On On the Ignorant Schoolmaster

May 7, 2013 § 1 Comment

Having been encouraged to read Ranciere’s Ignorant Schoolmaster (a philosophical book on education that takes as its starting point a text by the post-Revolutionary schoolmaster, Joseph Jacotot), I’m reblogging Jim Hamlyn’s blogpost on the book, which I read just now.

I need to read a bit more of both Pinker and Ranciere to see how much of this blogpost I agree with, but I liked these points made by the author:

If, as Pinker’s research seems to prove beyond all doubt, we are not of equal intelligence, is it then the case that Ranciere and Jacotot’s arguments entirely crumble? Whilst I would like to have had a good deal more evidence to be convinced that Jacotot’s method really had the impact that is claimed for it, I think it would be a mistake to simply dismiss it. Instead I think we have to seek an alternative explanation for the apparent success of Universal Education. The conclusion I am left with after weighing up the evidence and arguments presented on both sides is that where learning is concerned it is not so important what you are as what you believe. In other words, if you believe you are just as able as everyone else (ie: of equal intelligence) then this belief is far more likely to lead you to persist where anyone else would desist and to have confidence where anyone else would have doubt. As is becoming increasingly clear; talent is certainly advantageous, but when compared with gritty determination its influence upon achievement is nowhere near as profound.


When reading The Ignorant Schoolmaster I was frequently reminded of something Goethe wrote: “Treat a man as he is, he will remain so. Treat a man the way he can be and ought to be, and he will become as he can be and should be.”

Once again it comes down to the idea of self-belief mentioned above. It seems to me that what really drives the success of Jacotot’s teaching – indeed all good teaching – is the way that people are treated. Self-belief is an incredibly potent instrument, whether it comes directly from the individual or whether encouraged in them by the conviction of a respected parent, friend or teacher. If it comes from the individual, as seems to have been the case with Jacotot’s students, then all to the better. But if it can be facilitated, enabled or encouraged – so long as this doesn’t engender dependence – then all to the better too.

So, in spite of all the evidence in Pinker’s favour, how you “treat” people seems more profoundly crucial for the vast majority of people than those rare and fickle gifts of talent. I don’t think I know anyone who hasn’t at some point in their lives been inspired by someone – whether a teacher, parent or friend – that made them feel as though they had a special ability – a “talent” if you will – that was worth serious attention and effort. Whether these teachers were in fact correct in spotting some unique gift is perhaps peripheral to the immense force of conviction that comes from being encouraged by the evident faith of someone one respects or admires – by being treated as you can be and ought to be.


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