Translation from the French original, «Le Maître Ignorant»
[This is my very rough translation of an address given by Rancière. It should be noted that the word «master» that I have retained throughout has the sense in the French not only of the more basic figure of authority but also, more specifically, of the schoolmaster. Also the French «ignorant», translated here as «the ignorant person» or «the uneducated person», means simply a person who does not know something, without the pejorative overtone.
Also: in my rush to translate this text I have not attempted to displace the powerful French «he» at the centre of this voice. The English can therefore appear a little macho.
Please contact me if you wish to quote from this since this translation is extremely rushed and inexact. The French original can be seen here.]
We are all here to speak about the virtue of masters. I wrote a work called The Ignorant Master. Therefore it falls to me to defend on this subject the most apparently unreasonable of positions: the first virtue of the master is that of ignorance. My book tells the history of a professor, Joseph Jacoto, who created a scandal in the Holland and France of the 1830s by proclaiming that uneducated people could learn on their own without a master to explain things to them, and that masters, on their side, could teach the things they themselves did not know. To the suspicion of trading in facile paradoxes we thus add that of being content with the cliches and extravagances of the history of pedagogy.
I would like however to show that what we are dealing with here is not the pleasure of paradox but a fundamental examination of the meaning of knowing, teaching and learning; that this is not merely an amusing journey into the history of pedagogy but a philosophical reflection, entirely up-to-date, on the manner in which pedagogical reason and social reason hold together.
I will immediately go to the heart of the question. What is this virtue of ignorance? What is an ignorant master? In order to respond well to this question we have to distinguish between several different levels. On the most immediate, empirical level, an ignorant master is one who teaches things he does not know. It is thus that Joseph Jacotot found himself suddenly teaching Flemish students with whom he did not share a language through the intermediary of a providential book, a bilingual edition of Homer published at that time in the Low Countries. He placed himself in his students’ hands and told them, through an interpreter, to read half of the book with the aid of the translation, to repeat constantly what they had learned, to quickly read the other half and then to write in French what they thought about it. He was astonished, it is said, to see how these students, to whom he had not transmitted any knowledge, had learned, on his order, enough French to express themselves very passably, how he had thus educated them without having taught them anything. He concluded that the act of a master who obliges an other intelligence to exercise itself is independent of that master’s possession of knowledge – that it was thus possible that an ignorant person might enable another ignorant person to know that which he did not himself know, that a common illiterate man might teach another illiterate to read.
We come there to the second level of the question, the second meaning of «ignorant master»: an ignorant master is not just an ignorant person who gets a kick out of playing master. It is a master who teaches – that’s to say, who is for another person a cause of knowledge – without transmitting any knowledge. A master, thus, who displays the discontinuity between the master’s control and his knowledge, who shows us that what is called «the transmission of knowledge» consists in fact of two intertwined relations which it is useful to disassociate: a relation of will to will and one of intelligence to intelligence. But we must not be mistaken about the meaning of this disassociation. There is a common way of understanding it: an attempt to weaken the relationship of magisterial authority in order to enhance the simple force of one intelligence enlightening another. This is the principle of so many anti-authoritarian pedagogies whose model is the Socratic method, that of the master who feigns ignorance in order to provoke knowlege. But the ignorant master makes a very different kind of disassociation. He understands, in fact, the double bluff of the Socratic method. Under the appearance of nurturing a capability it aims in fact at demonstrating an incapability. Socrates does not only show the incapability of false savants but also the incapability of whoever is not led by the master along the correct route, in conformity with the correct relationship of intelligence to intelligence. The «liberalism» of the Socratic method is really only a sophisticated variation on ordinary pedagogical practice which confers on the master’s intelligence the responsibility for overcoming the distance that separates the ignorant person from knowledge. Jacotot inverts this disassociation: the ignorant master exercises no relation of intelligence to intelligence. He is simply an authority, simply a will that instructs the ignorant person to set out on a path, that’s to say to activate the capability that he already possesses, the capacity that every human being has demonstrated in succeeding with a master at the most difficult of apprenticeships: that of learning that foreign language that for every child entering the world is the language that we call their «mother tongue.»
This is actually the lesson we learn from the stroke of chance that turned the learned master Jacotot an ignorant master. The lesson has to do with the very logic of pedagogical reason, which is to teach the ignorant person that which he does not know, to suppress the distance between the ignorant person and knowledge. The usual mechanism is explanation. To explain is to lay out the elements of the knowledge that must be transmitted in a manner appropriate to the supposedly limited capacity of the minds under instruction. But this idea, apparently so simple, of the «appropriate manner», is clearly subject to an infinite regression. Explanation is generally accompanied by an explanation of the explanation. There must be books to explain to those who do not know the knowledge they must acquire. But this explanation is apparently insufficient: there must also be masters to explain to them the books that are explaining the knowledge. There must be explanations so that the ignorant person understands the explanation that permits him to understand. The regression is actually infinite while the authority of the master is still accepted as the sole judge of the point where explanations have no need of further explanations.
Jacotot believed he could find the logic for this apparent paradox. If explanation is in fact infinite, it is because its essential function is to make infinite that very distance that it attempts to reduce. The practice of explanation is not at all a practical procedure in pursuit of an end. It is an end in itself, the infinite verfication of a basic axiom: the axiom of inequality. To explain something to an ignorant person is first of all to explain to him that he would never understand if things were not explained to him; it is first of all to explain to him his own incapability. Explanation offers itself as a method of reducing the situation of inequality that such people find themselves in with regard to those who know. But this reduction is, for all that, a confirmation. To explain is to grant to the matter that must be learned a specific kind of opacity, an opacity that cannot be penetrated by those kinds of interpretation and imitation by which an infant learns to translate the signs that he receives from the world and from the speaking beings around him.
This is the specific inequality that ordinary pedagogical thought displays to us. This display has three specific features. First, it supposes a radical distinction between two types of intelligence: the empirical intelligence, on the one hand, of speaking beings who talk to each other and intuit each other’s meaning, and, on the other, the systematic intelligence of those who comprehend things according to their own inherent articulations: histories, for children and for popular minds, and reasons, for rational minds. Teaching therefore comes to seem like a radical point of departure, a second birth, the moment where it is no longer a question of speaking and intuition but of explaining and comprehension. Its primodial act is to divide intelligence into two, to exile from the habits of those who do not know all the procedures by which their minds have learned everything up till that point.
From this the second feature. Pedagogical reason presents itself as the act which lifts the veil from the obscurity of things. Its topography is that of summit and base, of surface and depth. The person who can explain things is the one who brings the dark depths up to the illumination of the surface and who, conversely, discredits the false appearance of the surface in favour of the secret depths which contain its truth. This verticality opposes the depth of the learned order of reason to the horizontal method of the self-taught apprenticeship which moves from one thing to something adjacent, comparing what it does not know to what it knows.
Thirdly, this topography also implies a certain temporality. To lift the veil from things, to relate every surface to its depth and to bring every depth to the surface – all this does not require only time. It assumes a certain temporal order. The veil is lifted gradually, according to the level of capability of the ignorant or infant spirit at any given point. In other words, progress is always the flip-side of the delay that comes from the pupil’s inadequacy. The reduction of distance never ceases therefore to reinstate and to prove the axiom of inequality.
Ordinary pedagogical reason is based on two fundamental axioms: first, it is necessary to begin with inequality in order to reduce it; second, the method of reducing inequality is to conform to it by making the objective a form of knowledge. The success of the knowledge that reduces inequality comes from the knowledge of inequality.
It is this «knowledge» that the ignorant master refuses. This is the third sense of his ignorance. This is the ignorance of this «knowledge of inequality» which is supposed to set the terms for the reduction of inequality. About inequality, there is nothing to know. Inequality is no more a fact that must be transformed by knowledge than equality is a goal that can be attained through the transmission of knowledge. Equality and inequality are not two states but two «opinions» – that is, two opposing axioms according to which the apprenticeship can operate, two axioms that allow no passage between them. All that one can do is to prove the axiom that one has given oneself. The reason of the master as he explains makes inequality an axiom: there is inequality between minds but we can make use of this very inequality, to make of it the cause of a future equality. The master is the superior being who works towards the abolition of his own privilege. The art of the master who methodically lifts the veil from the things that ignorant people could never understand on their own promises that one day they will be their master’s equal. FOr Jacotot this future equality consists simply of the fact that the unequal who has become equal will himself then drive the system that produces and reproduces inequality by reproducing the process of its reduction. The overall logic of this process that works under the presupposition of inequality, for Jacotot deserves the name: brutalization.
The reason of the ignorant master poses equality as an axiom to be verified. It relates the inequality of the master-pupil relationship not to an equality to come – and that will never come – but to the effectiveness of a basic equality: in order that the ignorant person can perform the exercises given to him by his master, he must already be able to understand what the master says. There is an equality between the speaking beings that precedes the relationship of inequality and sets the terms for how it may be exercised. It is this that Jacotot calls the equality of intelligences. This does not mean that all exercise of all intelligence is the same. It means that there is only one form of intelligence at work in all intellectual apprenticeships.
The ignorant master – that is to say, the master ignorant of inequality – thus addresses himself to the «ignorant person» from the point of view not of his ignorance but of his knowledge, for he already in fact knows many things. he has learned them by listening and repeating, by observing and comparing, by guessing and verifying. It is thus that he has learned his mother tongue. It is thus that he can learn how to write, for example by comparising a prayer that he knows by heart to the unknown patterns that are formed oon paper by the written text of the same prayer. He must be obliged to relate what he does not know to what he knows, to observe and compare, to tell what he has seen and to verify what he has said. If he does not give himself to such a challenge, it is because he things it is not possible or necessary for him to know more. The obstacle that the ignorant person faces to the exercise of his capaciies is not his ignorance but his consent to ignorance. He is residing in the opinion of inequality held by intelligence.
But this opinion is quite different from an individual mental retardation. It is an axiom of the system, it is the axiom under which the social system ordinarily functions: the axiom of inequality. He who does not wish to proceed further in the development of his intellectual power satisfies himself with being «unable» to do so thanks to the reassurance that others cannot do so any more than he. The axiom of inequality is an axiom that compensates for the inequalities that operate in the rest of society in general. It is not the master’s knowledge that can suspend the functioning of this machine of inequality, but his will. The command of the emancipating master forbids the so-called «ignorant» person from being satisfied with what he knows by declaring himself incapable of knowing more. It forces him to prove his capacity, to continue his intellectual adventure according to the same methods by which he began. This logic, which operates under the presupposition of equality and which demands its proof, is what we might call intellectual emancipation.
The opposition between «brutalization» and «emancipation» is not one between different methods of instruction. It is not an opposition between traditional or authoritarian methods and those that are new and participatory. Brutalization can and does operate through all sorts of modern, active learning systems. The opposition is properly one of philosophy. It concerns the idea of that intelligence that presides over the very idea of apprenticeship. The axiom of the equality of intelligences does not affirm any specific virtue of ignorant people, no knowledge of the humble or intelligence of the masses. It affirms simply that there is only one single sort of intelligence at work in all intellectual apprenticeships. It is in every situation a question of relating that which is not known to that which is known, of observing and comparing, of saying and verifying. The pupil is always a researcher. And the master is primarily a man who speaks to another, who tells stories and brings the authoriy of knowledge back to the poetic condition of all transmission of words. The philosophical opposition thus understood is, at the same time, a political opposition. Not because it would seek to denounce knowledge-from-on-high in the name of an intelligence-from-below. But in this much more radical way: because it concerns our very conception of the relationship between equality and inequality.
It is in fact the very logic of the normal relationship between these terms that Jacotot questions when he denounces the paradigm of explanation by showing the the explanatory logic is a social logic, a way in which the social order is represented and reproduced. If this story of the 1830s is directly relevant to us, it is because it si an exemplary response to the establishment, at that time, of a political and social system previously unknown: a system where inequality is no longer supposed to emerge from a sovereign or divine reality, where it has in fact no basis other than itself. A system, in sum, of the «immanentization» and, if we can say this, the equalization, of inequality.
The years of the Jacotot’s polemic correspond in fact to the moment when the project of a reconstituted social order is finally put in place after the great upheaval of the French revolution. It is the moment when the revolution was supposed to be accomplished, in all the senses of the word, to pass from the age of critique, with its destruction of all monarchical and divine transcendences, to the «organic» age of a society built on its own immanent reason. This means a society putting in harmony its productive forces, its institutions and its beliefs, making them function according to a single, commonly-held regime of rationality. This is the grand project that occupies the nineteenth century – understood not simply as a break with the past but as a historic endeavour. The transition from the «critical» and revolutonary age to the organic age is most of all about the control of the relationship between equality and inequality. It is necessary, said Aristotle, to «reveal democracy to the democrats and oligarchy to the oligarchs.» The project of the modern, organic society is the project of an unequal order which reveals its equality, which makes equality visible through its regulation of the relations between economic power and beliefs and institutions. This is the project of the «mediations» which institute between the top and bottom of society two essential things: a minimum web of commonly-held beliefs, and the possibility of separating, at least in a limited way, the level of an individual’s wealth and the level of his power.
At the heart of this project is the programme of the «people’s instruction», one that proceeds not only from the organisation of the state via the mechanism of public education, but also through the multiplicity of philanthropic, commercial or community initiatives that are devoted to a double task: on the one hand to develop «useful knowledge» – the forms of practical, rationalised knowledge that will enable people to emerge from their drudgery and improve their living conditions without having either to leave behind their condition or to make other claims; on the other hand to enoble the life of the people by making it part, in the appropriate forms, of the pleasures of art and the expression of a community sentiment: the «aesthetic» education of the people for which the founding of choral societies provides the great model.
The vision of the collective that animates these various public and private initiatives is clear: it seeks to achieve three effects. First, to pull people from the retrogressive practices and beliefs that hold them back from participating in the progress of wealth and that encourage in them various forms of resentment against the commanding elites; secondly to build between the elites and the people a minimum level of beliefs and communal joys that will avoid the prospect of a society divided into two separate, and potentially hostile, words; and third, to assure a minimum of social mobility which creates a general feeling of improvement and allows the most talented of the children of the people to climb the social ladder and to refresh the ranks of the elite.
Conceived in this way, the instruction of the people is not simply an instrument, a practical method of working towards the reinforcement of social cohesion. It is, more properly, an «explanation» of society, an allegory of the way in which inequality is reproduced through the «making visible» of equality. This «making visible» is not a simple illusion; it is part of the reality that I call a «distribution of the sensible»: a global relation between the ways of being, the ways of doing, seeing and doing. It is the two-faced visiblity of this inequality: inequality appplied to the work of its own suppression, proving by its own actions the simultaneously incessant and unending nature of this suppression. Inequality does not hide itself under equality. It affirms its own equality with it. This equality of equality andquality has a proper name. It is called «progress». The modern organic society that applies itself to the task of «accomplishing» the revolution places in opposition to the static order of ancient societies a «progressive» order, an order identical to mobility itself, to the movement of the expansion, transmission and application of different kinds of knowledge.
The School is not merely the vehicle of the new progressive order. It is in fact its very model: the model of an inequality identified by the visible difference between those who know and those who do not, and that devotes itself visibly to the task of making ignorant people learn what they do not know and thus of reducing inequality – but of reducing it in stages according to the correct methods that only the elites understand: the methods that give to a given population, at the right moment, that knowledge it is capable of usefully assimilating. Educational progress is also the art of limiting the transmission of knowledge, to manage the delay, to postpone equality. The pedagogical paradigm of the master who explains, adapting himself to the capacity and the needs of his pupils, defines the social functioning of the school that is also the model for a society living under the order of progress.
The ignorant master is the master who removes himself from this game, by opposing the bare act of intellectual emancipation to the mechanism of society and of progressive institutions. Placing intellectual emancipation in opposition to the institution of the people’s instruction is to assert that there are no stages to equality, that equality is wholly present, or is not at all. The price of this opting out is heavy: if explanation is the social method, the method by which inequality represents itself and reproduces itself, and if the institution is the place where this representation takes place, it follows that intellectual emancipation is necessarily opposed to the logic of society and its institutions. This does not mean that there is no social emancipation or emancipatory education. Jacotot sees the method of emancipation, which is the method of individuals, as being thoroughly opposed to the social method of explanation. Society is a mechanism governed by the weight of forces lined up against equality, a mechanism governed by the game of compensated inequalities. And all that emancipation can promise is to teach people to be equal in a society governed by inequality and by the institutions that «explain» it.
This extreme paradox deserves to be taken seriously. It alerts us to two essential things. First: equality, in general, is not a goal to be reached. It is a point of departure, a presupposition that must be proved by sequences of specific acts. Second: equality is the condition of inequality itself. In order to obey an order, one must understand it, and understand that it must be obeyed. There must therefore be this minimum of equality, without which inequality would turn in the void. From these two axioms, Jacotot drew a radical disassociation: emancipation could never be a social logic. I tried to show in my book «Disagreement» that they could be articulated differently, that the egalitarian condition of inequality could lend itself to series of acts, to forms of verification that were properly political. But this demonstration does not come into the frame of the question that brings us here today. I will apply myself therefore to another aspect of the problem: how can we think today about this relationship between pedagogical reason and social reason that Jacotot had placed at the heart of his argument?
At first sight, this relationships presents itself today in the form of a strange dialectic. On the one hand, the School is always in the situation of acknowledging that it has failed in its task to reduce social inequalities. But on the other, this school, constantly declared inadequate to its social function, appears more and more as an adequate model for «egalitarian» functioning – that’s to say for the «unequal equality» proper to our societies.
I will begin, in order to illustrate this dialectic, with the debate on educational equality and inequality, as it has grown up in France since the 60s, because the terms of the debate seem to me to sum up fairly well a problem that we find more or less everywhere in the same terms. The debate was launched by Bourdieu’s thesis, that we can summarize thus: The School fails in the mission of reducing inequality that has been set for it because it is ignorant of the functioning of inequality. It pretends to reduce inequality by distributing the same knowledge to all, equally. But it is precisely in this egalitarian appearance that we find the essential engine of the reproduction of educational inequality. It assumes that the notion of «individual talent» can do all the work of explaining the differences between students. But this «talent» is itself only the interiorized cultural privilege of well-born children. The children fom this class do not wish to know this, while the children of the dominated classes are not able to know this and thus eliminate themselves by the painful awareness of their absence of talent. The School fails to bring about equality because the egalitarian appearance of things hides the transformation of socially inherited cultural capital into individual difference.
The School, according to this logic, functions unequally because it does not understand how inequality itself functions – because it does not wish to know. But this «refusal to know» can be interpreted in two ways that are the exact opposite of each other. It can be understood as the ignorance of the conditions for the transformation of inequality into equality. In this case we would say that the master misunderstands the conditions of his practice because he lacks a certain form of knowledge, the knowledge of inequality – knowledge that he could learn from the sociologist. We would then conclude that educational inequality can be cured at the cost of an extra acquisition of knowledge that makes the rules of the game expliciity and rationalizes the system of school education. This was the conclusion reached by Bourdieu and Passeron in their first book together, «The Inheriters».
But the refusal to know may also be understood as the successful interiorization of the logic of the system: we would say in this case that the master is the agent of a process of the reproduction of cultural capital which, through a necessity inherent to the very functioning of the social machinery, reproduces indefinitely its conditions of possibility. Every programme of reform will thus be charged with futility from the very outset. It’s with this feeling that Bourdieu and Passeron’s next book, Reproduction, ends.
The «refusal to know» is therefore ambiguous. It leads us on the one hand towards the reduction of inequality, and on the other towards their eternal continuation. But this ambiguity is merely the ambiguity of «progressivism» itself, as Jacotot initially analysed it: it is the logic of the inequality that is reproduced by the very effort to reduce it. The sociologist merely introduces an extra circle to the spiral by adding to it a certain ignorance, a supplementary incapacity: the ignorance of that which can destroy ignorance.
Governmental reformers are determined not to see this ambiguity essential to all progressivist pedagogies. Socialist reformers therefore drew out of Bourdieu’s sociology a programme aiming to reduce the inequalities of the School by reducing the presence there of grand culture, by making the place less learned and more convivial, better adapted to the habits of children from unfavourable backgrounds – that’s to say, for the most part, children from immigrant families. Unfortunately, this cut-down version of Bourdieu only affirmed all the more strongly the centrality of the progressivist premise that obliges he who knows to place himself «within reach» of those who do not, to limit transmitted knowledge only to that which the poor can understand and of which they have need. It reproduces the process that confirms present inequality in the name of the equality that will come.
This is why this intervention quickly led to a backlash. In France the ideology we think of as Republican was quick to denounce these methods that were designed for the poor and that could only ever be the methods of the poor, burying the «dominated» from the outset still deeper in the situation from which they pretended to extricate them. The power of equality resided for this Republican world-view rather in the universality of a knowledge equally distributed to everyone, without consideration of social origin, in the idea of a School completely removed from society. But the distribution of knowledge does not lead of itself to any egalitarian consequence for the social order. Equality and inequality are only ever the consequence of themselves. The traditional pedagogy, consisting of the neutral transmission of knowledge, and the modern pedagogies, in which knowledge is adapted to the state of society, both lie on the same side of the dialectic posed by Jacotot. Both of them take equality as their goal, which is to say that they take inequality as a point of departure and operate under its premise. They diverge only on the particular kind of «knowledge of inequality» that they presuppose.
This is to say that both of these are shut up in the circle of the «pedagogized society.» Both attribute to the School the fantasmatic power of bringing about social equality or, at least, of reducing «social fragmentation» even as they both denounce the failure of the other to realize such a programme. The sociologists call this failure the «crisis of schools» and appeal for the educational reform. The Republicans identify reform itself as the principal cause of the crisis. But reform and crisis can be brought together under one single notion of Jacotot: both of them are the explanation of the School, the infinite explanation of the reasons why inequality must lead to equality and yet never does so. Crisis and reform are in fact the normal functioning of the system, the normal functioning of the «equalized» inequality in which pedagogical reason and social reason become more and more like each other.
It is in fact remarkable that this School that is declared incapable of «reducing» inequality presents itself more and more as the positive analogy of the social system. In this sense we can say that Jacotot’s diagnosis of pedagogical reason as a new, generalized form of inequality has been perfectly vindicated. Jacotot had discerned, in the role that the «progressive» spirits of his time granted to the instruction of the people, the premise of a new form of the «distribution of the sensible», of an identification between pedagogical reason and social reason. He had discerned this in the heart of a society for which such an identification was still only a utopia, where the value and the persistence of class divisions and of hierarches were enthusiastically asserted by elites, where inequality was affirmed as the legitimate law of the community’s functioning. He wrote at the time when recalled along with their thinker Bonald that certain people were «in» society without being «of» society and when liberals explained in the words of their spokesperson, the Minister François Guizot , that politics was the business of «men of leisure.» The elites of his time admitted without embarassment inequality and class division. The instruction of the people was only, for them, a way of creating some mediations between the top and bottom of society: to give to the poor the possibility of individually improving their condition and to give to everyone the feeling of belonging, each one in his place, to the same community.
We are clearly not in this situation anymore: our societies present themselves as homogeneous places where the lively, inclusive rhythm of the multiplication of commodities and of exchange has levelled out the old class divisions and allows everyone to participate in the same pleasures and liberties. In such conditions the representation of social inequalities tends to operate more and more on the model of educational achievement: everyone is equal and has the potential to reach any position. No more proletarians, only newcomers who have not yet taken on the rhythm of modenity – or else the laggards who, conversely, are no longer able to keep up with its accelerations.
Everyone ie equal but certain people lack the intelligence or the necessary energy for withstanding competition or simply for assimilating the new exercises that rushing Time, the great teacher, imposes on them each year. They cannot adapt, we say, to new technologies and mindsets and remain trapped between the depths of class and the abyss of «exclusion.» Society represents itself thus as a vast school with its savages that must be civilized and its backward pupils who are having problems keeping up. In these conditions the school is increasingly charged with the miraculous task of overcoming the divide between the vaunted equality of conditions and the actual inequality, increasingly expected to reduce this inequality that is understood to be merely residual.
But the ultimate effect of such over-inflated expectations of the school is, paradoxically, to pander to an oligarchical vision of a society-school. Not only are the authority of the state and economic power both subsumed within this image of the school, but it is a school presented as if without schoolmasters, where the masters are merely the best in the class, those who adapt the best to progress and show themselves capable of synthesizing all the facts that are too complex for ordinary intelligences. To these «first in the class» is proposed, once again, the old pedagogical choice that has become global social reason: the austere Republicans ask them to manage with the authority and the distance indispensable for the good progress of the class, the interests of the community; the sociologists, political theorists or journalists ask them to adapt themselves, by good communicative pedagogy, to the needs of modest minds and to the daily problems of the least able, in order to help the slowest to advance themselves, the excluded to integrate themselves, and the social fabric to heal.
Expertise and journalism are the two great intellectual institutions charged with supporting the government of the elder brothers or the «first in the class» by making this unprecedented form of the social bond circulate indefatigably, this perfected explanation of inequality that structures our societies: the knowledge of the reasons why the drop-outs are drop-outs. It is in this way, for example that every dissenting demonstration – from social movements from the extreme left or extreme right – brings with it a fury of attempts to explain the reasons for the persistence of these old, savage forms – archaic trades unionists, little savages brought in through immigration, or middle-class families left behind by the speed of progress. According to the good brutalizing logic, this explanation is reinforced by the explanation of how we can lift these left-behind people out of their savagery, a list of methods that is unfortunately rendered improbable by the very existence of these left-behind people. If t cannot bring them out of their condition, such an explanation does on the other hand do a good job of rationalizing the power of those who lead the class, a power that consists entirely in this «advancement» over those «left behind.»
It is precisely this that Jacotot had in mind: the manner in which the School and society inter-symbolise each other endlessly, and thus reproduce indefinitely the presupposition of inequality, in the very act of denying it. If I have felt it appropriate to revive this discourse that had fallen into oblivion, it is therefore not, again, to propose a new pedagogy. There is no «Jacotist» pedagogy. Nor is there a Jacotist anti-pedagogy in the sense that we usually give to that word. In brief Jacotot’s programme is not one of pedagogical thought that one could use to reform the educational system. The virtue of ignorance is first of all a virtue of dissociation. By commanding us to dissociate control [maîtrise – the attribute of the master] and knowledge, it becomes useless as the basis of any institution where these two things would come together in harmony in order to optimise the social function of the institution. It is precisely against this desire to harmonize and optimize that the critique is levelled. This critique does not forbid us to teach, it does not forbid the function of the master. It requires us rather to separate radically the power of being for whatever cause of knowledge and the idea of a global social function for the institution that is aimed at bringing about equality.
Equality, according to Jacotot, only exists in the act and for individuals. It is lost as soon as it is imagined in a collective way. It is possible to correct this conclusion, to think about the posibility of collective realizations of equality. But this very possibility presupposes that we keep separate the forms of actualizing equality, that we refuse in consequence the idea of an institutional mediation, of a social mediation, between individual manifestations and collective manifestations of equality. Certainly, individual and collective actualizations have the same presupposition: the presupposition that equality is in the last instance the condition of possibility of inequality ittself and that i is possible to bring some effectiveness out of this condition. There is therefore an analogy between the effects of the egalitarian axiom, as there is an analogy between the effects of the axiom of inequality. But this latter functions as an effective social mediation. It is this uninterrupted mediation that Jacotot theorises in the concept of explanation. But it is not the same for the analogy of equality. The act which emancipates an intelligence is on its own without any social effect. And the axiom of equality iself commands us to refuse the idea of such a mediation. It forbids us from thinking of a social reason through which individual actualizations could transform themselves into collective actualizations.
It is in effect thus that the reasons for inequality introduce themselves into the reasons for equality. The explaining and explained society, the society of equalized inequality, demands the harmonisation of its functions. It demands in particular of the teachers that we combine our expertise as learned researchers, our function of masters working in an institution and our activity as citizens into one sole energy that works together towards the transmission of knowledge, social integration and social conscience. It is this quest that the virtue of the «Ignorant master» commands us to be ignorant of. The virtue of the ignorant master is to know that an educated person is not a master, that a maser is not a citizen, that a citizen is not an educated person. Not that it is not possible to be these three at the same time. It’s that it is nevertheless impossible to harmonize the roles of these three personalities. This harmanization only ever achieves itself in the sense of the dominant explanation. The philosophy of emancipation demands the division of different kinds of reason. It showsus that it is possible to make the social machine function whilst still working, if we wish it, towards the invention of individual or collective actualizations of equality – but that these functions can never become condused. It demands that we refuse the mediatisation of equality.
This is, it seems to me, the lesson that we can draw from this singular dissonance asserted at the very beginning of the functioning of the modern educational-social machine. Equality only inscribes itself in the social machine by disagreement. Disagreement is not primarily about argument, it is the division in the very configuration of sensible facts, the disassociation introduced into the correspondence between ways of being and ways of doing, seeing and saying. Equality is simultaneously the final principle of every social and governmental order and the silent cause of its «normal» functioning. It does not reside either in a system of constitutional forms or in a the state of a society’s mores, or in the homogeneous education of the Republic’s children or in the availability of low-priced products on the shelves of supermarkets. Equality is fundamental and absent, it is current and out of place, always subject to the initiative of those individuals and groups who, counter to the ordinary course of things, take the risk of proving it – of inventing the forms, individual or collective, of its verification. The assertion of these simple principles constitutes in fact an unheart-of dissonance, a dissonance that we have to in some way forget in order to continue to build schools, programmes and pedagogies, but that we must also, from time to time, hear again in order that the act of teaching not lose its conscience of the paradoxes that give it sense.