of thing that is needed, I think, to salvage the notion of truth.

    Rob’s point 9 – It’s a nice way of putting it: Socratic teaching is the enforcement of the teacher’s orbit of truth on the student. One does not end up emancipated, though, precisely because one has to be held in orbit by the teacher, and so is not genuinely in orbit around the truth: the effects of gravity faked.

    Rob’s points 13 and 14 – I find Ranciere’s clarification of the artistic (or, really, aesthetic) here to be immensely helpful. And, as I’m finding out from Ranciere’s works on aesthetics, the aesthetic and the political implications of The Ignorant Schoolmaster cannot be completely disentangled.

    Rob’s point 15 – Exactly! I think Ranciere has given us a very nice model for making sense of Zion. And he has shown, I think, that it cannot be disentangled from the question of aesthetics.

    Rob’s point 16 – And amen to this one, too. It seems to me that this move from being right to being equal is exactly on target.

    Now I’ll actually read the discussion and respond to that. :)

  17. joespencer said

    For now, I’ll just respond to the larger questions about use in the university classroom.

    I agree with you, Rob, that this approach to teaching requires more time, but I find that it is possible to displace all of the time needed to the student’s out-of-class hours. Here’s what I do:

    (1) I require the students to read the material before class.
    (2) I require them to outline it (there are two rules about the outlines: they can’t be simple prose summaries, and they can’t be responses to the material, rather outlines of the material) and turn in their outlines before class begins.
    (3) I don’t determine the direction of the discussion at all. I always begin with the same two or three questions: “What did you find in so-and-so?” “What is so-and-so doing?” “How do you read so-and-so?”
    (4) As students respond, I try to diagram what they’re saying on the board, asking them always to critique my “translation” of their comments.
    (5) I make myself as much a participant in—rather than the guide of—the discussion as possible. I do this by offering my own interpretations and questions here and there, but always with the expressed caveat that I’m no privileged reader.
    (6) I try to make as clear as possible as often as I can that anything “additional” that I can bring to the table is something anyone in the classroom could have stumbled on if s/he were to have wandered through the same intellectual pathways I have: there is nothing privileged about my comments.
    (7) I ask questions on occasion that would force the students to go back and reread the text in order to rethink the framework being developed in the course of the discussion.
    (8) I always interrupt students who say “I don’t know if this is what you’re looking for” in order to point out that I’m not looking for anything.

    And so on.

    I did learn something Rancierean this last week that caught me by surprise. I’m currently teaching four sections of a class called “Ethics and Values.” My first two classes of the day had a very definite pattern for the first couple weeks: the earlier one did a pretty good job making sense of the texts and keeping discussion moving; the later one struggled a bit more with the readings, as well as with pushing discussion.

    Then we read a few pages from Derrida’s The Gift of Death. For whatever reason, as the earlier of the two classes started, I varied slightly from my usual pattern: “What did you find in Derrida? A little harder reading than usual?” What ensued, remarkably, was a terribly stilted discussion. No one seemed confident in her/his reading of Derrida, and the discussion was punctuated heavily by periods of disengagement.

    A bit shocked, I decided to experiment a bit, and so I went to the second class and made sure not to say anything about how hard the reading was—in fact, tried to make it seem like Derrida was any other text. The result: the later of my two classes made very good sense of Derrida very quickly, and we had a fantastic discussion of The Gift of Death that threatened to make us run late!

    Still more interestingly, since then, the two classes have switched in spirit completely. The earlier of the two classes still is struggling with making sense of the readings, while the later one is succeeding very well. I’m quickly becoming convinced that simply by saying that one of the readings was hard, I stultified the one class to some extent: I meant to say “Derrida has a terse writing style, eh?” but what they seem to have heard was “Here’s a reading that will prove to you that you can’t understand these texts without my help.” Now I have the desperate work of trying to help my earlier class emancipate themselves again.


  18. RobF said

    Joe, to be honest, my questions about in point 4 really were ignorant…they just came to me as I was writing it. I had or have no answer or place I was trying to go with it. It just looked like an interesting avenue to follow. I think the phrase “original sin” made me wonder what kind of connection there might be. So I was really asking if anyone had some ideas that might flesh this out (pun intended, sort of, maybe?).

  19. Karen said

    “The first vice is laziness. It is easier to absent oneself, to half-see, to say what one hasn’t seen, to say what one believes one sees.” (55). What do you see here? For my part I wondered, how are we lazy in the gospel?

    I’m just going to look at one aspect of our relationship to the gospel. It is much, much easier to just pass over difficult scripture passages than to work through them. I think when we do this, most of us assume, “I’m not smart enough” or “I’m not spiritual enough” to work through that. A person who says this either then passes over it, or they then go to a commentary or type it in lds.org to get a fast, “right” answer from someone they assume is smarter than they are.

    The problem though, is that usually these commentaries or talks never get thought. They can be fantastic resources, but not if they are taken as a superior word and never thought about. If we can assume the equality of intelligence, then it seems to me we would take whatever the commentary or talk said and verify it in the scriptural text. Our goal, remember, is not to have one “right” answer, but to explore possibilities. Was this person reading the text carefully? (If they were not, they may still have something worthwhile to say, but let’s not take it as the final say on the verse or passage!) If they were reading carefully, what were they noticing that I have never noticed? How does that open up even more adventures for thought? How does it help me on my own orbit around this verse? The danger is to take up the orbit of the commentary because I think I can’t find an orbit on my own. Discoursing with others is fantastic; let’s just not forget to treat them as equals who have something the are saying to us.

    In this sense I think we actually treat their words with more respect, not less. I don’t think it is disrespectful to go through a talk by President Monson or Eyring more carefully to see what he was saying. Just as we have gone through Ranciere and asked not “Does it sound like what I’ve already thought?” and then moved on, happy or not, we could treat any general authority’s words the same way. What is Pres. Monson really saying here? Why this word? What does it have to do with the talk as a whole? What is that story saying? What did he not say in that story? What do we think about it? What do we make of it? How would a very careful reading of a conference talk open up truth we hadn’t thought of before?

    “Reason begins when discourses organized with the goal of being right cease.” If I am concerned with one right answer from the beginning, then I want to spend as little time reasoning with others as possible. There is a sense of “being right” in Ranciere, but it comes in being honest, verifying, and finding the better and better translations of what someone else has written or said. It comes at each careful step of verifying what we think we’ve seen by looking at the text again. But even here, we must not mistake our opinions for truth!

    In a classroom at church, too often we are concerned with making sure the “right” answer gets said (whether we are the teacher or in the class). This seems most easily avoided by taking up a verse or passage. Then we are not asking, “What is the right way to spend the Sabbath?” and arguing for a half hour. We are asking, “What do you read in this verse? What do you think about it? What does it say?”

    The manuals the church makes can be taken in two ways, just like a commentary or a talk. (I’m not thinking here of the Presidents of the Church series, since those are all quotations.) We can assume that whatever they said on a topic is the best answer, end of discussion. Or we can see it as an intelligent communication from a group who had something to say. We can take up what is said, and see what they were actually communicating. This route means we take the manuals with more serious rigor, not less. But we also assume they are not doing more than they themselves claim to be doing. We take them at their word, in the way they present themselves. We see where they are rigorously adding to a discussion, and where they are not. We see where the various statements fit in with the rest of the lesson, or the rest of the section, or even the manual as a whole. Then we can be more faithful to the manual, even if we quote it less!

    I come to this having taught Young Women’s for two years. Sometimes the manuals present a topic, list a scripture, then ask the girls to answer a question. But then the manual presents answers to be put on the board, regardless of what the girls answer!

    This could be interpreted in several ways (and ought to be studied), but unfortunately what I saw teachers do was to only take an answer as a “good” answer if it matched up with the one in the manual. Even if the girl actually answered in words closer to those in the verse, it was treated as slightly “wrong.” “Oh, that’s close. Here’s the answer….” That drove me crazy. The girls became more and more accustomed to playing the “what is the teacher thinking game,” which was really more of a “what word is in that manual” game (like playing taboo :) ). The teacher wasn’t thinking about the manual, the scriptures, or the girls’ answers. What was important was getting a list on the board of the “correct” doctrine or “correct” way to live.

    Most of the girls knew certain “right” standards to live by, but they had no idea why we believed any of them and certainly had no idea that they came from the scriptures. The scriptures and the doctrines/standards were two separate worlds, for the most part. They just waited to be told what to think and what to do (and of course then either lived it or didn’t).

    What then will they do, when they have two teachers who each authoritatively give them answers that contradict? They either have to pick one person as superior, or they have to assume it’s all a show and doesn’t amount to anything real.

    There is a danger in using any church lesson to give someone the “right” answer. We are also teaching them 1, there is no more thinking to do, 2, they can’t figure it out on their own, 3, there are superior minds who know these things, and 4, if you hear otherwise you’ll have to pick who you trust more (or it’s further proof you can’t remember things right). Ranciere rings so true to me because I see that if we use the scriptures as our material “thing” in a classroom, it makes us equal before it with the infinite task of reading and studying. Every discussion becomes an adventure in the land of knowledge – a fun play that is so productive and so joyful. A passage of scripture becomes an infinite source of truth and rejoicing, rather than a heavy weight to be taken care of as fast as possible.

    It just seems ironic and counterproductive to ask any teacher to assume a position of superiority, when we all have the infinite task of studying out the scriptures and the words of the prophets.

    • BHodges said

      Wonderful assessment of the situation. After sitting through a rather discouraging Sunday school lesson the other day I could only wonder how to get things going in my ward. I’m the ward choir director, so not a lot of pull in SS. ;)

  20. RobF said

    Thanks Karen, I like what you’ve said here. And really like thinking about linking your comments and thinking about being lazy with the lesson manuals at church. I like what you are saying about taking the manuals seriously for what they themselves claim to be (guides, suggestions–I just looked up this year’s gospel doctrine manual to see what it says about itself, and had to mostly read between the lines), rather than reified TRUTHS to be passed on to a class. The manual says precious little about what a teacher HAS to say or do (closest it comes is say that “prayerful study of the scriptures” is required and to “keep discussions focused on the scriptures. Be judicious in your use of commentaries and other nonscriptural sources of information”), the rest are mostly suggestions.

  21. Robert C. said

    Rob, and others, I just wanted to think you for a great discussion here. I’m finally starting to catch up on my reading, and this was a great follow-up discussion to the chapter. I’ll post my thoughts regarding this chapter, as well as my thoughts on how to implement these ideas in the college classroom, in a new thread (probably after I finish chapter 4, hopefully in the next couple of days…).

  22. […] 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 few pages at […]

  23. […] common texts reminds me of a book by Jacque Ranciere we read here at Feast a few years ago called “The Ignorant Schoolmaster.” Part of what I learned from that book is that focusing both teacher and student on a book levels […]

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