Saturday, September 29, 2007

Reading "The Ignorant Schoolmaster" – A subversion

I am presently re-reading and re-reading Kristin Ross’s inspired translation of Jacques Rancière’s sublime critique of pedagogy as stultification: "The Ignorant Schoolmaster". The immediate impetus is an upcoming trip to Finland where, among other things, we will be presenting some ideas for discussion under the title of "Unpedagogy for the unfaithful".

Rancière reminds me a lot of de Certeau and the whole critique of what we might call "Bourdieu-ism": the naming and explication (in Rancière’s pejorative sense) of "inequality", "distinction", "social reproduction" and the like in a way that profoundly (even if unwittingly) serves and maintains the interests of (the) explicators. The ways Rancière discusses contemporary educational buzzwords like "attention" (and, by implication, "engagement") and "emancipation" are jolting -- and, to our way of thinking, compelling.

Jim Gee told us about the book in the course of an email exchange where I was rabbiting on about why I thought some recent "post progressive" pedagogies seemed to me to be upside down. At one point I said something about the assumption that the way we explain the world holds the key to how we should teach and learn about it. I mentioned how in a lot of our current "teaching" work we very consciously set cohorts of our students to learning things we don’t know much about -- and how this seems to work as a pretty good way for all parties to learn things. Jim asked if I’d read "The Ignorant Schoolmaster".

Needless to say, I hadn’t. But I’m on my third run through it now, and commend it enthusiastically.

The catalyst for Rancière’s work is the story of Joseph Jacotot, a French academic who was exiled in the Netherlands following the restoration of the Bourbon dynasty in France in 1814. By a quirk of fate Jacotot found himself teaching Flemish speaking students who knew no French when he knew no Flemish. He "taught" the students to speak French by having them work assiduously through a bilingual French-Flemish edition of Fénelon’s 1699 novel "Télémaque".

While there are more (and more profound) differences than similarities between the respective experiences, the Jacotot story resonated powerfully with some of our own experiences of wrestling with de Certeau’s work. After a typical 1980s flirtation with "The Practice of Everyday Life" we found ourselves in Mexico teaching courses at the UNAM. Our Spanish at that time was about as limited at the students’ English -- which is to say, pretty limited. We offered a course on reading de Certeau’s "Practice of Everyday Life" -- partly because the second volume had just recently been published, partly because the work was available in Spanish as well as English, and partly because we wanted to get to grips with de Certeau’s thinking.

It was risky business and called for a bit of innovation. Basically, we met every three weeks for a minimum of 8 hours. In between time we did email interchange in spanglish. We allowed two sessions (16 hours) minimum per chapter. What was de Certeau saying? How did the translations compare? What sense could we make of it in terms of Mexican social, cultural, economic, political and educational life? What were the passages in the text that supported individuals’ reflections? When opinions on interpretation differed, what evidence from the text could folk bring to bear? The text was the expert intelligence and our procedures for verifying "attention" were uncannily close to some of Jacotot’s principles of universal teaching. Above all, and to a person, the courses were driven by an intense will to engage with the object of learning.

It was a magical experience that went on for four years -- during which time we acquired some Spanish. Each semester ended with the question "well, what shall we explore next semester?" So we went from "Practice" to "The Capture of Speech" to "The Mystic Fable". It was not something that could easily be replicated in distance and flexible modes, and it was certainly not something that squares well with neo-liberal constructions of "time", "efficiency", "knowledge", "curriculum" and, even, "learning". Neither, of course, does it square at all well with much that passes for pedagogy according to our various expert-privileging educational sciences.

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