By Nina Power
Is it necessary to presuppose the intellectual equality of those you teach? To be an educator at all it seems likely that one would have at least an implicit theory of mind, such that one knows what one is doing (or, at least, what one aspires to be doing) when standing at the front of the classroom. Is education merely the transplanting of gobbets of information onto the blank slate of a student’s mind (we could call this the Lockean approach), or are we drawing out forms of rational and creative capacity possessed (equally?) by students qua rational beings? Jacques Rancière contributes much to this debate, particularly in his work on the unusual educator Joseph Jacotot in The Ignorant Schoolmaster. This paper attempts to analyse the possibility of what could be called the “utopian rationalism” of Jacotot (and of Rancière himself), within the context of the modern university. Rancière’s work will be read alongside that of Pierre Bourdieu and Ivan Illich as other crucial figures in the understanding of the way in which educational achievement relates to certain assumptions about what teaching involves. Ultimately, it may be that the modern university is antithetical to any possibility of establishing true equality among its players – Rancière’s position at times invokes the possibility of a radically de-institutionalized autodidacticism that predicates all learning merely on the basis of the will of those desiring to learn. This stance is the very opposite of the Lockean approach, which emphasizes the passivity of the student-receiver. Can the contemporary university bear the weight of Rancière’s challenge?
Mainstream education arguably operates with two major contradictory imperatives: that one should in principle be able to teach everyone openly and equally and, at the same time, one must constantly rank these same students via tests, marks, and, in the case of higher education, final degree classifications. The rationalist educator is constitutively torn. But how to reconcile the desire to – on some level – treat students equally, with the simultaneous recognition that injustice necessarily lies at the heart of all assessment?