Friday, 6 July 2012

On The Ignorant Schoolmaster

A certain toddler adds notes to my book.

“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.”
— Jacques Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster, (1991)
Recently I finished reading "The Ignorant Schoolmaster" by the French philosopher Jacques Ranciere. Despite having some reservations about confronting another French descendant of the Heideggerian line, I actually found the book immensely thought provoking and almost entirely accessible. Indeed it was heartening to read: “Man is a being that knows very well when someone speaking doesn’t know what he is talking about.” In fact Ranciere does a ‘masterful’ job of interweaving historical record and philosophy in what could be considered a 21st Century manifesto.

The book centers around the work of Joseph Jacotot, a 19C schoolmaster who developed a “panecastic” method of teaching what he didn't know  - hence the "Ignorant" in the title. One of Jacotot’s five fundamental precepts in his “Universal Education” was that everyone is of equal intelligence. Ranciere makes a fantastic case in championing Universal Teaching – so much so that I found myself making copious notes in the margins. It just so happens though that I've also been reading "The Blank Slate" by Steven Pinker which makes a yet more convincing case for the reverse, backed up by overwhelming evidence and clear - but characteristically lengthy - argument. Ranciere does nonetheless concede that:
“It is true that we don’t know that men are equal. We are saying that they might be. But we know that this might is the very thing that makes a society of humans possible.”
If, as Pinker’s research seems to prove beyond all doubt, we are not of equal intelligence, is it then the case that Ranciere and Jacotot’s arguments entirely crumble? Whilst I would like to have had a good deal more evidence to be convinced that Jacotot’s method really had the impact that is claimed for it, I think it would be a mistake to simply dismiss it. Instead I think we have to seek an alternative explanation for the apparent success of Universal Education. The conclusion I am left with after weighing up the evidence and arguments presented on both sides is that where learning is concerned it is not so important what you are as what you believe. In other words, if you believe you are just as able as everyone else (i.e. of equal intelligence) then this belief is far more likely to lead you to persist where anyone else would desist and to have confidence where anyone else would have doubt. As is becoming increasingly clear; talent is certainly advantageous, but when compared with gritty determination its influence upon achievement is nowhere near as profound. There are exceptions of course, but as Stefan Zweig has pointed out in his book “Casanova: A Study in Self-Portraiture”, talent can be little more than superfluous unless it is allied to persistence and determination:
“He excelled in mathematics no less than in philosophy. He was a competent theologian, preaching his first sermon in a Venetian church when he was not yet 16 years old. As a violinist, he earned his daily bread for a whole year in the San Samuele theatre. When he was eighteen… he became doctor of laws at the University of Padua... He was well informed in chemistry, medicine, history, philosophy, literature, and, above all, in the more lucrative (because perplexing) sciences of astrology and alchemy... As universal dilettante, indeed, he was perfect, knowing an incredible amount of all the arts and all the sciences; but he lacked one thing, and this lack made it impossible for him to become truly productive. He lacked will, resolution, patience.” - Stefan Zweig (2009)
Another important precept in Jacotot’s teaching is this: “every man has received from God the faculty of being able to instruct himself.” i.e. given an opportunity and properly facilitated - especially with a meaningful subject - people are very adept at self education. This may have been a radical claim in its time, but in the present day it appears to be little more than a commonplace. More to the point, it doesn’t in the least explain why in some cases teachers do make a difference. We’ve all been taught by ignorant teachers in our lives but the results were rarely, if ever, positive.

When reading The Ignorant Schoolmaster I was frequently reminded of something Goethe wrote:
"Treat a man as he is, he will remain so. Treat a man the way he can be and ought to be, and he will become as he can be and should be." 
Once again it comes down to the idea of self-belief mentioned above. It seems to me that what really drives the success of Jacotot’s  teaching - indeed all good teaching - is the way that people are treated. Self-belief is an incredibly potent instrument, whether it comes directly from the individual or whether encouraged in them by the conviction of a respected parent, friend or teacher. If it comes from the individual, as seems to have been the case with Jacotot’s students, then all to the better. But if it can be facilitated, enabled or encouraged - so long as this doesn’t engender dependence - then all to the better too.

So, in spite of all the evidence in Pinker's favour, how you "treat" people seems more profoundly crucial for the vast majority of people than those rare and fickle gifts of talent. I don't think I know anyone who hasn't at some point in their lives been inspired by someone - whether a teacher, parent or friend - that made them feel as though they had a special ability - a “talent” if you will - that was worth serious attention and effort. Whether these teachers were in fact correct in spotting some unique gift is perhaps peripheral to the immense force of conviction that comes from being encouraged by the evident faith of someone one respects or admires – by being treated as you can be and ought to be.


Stefan Szczelkun said...

Thanks I enjoyed reading this. I also came late to this book and have published my rather rambling thoughts here:

Jim Hamlyn said...

Thanks Stefan. Wow, that's a very thorough 'explication' ;-)

You might find the following interesting too, it was posted just a few days ago:

Jim Hamlyn said...

Corroborating evidence:

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