I sympathize with the Boulder teachers, who face salary cuts and possible staffing reductions next school year. They argue, and in my opinion rightfully so, that since the school district’s top administrators are hired by the School Board, they don’t really represent the teachers’ interests. Instead, they impose a business model on education, cutting expenses designated for classroom teaching without imposing commensurate austerity measures on the managers and accountants and other overhead types who don’t directly contribute to the educational mission. On the other hand, the amount of money available for education really has diminished, a consequence of a general economic downturn that’s lowered the state and local tax revenues which are the only sources of funding for public schools. It’s possible that the electorate will vote for increased school taxes next year to offset the shortfalls, but I seriously doubt that the voters, facing their own diminished economic situations, will be in any mood to do so.
There are more drastic ways to reduce educational costs than incremental reductions in pay and in force. As I noted in a prior post, the school district has been experimenting with online courses. With no classrooms and with discussions taking place via blogs and emails, online teachers can be spread more thinly, reducing per-student costs. Then there’s home schooling, which costs the taxpayers nothing at all. I’ve not made a systematic study, but on a cursory review it’s evident that, in comparing course grades and test scores and student satisfaction, the e-learners and the home-schooled achieve equal or better results compared to students in traditional learning environments. I’ve also looked a bit at the impact of differences in teacher quality on student outcomes: again, the results aren’t at all persuasive that better teaching yields better learning. And despite all the advances in pedagogy over the past decades, standardized test results in the US remain steady.
Which brings me to today’s book report.
“In 1818, Joseph Jacotot, a lecturer in French literature at the University of Louvain, had an intellectual adventure.”
Joseph Jacques Rancière, former protégé of Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, presents Jacotot’s adventure as a paradigm for educational overhaul in The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation (1987). In 1815 Jacotot, a celebrated scholar in France, found himself exiled to Brussels. Knowing no Flemish and having no motivation to learn it, Jacotot assigned his students the task of learning French by studying a bilingual French-Flemish translation of The Telemachy. Jacotot didn’t teach his students The Telemachy, nor did he teach French lessons; he simply told them to learn French by reading the book. Periodically he would ask the students how they were progressing, even though he couldn’t evaluate their self-assessments because he still knew no Flemish. Finally Jacotot asked the students to write, in French, what they thought of the book. The results proved enlightening to Jacotot: the students had learned French without being taught French.
Jacotot’s take-home lesson: it’s not only possible but preferable for a schoolmaster to teach subjects of which he himself is ignorant. Or, to paraphrase a popular slam on the teaching profession, those who can should do, those who can’t should teach. It’s like the Music Man forming a school band from scratch without being able to play a lick himself.
In the usual educational arrangement, the teacher is positioned as the Master of the subject and of explicating the subject to the student. This assignment of roles, said Jacotot, is predicated on an inequality of intelligence between Master and student, an inequality that reflects and perpetuates the hierarchical society which the educational system serves. Even progressives perpetuate the system by instituting one educational reform after another that attempt to redress baseline inequalities between the underprivileged and the elite, reforms that are doomed never to reach the goal of actually achieving equality. Instead of making equality the goal of education, Jacotot assumed equality as a starting-point. All children are perfectly capable of learning their native language without explicitly being taught: why can’t they learn another language, or mathematics, or philosophy, the same way? Give the kids a book and some time, make sure they’re not being lazy and inattentive, and voilà — the students teach themselves. A book is self-explanatory: why stick a Master explicator between the student and the book? The Master implicitly teaches students that they cannot teach themselves, instilling a passivity before recognized experts that’s liable to persist for a lifetime. And it’s in this way that the schools serve as an ideological apparatus of the state: the students’ passive dependence on the Master, the “stultification” of their will and attention, recreates and preserves the broader hierarchical social-economic inequality between the elite and everyone else. In contrast, the self-taught student is “emancipated.” Obliged to engage his own perfectly adequate intelligence rather than relying on the Master’s, the emancipated student enters an educational “circle of power” that includes himself, his fellow students, and his teacher in the joint exercise of intelligence among equals.
“Whoever teaches without emancipation stultifies. And whoever emancipates doesn’t have to worry about what the emancipated person learns. He will learn what he wants, nothing maybe. He will know he can learn because the same intelligence is at work in all the productions of the human mind, and a man can always understand another man’s words.” (p. 18)
“Man is a will served by an intelligence,” Jacotot asserted. Does this mean that the emancipated person who engages his will to learn can accomplish anything he wants? Yes, says Jacotot. Rancière cautions the reader that Jacotot’s teaching method
“is not the key to success granted to the enterprising who explore the prodigious power of the will. Nothing could be more opposed to the thought of emancipation than that advertising slogan… It is undoubtedly true that the ambitious and the conquerors gave ruthless illustration of it. Their passion was an inexhaustible source of ideas, and they quickly understood how to direct generals, scholars, or financiers faultlessly in sciences they did not know. But what interests us is not this theatrical effect. What the ambitious gain in the way of intellectual power by not judging themselves inferior to anyone, they lose by judging themselves superior to everyone else. What interests us is the exploration of the powers of any man when he judges himself equal to everyone else and judges everyone else equal to him. By the will we mean that self-reflection by the reasonable being who knows himself in the act. It is this threshold of rationality, this consciousness of and esteem for the self as a reasonable being acting, that nourishes the movement of the intelligence. The reasonable being is first of all a being who knows his power, who doesn’t lie to himself about it.” (pp. 56-57)
Equality of intelligence among individuals doesn’t mean identity in its application, such that each student learns the same things. Nor does a society comprised of emancipated individuals become an intelligent society. Jacotot’s vision for education and society — and Rancière’s as well — is an anarchism verging on libertarianism, in which individuals pursue their own individual pathways in a milieu of mutual support among equals. Says Jacotot:
“There is no pride in saying out loud: Me too, I’m a painter! Pride consists in saying softly to others: You neither, you aren’t a painter.” (p. 67)
Jacotot knew that the ignorant schoolmaster couldn’t successfully be instituted as a societally mandated model, with the accompanying insistence on certifications and standardized pedagogical techniques and evaluations. Emancipated education can’t be instituted; it can only be practiced, parent to child, ignorant schoolmaster to ignorant student, citizen to citizen.
“[G]overnment doesn’t owe the people an education, for the simple reason that one doesn’t owe people what they can take for themselves. And education is like liberty: it isn’t given; it’s taken.” (pp. 106-107)