Reading 2.1 — The Ignorant Schoolmaster (Jacques Rancière)

How did Larry Page or Sergey Brin achieve a genius-level capability to integrate data-mining and ad-based search engine software to create Google? How was Napoleon able to, in a moment, see the key terrain on a battlefield and consistently dominate his adversaries? How did Ralph Lauren rise from relative poverty to become a genius designer worth over $7 Billion?

Typically, we would chalk these remarkable situations up to uncommon genius — the combination of luck and genetic disposition for incredible intelligence. What if, however, these situations have nothing to do with traditional definitions of “genius.” What if intelligence was actually equal among most people? What if the bum on the street in reality had just as much intelligence as Bill Gates? What if, underneath all sorts of social structures and biases, there existed an equality of intelligence? You would probably respond that such a notion is ridiculous. Clearly, some people are smarter than others — some are destined for greatness based on their God-given intellectual capabilities and other are destined for blue-collar work. What if all your assumptions were turned on their heads and you saw that almost all people are of equal intelligence but, importantly, all people also have very different wills.

What if humans are a will served by an intelligence rather than the common belief that we are an intelligence served by a will? What if almost everyone has the capacity to do great things if only they were freed from the stultifying constraints of a belief in a hierarchical intellectual order?

These questions are at the crux of Jacques Rancière’s argument — an argument that he provides via a biographical sketch of a 19th century French schoolmaster. This real-life subject, Joseph Jacotot, knew no Flemish yet found himself able to teach French to Flemish-speaking students. This remarkable outcome resulted from Jacotot’s discovery that one need only identify a common ground between teacher and student (such as a familiar book available in both languages) and then let the self-motivated students loose to discover for themselves. This pedagogical technique of self-discovery rather than didactic instruction Jacotot referred to as emancipation and juxtaposed it to the traditional hierarchical method of superior teacher-inferior student as stultification. The foundational belief that Jacatot came to recognize was that any student, when removed from the constraints of the “you will now learn this” teaching method, proved to be of equal intelligence with any other student and the teacher — the difference was in the will of the student to explore the topic for themselves.

These well-crafted assumptions of the intellectual equality of all provide the basis for a greater discussion on equality as a starting point that is at the core of much post-modernist thought. Whether we agree with their assertion or not, the potential for these ideas to challenge our biases is profound. If Rancière is right, then “anyone can learn anything,” and we must simply be willing to recognize the stultifying effects of some of our social structure and pedagogical styles to emancipate our capacity for genius.