Ignorant teaching and emancipation

Some old Rancière but good Rancière: selections below from The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation (1987, tr. 1991).

The book is from a period in Rancière’s theory focused on proletarian histories, one that predates his focus on politics and aesthetics. Nevertheless, one of the most striking passages in the book is the last reproduced here that does deal with aesthetics and does so in nearly utopian fashion.

In it, Rancière examines artists in particular as “ignorant schoolmasters,” those who seek to level out knowledge acquisition’s traditional hierarchy as they teach. It offers me a good working distinction between what art does/what artists do and what visual culture writ large does not.

Rancière writes that all work is a means of expression for artists. For them, experience alone is not enough–fulfillment comes in the sharing of an experience and the feelings it provokes. A society of emancipated teachers and students would be a society of artists, he concludes.

Rancière is unrelenting in the demands he makes on educators: they must do nothing short of liberating their students. However, he also gives lucid and pragmatic instructions about how this liberation might be brought about.

– Relate everything new to that which was learned previously.

– ABS, always be searching. Perhaps more importantly, make it your duty to keep your students searching, always.

– Emancipate yourself by knowing yourself and understanding the way your work contribute to or resists societal systems.

– Stumble without shame. Teach your students to do so, too.

Food for thought this October, a time when the novelty of learning has faded since the start of the school year and as the first obstacles–the ones that will eventually constitute the lesson that will endure–are encountered by students and instructors alike…

Whoever teaches without emancipating stultifies. And whoever emancipates doesn’t have to worry about what the emancipated person learns. He will learn what he wants, nothing maybe. 18

A book is that totality: a center to which one can attach everything new one learns; a circle in which one can understand each of these new things, find the ways to say what one sees in it, what one thinks about it, what one makes of it. This is the first principle of universal teaching: one must learn something and relate everything else to it. 20

This is the way that the ignorant master can instruct the learned one as well as the ignorant one: by verifying that he is always searching. Whoever looks always finds. He doesn’t necessarily find what he was looking for, and even less what he was supposed to find. But he finds something new to relate to the thing that he already knows. What is essential is the continuous vigilance, the attention that never subsides without irrationality setting in–something that the learned one, like the ignorant one, excels at. The master is he who keeps the researcher on his own route, the one that he alone is following and keeps following. Still, to verify this kind of research, one must know what seeking or researching means. And this is the heart of the method. To emancipate someone else, one must be emancipated oneself. One must know oneself to be a voyager of the mind, similar to all other voyagers: an intellectual subject participating in the power common to intellectual beings. How does one accede to this self-knowledge? “A peasant, an artisan (father of a family), will be intellectually emancipated if he thinks about what he is and what he does in the social order.” 33

“Know yourself” no longer means, in the Platonic manner, know where your good lies. It means come back to yourself, to what you know to be unmistakably in you. Your humility is nothing but the proud fear of stumbling in front of others. Stumbling is nothing; 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. 57

The artist’s emancipatory lesson, opposed on every count to the professor’s stultifying lesson, is this: each one of us is an artist to the extent that he carries out a double process; he is not content to be a mere journeyman but wants to make all work a means of expression, and he is not content to feel something but tries to impart it to others. The artist needs equality as the explicator needs inequality. And he therefore designs the model of a reasonable society where the very thing that is outside of reason–matter, linguistic signs–is traversed by reasonable will: that of telling the story and making others feel the ways in which we are similar to them. We can thus dream of a society of the emancipated that would be a society of artists. 70-71


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