Order, inequality and equality
This section begins with a close reading of Jacques Ranciere’s The ignorant schoolmaster (1991), in which issues of order, inequality and equality are central themes in discussing schooling, education and teaching. Even if Ranciere is often said to use discussions on pedagogy in order to comment on central social phenomena of oppression more generally (for example, by the translator of the edition cited), nevertheless he does so through an extensive discussion on schooling, education and teaching, and with the educational question of emancipation and change in clear focus.
What he can especially achieve with a great sense of clarity in relation to education, in my mind, is to be able to connect what appears as an intimate situation of teaching to the socio-political mechanisms of inequality. Most importantly for an educational argument, he is making critique not only in a negative sense but also positively, that is, his critique clarifies how we are to intervene to break with any order of inequality. Ranciere himself calls his methodology interventions rather than critique (Bingham & Biesta, 2010).
His understanding of theory in terms of the methodology is inspired by Joseph Jacotot, the French teacher who in early 1800 developed experimental teaching built on the ideals of the French revolution. Ranciere, who himself is linked to such a tradition of thought, but 100 years later, is writing through Jacotot and extends Jacotot’s ideas in a way that makes it hard to see where Ranciere begins and Jacotot ends. He intervenes in Jacotot’s discourse, working from within his conceptual world, but in a way that adds new meaning to Jacotot’s words. In this way he sides with Jacotot, not reducing his text to a historical piece of information on which to report, but truly engaging with the text, with the space of meaning, to the extent that it, as for art, makes Jacotot present in our time through Ranciere.
Intervention is therefore in itself within the realm of education, as I think of it in this book: that is, intervention is an educational productive methodology giving life to ideas, thoughts and worlds distant from one’s own, and which is therefore also open to the ambiguity of meaning, to undoing the naturalness of orders and adding worldviews in the plural. Ranciere is writing with Jacotot, not against him or distant from him, placing them both in an ambiguous space of meaning in the present. The text is intervening.
Both agree on the fundamental idea that equality is not something to achieve as a distant goal, but needs to be presumed to have any meaning in the here and now, in the presence of life. They also indistinctly claim that teaching essentially and fundamentally needs to be an act of verification of equality, for teaching to be emancipatory and not in itself a cementing of inequality.
In the foreword to The ignorant schoolmaster (Ranciere, 1991), the translator suggests that what drew Ranciere to Jacotot was the issue of emancipation and not the issue of education. I do not agree with such an understanding, which seems to be built on a misunderstanding of what education is all about. It is rather the case that, as soon as one understands the absolutely necessary link between education and emancipation in order for education not only to be a procedure for confirmation and/or distribution of privilege but truly to be educative, then it make sense to make an intervention with Jacotot in the discourses of schooling, from within the tradition of the French revolution. An education without an assumption of intellectual equality is exactly the basis for an order that reproduces inequality, which is challenged by Jacotot and Rancière equally, as well as by this book.
In The ignorant schoolmaster, Rancière calls such an order of inequality' insane or mad, in that it is the fool who insists on the madness of inequality', since insisting on inequality is irrational to its core. This madness is, as I understand it, what drives destructive and unsustainable capitalism to its final stages, in which the production of wealth for a few, as well as precarious lives for the many, has reached a scale we never have seen before, and which is wrecking any possibility for a democratic as well as a sustainable life (Berardi, 2017).
Such inequality threatens to destroy us as a human race altogether and threatens the very existence of all life on Earth. The scale of this threat is overbearing, but its roots can be traced in the way our societies are formed and understand themselves. Therefore, and this is what 1 understand Rancière is doing, to intervene in exploratory patterns, in which the given is explained as inevitable, and from within shift our understanding of micro-processes, which are changing the very condition for our understanding of explicatory patterns altogether, also on levels of discourse, is actually to engage in emancipatory practices.
The explicatory patterns saturating all institutional discourses, dictated by experts, master teachers and doctors, as well as clerks in all government institutions, are by necessity' embodying inequality: it is what gives them authority, explaining who has the power to know and who therefore has to be ignorant and be taught, instructed, administered. Inequality is what destabilizes our societies and destroys any idea of education that could counter the madness produced by inequality'. Rancière says:
There are no madmen except those who insist on inequality and domination, those who want to be right. Reason begins when discourses organized with the goal of being right cease, begins where equality is recognized: not an equality decreed by law or force, not a passively received equality, but an equality in act, verified at each step by those marchers who, in their constant attention to themselves and their endless revolving around the truth, find the right sentences to make themselves understood by others.
(Rancière, 1991, p. 72)
What largely hinders us from verifying equality' in schooling and education is, according to Rancière, that our will can so easily be distorted in a system built on the privilege of inequality. A system of schooling, as I have shown, mostly works as a confirmation of privilege already possessed through inheritance. This distorted will, though, is based on a fundamental distraction misleading us about equality, and making us want things and possessions, power and domination, rather than being true to ourselves, and as such making the need to think under the banner of inequality fundamental and necessary (Rancière, 1991, p.80).
This need is in tune with, and nurtured by, a basic order of social inequality, making schooling inequality seemingly natural: it is only verifying a social divide between rich and poor, between those with power and those without, between those who can speak and be heard and those who only make noise in the public discourse, between those who really matter and precarious populations. But, says Ranciere, the need to downplay others while strengthening oneself is not produced primarily by structural inequality, but by fear and laziness: “Inegalitarian passion is equality’s vertigo, laziness in face of the infinite task equality demands, fear in face of what a reasonable being owes to himself’ (p. 80). It is the fear of not being able to face the great challenge equality demands of us, and also, if one is privileged already, the sacrifice it takes to live in equality in an unequal world and society; but also the laziness in only following along, in being immersed in the great anonymous mass of the pack according to the law of least resistance.
Laziness and fear are seen most clearly in the false conviction that this is what is demanded of us in the time in which we live: to remain invisible, scraping one’s feet with head down, and above all to not follow one’s own voice but, in direct opposition to that voice, to subordinate oneself and conform to the order of inequality, in order to be able to hope, to prosper and be happy, to be socialised accordingly, hoping that the order of inequality will be working for one in the end (Durkheim, 1956). This is so, even though we know in so many ways that this order is defined by inequality and is profoundly irritational to its core.
Such fear of using one’s own intelligence beyond the irrationality of inequality can be more or less justified: there are, after all, societies and contexts that are utterly violent and oppressive, where subordination is an absolute demand and to break with such demand would lead to deprivation and social or actual death. Even in those severely violent contexts and societies, some do choose death before being conformed into following a perverted will. That is because to conform to inequality is basically to betray oneself, to betray one’s rationality, to betray one’s voice, to betray what a rational being owes to oneself, as Ranciere (1991, p. 80) says. Sometimes the price is higher than at other times, but it is still a possible choice to live in rationality or not.
It is this far-reaching fear and laziness that distracts us from confinning, verifying someone else as sharing the same intelligence as us, verifying the equality of intelligence, and instead convinces us to abandon ourselves as well as our rationality: “The universe of social irrationality is made up of wills served by intelligence. But each of these wills charges itself with destroying another will by preventing another intelligence from seeing” (p. 82). The fear gives rise to the urge to look only for inequality in all social relations, to look another person in the eye only to confirm inequality: it makes us cling to the irrational of not seeing the other as equal to us, but only in order to compare and compete, to make comparisons in order to be sorted in groups and hierarchies. The other cannot be seen in any terms other than an expression of an already existing inequality.
A society built on inequality demands of us that in all interactions we reproduce this inequality in all our activities, being saturated with inequality that makes it impossible to see the other, to hear them speaking and to hear their voice. An unequal society requires of us that we are constantly “linking one person to another through comparison” in each and every social interaction, and by doing exactly this, reproducing the irrational society as natural, reproducing “this stultification that institutions codify and explicators solidify in their brains” (Ranciere, 1991, p. 82). It becomes a severe stultification as we can only see that which confinns inequality; we can only explain or understand inequality as a necessity, not least for schooling. How could we even begin to understand what proper education would look like if schooling was not making categories of those who succeed and those who do not, between the intelligent ones and the ignorant ones, to compare and to grade, to make an ordered stable society?
This is fundamentally the problem with schooling: the idea that we get the society explained for us in schools, and that such society explained is an order of inequality. Even the structure of explanation itself is reproducing this order between those who already know and those who do not; between those who need to listen and those who have the right to speak, and to decide who is in and who is out (I will come back to this in more detail later in the book).
Basically, schooling then is the name I give to the tendency to explain inequality as a natural and unavoidable result of the social reality in which we live, rather than to understand the school as a place in which we can figure out who we are, where we are and where to go, and to hear the sound of our voice, as well as others’, making meaning (Todd, 2003; Safstrom, 2005; Biesta, 2006; Masschelein & Simons, 2013).
Schooling explains why we cannot see for ourselves, why we do not understand society without getting all the facts: the need to have society explained for us means to understand why inequality needs to be there. The bottom line is, one cannot understand by oneself, and the lust to learn, to educate oneself, is being transformed into subordination to the already explained society represented by the master teacher. Schooling means fundamentally to be learning how to compare and to be compared, to sort and be sorted out, to learn to live the prime mechanisms of inequality' as defining characteristics of one’s life, and as an expression of reality itself.