Intelligence : Oded Zipory

III. Intelligence as a basis for radical equality—Jacotot, Rancière and the Ignorant Schoolmaster

I would like to focus now on a theory developed by the nineteenth-century French educator and philosopher Joseph Jacotot that has been transmitted to us by the contemporary French philosopher Jacques Rancière in his book The Ignorant Schoolmaster.20 This theory focuses on thought and intellectual performance, and it addresses intelligence as both a capability and as a carrier of inequality. Unlike other theories, it criticizes intelligence directly for being based on the premise of hierarchical differences, and therefore intelligence is treated here as a political concept. As an alternative, Jacotot and Rancière suggest an emancipatory concept of intelligence based on a radical notion of equality.

By way of extending the historical background, let us collect some pivotal points for our immediate purpose. Joseph Jacotot, a military man, philosopher, and educator, encountered an educational challenge. Rancière recounts the results of Jacotot’s extraordinary way of addressing this challenge, and they are the basis for the idea of “equal intelligence” I will later present.

After being exiled from France, Jacotot was appointed as a professor of French and literature at the University of Louvain in Belgium. The only problem was that he did not know any Flemish or Dutch, and his students did not know French. He obtained several copies of a bilingual edition of a book, and gave them to the students. It was not a grammar book or a textbook; instead, it was the story of Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, and his adventures.

With the aid of a translator, Jacotot instructed the students to read the bilingual book until they were proficient in it, and to write a paper in French describing their thoughts on the book. To his amazement, the essays were mature, well-written, and very similar to essays written by French-speaking students.21

By accident, Jacotot did not teach the way he believed it was expected of him, namely, to gradually transfer knowledge to the student while explaining, interpreting and simplifying the knowledge in question. Jacotot thought, like everyone else, that he should have introduced his students to the general principles of the language, elaborate these principles, identify the confused students’ mistakes and get them back on track by providing them with a well-crafted explanation. The explanation would be effective only if the student with inferior intelligence would listen to the teacher, marked off by his high level of intelligence, and thus learn.

The practice of explaining has a major role in what Jacotot calls the myth of “high” and “low” intelligences. According to this myth the world is divided into inferior minds and superior ones, and the teacher has no other option but that of trying to close the gap between the two by providing an explanation. However, when an explanation is given, the inferiority of the student’s intelligence is reinforced because if it were not inferior, he could have understood all he needed by himself, without any need for explanation.

For this common method of learning, the intelligence of the quantitative-measurable kind is indeed necessary, and hence the correlation between psychometric exams and success in school or university. Nevertheless, Jacotot’s students learned otherwise. They used their own words and applied techniques that they had developed by themselves—without explanation. They used their intelligence, like a child who wants to understand what the adults around him are talking about. As children, they tried various linguistic actions, compared, made mistakes, verified, corrected themselves, and at length gained knowledge of language. Rancière describes:

All their effort, all their exploration, is strained toward this: someone has addressed words to them that they want to recognize and respond to, not as students or as learned men, but as people; in the way you respond to someone speaking to you and not to someone examining you: under the sign of equality.22

What helps to cultivate the activation of given intelligence according to Jacotot? In The Ignorant Schoolmaster, the intellectual practices that are emphasized are those that are supposedly inferior—imitation, memorization, and repetition—and not the practices that are considered higher ones in employing the intellect, such as abstraction. First, by practicing these “inferior” intellectual actions, one is not required to assume the existence of any latent ability; instead, one can refer only to the apparent efforts of the student. Second, and more importantly, if all it takes to understand a text is the ability to imitate and repeat it, what is embodied here is a possible new concept of the very meaning of understanding. According to Jacotot and Rancière, there is nothing hidden behind the text, there are no “words behind the words, and there is no language that says the truth of language.”23 In other words, it is not necessary to provide an explanation.

The intelligence of Jacotot’s students was not inferior to that of the teacher or to the intelligence expressed in the book, but equal to them. While in the typical class, in what Rancière calls “stultifying [abrutir] education,” the inferior intelligence is subjected to the superior one; the intelligence of the teacher, in this case, was not present in the process of learning at all, and between the student’s intelligence and the text there was a direct connection, unmediated by explication. Jacotot did not explain anything, because he could not due to the language barrier. But although his students learned without explanations, they did study under the direction of the teacher. He is the one who ordered them to read the book, and to write about it. The students had subordinated their will to the will of the teacher, as it was expressed in his orders, and found themselves in a “circle of ignorance,” which they could shake off only by themselves because the teacher’s intelligence was unavailable for them.

What is formulated here is an important distinction between two parts of the human mind—will and intelligence. There are situations where a person, especially a child, needs a master because his own will is not strong enough in order to continue with the process of learning all by himself. However, normally, it is not only the will that is being subjugated to another will, but intelligence itself. Rancière calls this kind of situation, where the intelligence that sees itself as inferior subordinates itself to a presumed “higher” intelligence, a “stultifying” situation.  However, where intelligence obeys only itself, even if the will of the individual obeys the will of another—the situation in question is an emancipatory one.24

20. Jacques Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation, trans. Kristin Ross (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991).

21. Jacques Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster, 1-4. A few years ago I attended a workshop in which a short experiment was conducted. The facilitator of the workshop handed out Russian-Israeli newspapers (that is, Israeli newspapers written in Russian) to the participants (only one participant knew Russian), and asked us to write our names in Russian. She gave us only five minutes to complete this task. The Russian speaking participant checked our Russian written names, and to our surprise he determined that most of them were correct. We too, as the students of Jacotot, relied on the knowledge we already had—the structure of a newspaper, familiar faces of political figures, a similarity between Latin letters and Cyrillic letters and so on, and tried connecting it to the mission at hand. If we learned to write our names in Russian within five minutes with a teacher who did not know that language, is it possible that we would be fluent in Russian after an entire semester?

22. Jacques Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster, 11.

23. Jacques Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster, 24.

24. Jacques Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster, 50.

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