Bringing ideas to life

Can emancipation happen at school?

Published in Latest Posts, Theory by Alessandra Aloisi on February 8, 2015

Alessandra Aloisi provides a critical review of Bingham’s Biesta’s book on Jacques Ranciere: Education, Truth, Emancipation

Photo (CCC) by Sameold2010

Photo (CCC) by Sameold2010

There is an educational concern in Jacques Rancière’s political and aesthetic writing that has been mostly overlooked by scholars. On the one hand, the Ignorant schoolmaster (a book of 1987 that tells the story of Joseph Jacotot, a revolutionary schoolteacher in the 19th century) clearly prepares the ground for Rancière’s ideas on emancipation, equality and democracy. On the other hand, these same ideas seem to have further implications in the domain of education, as they may help to raise challenging and somehow provocative questions concerning the role of school and education in our so-called democratic societies. How does emancipation happen in schools, if schools are supposed to deliver more and more specialized curricula? How does emancipation take place in an education system which is increasingly responsive to neoliberalism’s economic drivers? The value of Charles Bingham’s and Gert Biesta’s work is precisely in trying to answer these questions by adopting a Rancièrian perspective.

The first chapter reproduces a text by Jacques Rancière presented in 2002 at a conference in Rio de Janeiro. In this essay, entitled On Ignorant schoolmasters,Rancière returns to his book in order to point out the importance and modernity of Jacotot’s experience and approach. Jacotot developed his radical, contested ideas on intellectual emancipation and equality in a very crucial moment, historically and politically speaking; a moment when, after the French Revolution, the aim of any progressive social institution was to achieve revolution. A plan for public education was at the very core of this project, implying a precise organization (and limitation) of knowledge transmitted. People were provided with a set of useful knowledge and practical abilities allowing them to improve their social conditions without revealing those same conditions. In short, using Rancière’s words, that was a society where ‘inequality [was] reproduced by making visible equality’ (p. 8). That was a society where inequality was preserved and reproduced not in spite of, but precisely because of the formal assertion of equality.

According to Rancière, the importance of Jacotot’s experience lies on the fact that he was able to detect and criticize the equivalence between equality and inequality, and the equivalence between pedagogical reason and social reason. The context of his book was, not by chance, the scholarly debate over education in France in the 1960s and 1970s that was launched by Pierre Bourdieu. The school – it was argued – failed at its assigned mission of reducing inequalities because of its egalitarian appearance that hides the importance of individuals’ cultural and social background. That’s why education is a mechanism of reproduction of class stratification. In spite of the merit of launching such a debate Rancière argues that the solution sketched by Bourdieu continued to work under the same presupposition of the contradiction that was criticized. Bourdieu continued to take inequality as the point of departure and equality as an endless task to be reached by the school. The contribution Rancière makes through Jacotot consists of inverting the practical perspective on the problem and in considering equality as a starting point that needs be verified.

Bighmam’s and Biesta’s book aims to verify and build on Rancière’s ideas in the current social-political context. This aim proves to be even more urgent, since neoliberism, as an additional condition of educational practices, has sharpened some of the contradictions highlighted above.

Some of Rancière’s key concepts, such as the distinction between ‘policy’ and ‘politics’, between ‘identification’ and ‘subjectification’, or the notions of ‘division of the sensible’, ‘democracy’ etc., are expressed so clearly that it would be tempting to suggest that this book is a useful introduction to a French philosopher who deserves more attention in the Anglophone world. Nevertheless that would be a huge misunderstanding of Bingham’s and Biesta’s purpose, which is definitely not to explain Rancière. Far from being a book on Rancière, this work is instead an intervention on Rancière.

To conduct such an intervention, Bingham and Biesta have chosen six themes with philosophical, political and pedagogical relevance: emancipation (chapter 2), the child (chapter 3), inclusion (chapter 4), recognition (chapter 5), truth (chapter 6), speech (chapter 7). The book shows how the adoption of the Rancièrian perspective – with its idea that equality is not an end to be attained but a presupposition to be verified by a sequence of acts –implies a systematic shift with respect to the traditional ways of conceiving key problems of political theories and practices related to education.

Let’s consider, as an example, the theme of emancipation; a concept that implies a different consideration of all the other themes. Since the Kantian definition of Enlightenment, the task of critical education practices has always been to produce emancipation through knowledge. From Marxist notions of ‘ideology’ and ‘false recognition’ to Bourdieu’s idea of ‘misrecognition’, emancipation has always been synonymous of demystification – that is to say, of liberation from dogmatism, delusion and so on.According to this logic (which is not that far from the one expressed by Plato through the allegory of the cave in Republic, Book X) the liberating knowledge can only be brought from the outside, by an already enlightened master. It is well known how, via Jacotot, Rancière deeply criticizes the logic that underpins this idea of emancipation as being based on explanation, namely on the subordination of an intelligence to another intelligence. That’s where emancipation surreptitiously results in its opposite and produces stultification. In order to be emancipated, someone always needs someone else to explain her/him the hidden truth that she/he couldn’t get on her/his own. In short, this logic creates dependency and is based upon the assumption of an essential inequality between the emancipator and the one to be emancipated. For Rancière, however, emancipation is a rupture in the existing order of things – a rupture that produces the appearance of a different order. Emancipation, in other words, is not a path that leads from inequality to equality through knowledge. Emancipation starts with the assumption of the equality of all intelligences: with the assumption that there is no hierarchy of intellectual capacities.

That is why only an ignorant schoolmaster can produce emancipation: her or his task is less to bring knowledge than to reveal intelligence. Also, that is why, the ignorant schoolmaster essentially differs from the Socratic pedagogue, as he feigns ignorance in order to provoke knowledge. What the ignorant schoolmaster does is to instigate capacity (not knowledge) which is already possessed by everyone; a capacity that every single person already proved to have by accomplishing the most difficult task of her/his life, that of learning her/his own mother tongue without a master or method.Differently from the common ways of conceiving emancipation, to be emancipated doesn’t mean to become an adult or to emerge from childhood. It means rather to regain a capacity which belongs to the child and that the adult simply forgets to exercise.

The two most remarkable themes of this book are the question of language and political relevance given to the figure of the child. Normally this figure is off limits for traditional political philosophy. When considered from a political viewpoint, the child is mostly regarded from a psychological and developmental perspective: the child is a potential adult whose future inclusion in the public arena and participation in decision making will be catered for by education. Children are therefore situated outside and before politics and democracy. Following Rancière’s perspective, however, the child is a political being. A child’s capacity to learn a language with no teacher and no method proves the equality of all intelligences. And a child’s effort to step into language and to be acknowledged as a speaker allows the emergence of a different ‘distribution of the sensible’, i.e., a different relationship between ways of doing, being and saying. That is exactly what Rancière calls democracy: the practical test of the assumption of equality and the interruption of a given existing order.

Here is the key to understand the role assigned to education: not differently from the figure of the child, education too proves to have political relevance in itself. Education is not political in the sense that it allows individual’s emancipation through knowledge. Nor is education political because it works for democracy by promoting inclusion and recognition. Instead, education is political and emancipatory because it deals with language.

Rancière’s conception of the arbitrariness of language is seen as the point of departure for different – and liberating – approaches regarding the relationship between truth and education. Yet, if language is political it is not because of the power of rhetoric over public opinion. Language, instead, has to do with politics precisely because of its poetic capacity to reinvent reality.

So the question remains: can emancipation happen at school? And, if it is so, how does it start? It starts – for students as well as teachers – with the assumption that there are no right methods for making it happen, no right paths leading up to truth, no right concatenations of ideas and of words that have to be used. It starts, above all, with the assumption that ‘each one of us describes our own parabola around the truth’ and that ‘no two orbits are alike’ (Ignorant Schoolmaster, p. 126). What education can do in terms of emancipation is to allow each one of us to find her/his own orbit, to undertake her/his own revolution. This, by the way, ‘will not begin because of a policy or practice, but in spite of a policy or practice’ (p. 24).


Bingham, C., & Biesta, G. (2010). Jacques Ranciere: Education, Truth, Emancipation. London ; New York: Bloomsbury 3PL.


Alessandra AloisiAlessandra is a Lecturer in Italian at the City of Glasgow College and a tutor in Philosophy and Italian Literature at the University of Strathclyde (Centre for Lifelong Learning). She completed her Phd in Aesthetics in 2011 after studying philosophy at the University of Pisa and the University of Paris IV-Sorbonne. Her main research interests concern Modern and Contemporary Philosophy, Aesthetics, Literary Studies, Animal Studies. She is the author of the monograph Desiderio e assuefazione. Studio sul pensiero di Leopardi (Pisa, Ets 2014).

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