Pursuit of Intellect, in an Unequal World

Thoughts on Jacques Rancière

The Ignorant Schoolmaster by Jacques Rancière (1991) challenges the role of explication in the process of intellectual development, specifically through institutional academics and formal pedagogy. This reliance on explicative learning has thus divided the world into two groups: those with knowledge, and those without. These divisions perpetuate rigid societal roles that leave little room for growth or, alternative praxis. Teachers inhabit the role of learned, mature, and capable explicators who skillfully sculpt the minds of their uneducated counterparts. It’s this normalized framework that Rancière debunks, ultimately arguing for the emancipated student to unbridle their intellectual inhibitions, refuse academic power paradigms, and pursue knowledge through sheer force of will.

Though an interesting proposition, knowledge, devoid of explication seems almost unfathomable. Why does it feel uncomfortable to tackle cooking without a recipe, to approach a conversation in a foreign tongue, or an IKEA table without instructions? Perhaps because it encourages our curiosity, and trepid stumblings, as valid means of learning. The student, the uninformed, the have-nots are of equal intellectual ability, but the Old Master (15) would have you believe otherwise. Led by the power of will, nothing can avert the emancipated learner; as exemplified by Jacotot’s pupils. This idea of “Universal Teaching” (42) is not novel, rather we’ve learned without context since birth. Ironically, the more learned we become the more we deny our own intellectual agency, at least until we’ve reached the status of master explicator. But for many, reaching intellectual superiority was denied early own, and too often based on political factors of skin color, socioeconomic status, and sex. Soon, knowledge becomes a product unavailable to the poor, within a pedagogy that seeks to deny the existence of “their own abilities, that they had abilities” (129).

Rancière’s emancipated learner is a precious reminder to uphold our value in the face of inequality. But, adopting this vocation of emancipation seems to be a journey for the individual, and only corrupted by the state, citing “There cannot be a class of the emancipated, an assembly or society of the emancipated. But any individual can always, at any moment, be emancipated and emancipate someone else” (98). And just like that, reality hits you like a ton of bricks. Can we really only hope for inter-personal emancipation, and nothing greater? Rancière’s skepticism is refreshingly realistic, albeit painful to admit; I can only trust myself to pursue emancipation, and I can’t expect to be supported. Though not the optimistic revelation I was expecting, nevertheless his insight strengthens my pursuit for a different world. If there will always be those opposed to equality, then we’re required to “learn how to be equal men in an unequal society. That is what being emancipated means” (133).

One unsettling point was the notion of the emancipated Jacotot, emboldened by ignorance, teaching others in subjects completely unknown to him. Had he witnessed Trump bully his way into the presidential seat, or the infamous anti-vaccination couple David and Collette Stephen mourn the death of their son, would his argument remain intact? At what point do we insist that specialized knowledge is not the enemy? There is a difference between wisdom and an accumulation of details.

Nevertheless, “Intelligence is at work in all trades; it is seen at all levels of the social ladder….” (134). Perhaps that’s the struggle of emancipated knowledge, discerning which truths are suited for a given circumstance. In this way, we share our truths, acknowledged our biases and work towards equality of opportunity.

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