Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

_The Ignorant Schoolmaster_, Chapter 2: “The Ignorant One’s Lesson”

Posted by joespencer on January 16, 2010

From Julie M. Smith:

I’ve decided to focus my comments on Ranciere’s sample reading lesson; I’ve followed that with a few random observations.

On the bottom of page 22, Ranciere is describing teaching a person to read. I think the phonics versus whole language debate is an excellent case study of what I think is wrong with Ranciere’s thinking. He has the students memorize the word “Calypso.” That’s all well and good, but how often does one encounter the word Calypso? How many words, total, must one memorize to become a proficient reader? Would it not be more efficient to teach the learner “See that ‘C’?” That will generally make the ‘k’ sound. Sometimes it will make the ‘s’ sound, and next time, I’ll teach you some rules so you can know when it makes the ‘k’ and when the ‘s’ sound.”

Now back on page 21, Ranciere criticized this method of teaching, as it makes the teacher perpetually superior to the learner, who needs to come back next week to learn the rules for when c makes the k or the s sound. But guess what? If I can read and you can’t, in the matter of literacy, I am your superior. I don’t think it is useful to pretend that I am not; to do so would be to devalue the ability to read.

Further, if I teach you via phonics, you will become my equal more quickly. I’ve taught two kids to read, and I can tell you that after about 50 hours of instruction, I no longer have anything to teach them about how to read. On the other hand, research has shown that (on average) whole language will take longer, meaning that the learner will be my inferior for a longer period of time. Some learners will forever be my inferior, because they simply will not be able to learn to read through a strictly whole language approach. Ironically, children from more deprived backgrounds are the ones who most need phonics and have the most to lose from a whole language approach.

Another issue left unaddressed is that of frustration; most of us can’t imagine sitting our four or five year olds down and having their first reading lesson contain the words “consoled” and “departure.” I suspect many illiterate adults would depart that lesson needing their own consolation–feeling incapable of learning these huge, complicated words and no longer willing to try. (Imagine not being able to read but being asked to memorize the word departure and distinguish it from aperture and department and any number of similiar-looking words.) The power differential of literacy would be permanently enshrined. Would not they leave the lesson with more confidence if they had successfully read “jog” and “jig” and “jug”? Teaching those words might convey my superiority, but it would also convey my benevolence: I know more than you, but I will help you learn what I know. Ranciere says, I know more than you, but I will not help you.

To sum, I think Ranciere’s heart is in the right place, but the pedagogy he is prescribing will have precisely the opposite of his intended effect. A rhetoric of indirection is required here.

Now for the random thoughts.

***
“In short, the master must be able to verify in the book the materiality of everything the student says.”

In thinking about teaching in an LDS context, I would love to see the day when our teaching was tethered to the scriptures and the words of the prophets and not faith-promoting rumors. In a secular context, I feel a little more conflicted: Are we not running the risk of replacing the hegemony of the explicator with the hegemony of a book?

***
“It is a totality that the student holds in his hand, that he can span entirely with a glance. . . . There is nothing to understand. Everything is in the book.”

No, it isn’t. The student might read or even memorize The Crucible and Inherit the Wind, but unless someone explicates to the student the background of McCarthyism, the student will be left outside of those works. No work is its own totality.

***

In the middle paragraph of page 24, I have once again lost track of what Ranciere is presenting as his own and what he is criticizing. Won’t someone please explicate it for me?

***

I grant that I may be missing something, but by page 31, I’ve pretty much lost respect for the entire work. The mother does not know if the child has pointed to the correct word, since she herself cannot read, but she will know if he has studied attentively–and that is enough? Anyone interested in signing up for a surgery performed by one who “studied attentively,” but whose competence was never checked?

***
The method outlined at the bottom of p32 and top of p33: Are you kidding?

***

I have been very critical of this chapter; I will say that I think its approach is the kind of feel-good muddle-headedness that is responsible for much of the disaster that is American K-12 education. However, I think Ranciere’s ideas might be a much better fit for gospel instruction where–assuming the students and teacher are all instructed in the basics–one could make a reasonably good case for equal intelligence and proceed from there.

35 Responses to “_The Ignorant Schoolmaster_, Chapter 2: “The Ignorant One’s Lesson””

  1. Karen said

    Very interesting, Julie. I have mostly thought about this book in a gospel-teaching context, so to see it read from a child education perspective is catching me off guard.

    • Karen said

      Julie, as I’ve reread the chapter and given this some thought, I really think you’ve missed something here. Your focus on his method of learning a whole word versus sounds of letters does not address what he is saying. Reread page 28, for example. Here he is very clear that he is notsuggesting that we implement a sort of “whole language” approach. He is not suggesting any approach. He is suggesting simply an attitude:

      “Making them read by words won’t emancipate them; it will deaden them…. It is thus not the procedure, the course, the manner, that emancipates or stultifies; it’s the principle.”

      He doesn’t care if you use syllables or words or pictures or pictographs or hieroglyphics. It doesn’t matter what method you are using. Every method that I or you hate or love can potentially serve to this one end: allowing a child to work in such a way that they realize their capacity to think, reason, and learn on their own. “The problem is to reveal an intelligence to itself. Anything can be used” (page 28).

      In short, as I read Ranciere, he is not talking about the value of certain teaching methods, although that is what most of last week’s discussion was about. He is talking about a moment and how to make that moment happen.

  2. Ben said

    You “explicate” many of the same critiques I thought while reading the chapter, Julie, especially in regard to an actual “superiority” (for lack of a better word) between teacher and student. I would feel safer in saying that the student has as much “potential” as the instructor, rather than saying that they are intellectually equal.

    I am also interested in how his technique on “everything is everything” is related to our gospel understanding of “line upon line.” Is there really a progression of knowledge, as I seem to read the scriptures as saying, or is Ranciere correct in saying that it is more the process that is most important?

    • Karen said

      On page 27 Ranciere says “there is no hierarchy of intellectual capacity.” When you say you feel safer that a student has as much “potential” as the instructor, do you think you are saying the same thing here? Or do you see him meaning something else by capacity?

      Yes, I agree too that of course we will have a superior amount of knowledge than another person in lots of areas. I think Ranciere could see that too, so I imagine he’s talking about something else when he says we are not superior. Do you not think he means an attitude of superiority? A kind of pride? That’s how I’ve seen it. But are you all reading it differently?

      • Ben said

        I like what you are saying in your second paragraph. Perhaps it’s just his rhetoric, but if that is what he is saying, I have a hard time peeling away his egalitarian message to get there. But I’m going to have to think about that.

      • BHodges said

        Karen, I think you’re on the right track there. I feel Ben’s reluctance to call all intelligence “equal” but he seems to do so while arguing there is, in fact, difference–only such difference is created by the will, not the intelligence, or perhaps as Ben says, the “potential.” Also, saying the instructor has more than the student, or has something the student is trying also to possess, implies that the teacher is already “there” or has all of the right answers. That is the sort of attitude I have found in some of my worst college professors.

  3. joespencer said

    I’ll have more to say when I finish re-reading the chapter. For now….

    Re: phonics. Isn’t this a translation problem? Ranciere is writing in French, where a “C” is a “C.”

  4. Julie M. Smith said

    Joe, I don’t think that makes much of a difference: he is teaching them to memorize words instead of which letters make which sounds. Phonics might be a bit more complicated in English, but even in a perfectly phonetic language, there is a big difference in teaching children phonemes versus teaching them to memorize whole words.

  5. Karen said

    I don’t think he’s talking about “whole language” is he? I’ll get to that later, though.

    Ranciere: “It is a totality that the student holds in his hand, that he can span entirely with a glance. . . . There is nothing to understand. Everything is in the book.”

    Julie: No, it isn’t. The student might read or even memorize The Crucible and Inherit the Wind, but unless someone explicates to the student the background of McCarthyism, the student will be left outside of those works. No work is its own totality.

    I think you are right, but I think Ranciere is saying something different by everything is in everything. On page 26 he says, “This is what everything is in everything means … All knowledge of oneself as an intelligence is in the mastery of a book, a chapter, a sentence, a word.” I think he means that the most important moment we can go through is learning that we have the capacity to learn. Once we have learned that, then we can proceed to learn anything. Hence, any one book can provide the moment we learn that we can learn, and then everything else can proceed from that. One might rephrase Ranciere as: “Everything has the potential to set us on the path to learn everything.” At least that’s how I’m reading Ranciere so far.

  6. BHodges said

    A few things that stuck out to me in ch. 2:

    1- I liked Ranciere’s point that looking for a true mind-meld or union of minds would be a fruitless endeavor. In terms of communication he is repudiating the desire to fully and truly connect with another being, but also pointing out that giving up that dream has good results. He argues that there is no intelligence where minds are bound to each other, becoming an aggregate. They can work together, bridge together, but such a bridge is a connector that still indicates a separation.

    2- I also like his idea that the superior/inferior hierarchy between teacher and student actually stultifies both student and teacher. While I don’t feel like I go all the way with him to his conclusions, his acknowledgment that a tailor can speak a language with scissors, needle and thread was interesting to consider. I think it can become easy through the process of higher education to feel superior to others who have chosen different paths, or even those who are simply asking different questions. Instead we could recognize that “In every human work there is an art; in a steam engine as in a dress; in a work of literature as in a shoe” (p. 43). He says you must “Know yourself” by realizing you think about things, then encourage others to do the same. It isn’t manual labor knowledge v. scholarly knowledge; these are two types of same knowledge. This seems to try to equate all talents here, no?

    3- If I am reading him rightly, he is arguing that one’s “will” is superior to one’s “intelligence”? Or that it is the will that makes the difference, the seeming inequality between people regarding their intelligence. Sometimes circumstances can hem in one’s will, however, so I think a problem is Ranceire’s failure to fully acknowledge how unequal and already-existing power structures will prevent his ideal from being achieved.

    4- He also says: “The whole practice of universal teaching is summed up in the question: what do you think about it?” Again, I see a danger here. I like the idea that a student needs to be encouraged to think and study and be driven by their own will. At the same time, what is to prevent this question from becoming an encouragement to believe that what one thinks is sufficient already? What if this becomes, instead of a spur to investigation, a clue that the student already knows enough, and thus inspires confident ignorance?

    • Karen said

      BHodges,
      I appreciated your points here & I hope to comment on all of them soon.

      For now – 3: Yes, I think he is saying that the will is what makes the difference in how we use our intelligence. See page 27: “There aren’t two sorts of mind. There is inequality in the manifestations of intelligence, according to the greater or lesser energy communicated to the intelligence by the will for discovering and combining new relations…”

      Yes there are different factors for who is more likely to use that will, but it isn’t it that very fact that he recognizes, and wants to overcome? That seems to be what he is suggesting we do: find those who are not exercising their will – for whatever reason, including and especially social constraints – and emancipate them. (So, do you see a difference here I’m not catching? Or do you think in the end you and Ranciere are in agreement?)

      4: Ah, ah, not too fast. Yes, if “What do you think about it?” means a free-floating, brainstorming exercise, then that is very dangerous. But notice what he says, “There was only one rule: he must be able to show, in the book, the materiality of everything he says” (p20). The answer to the question “What do you think about it?” is not the same as the answer to “What do you think already on this subject?” But rather, “What do you think about what you just read? What was the author saying? What does it imply? How does it compare with the rest of the book?”

      The “it,” then, would be the book in front of the student, and not the subject or topic at hand.

      Does this change the picture? Please let me know if I’m misreading you or you think I’m misreading Ranciere.

      • BHodges said

        I haven’t forgotten you, I am just busy. I promise to respond soon!

      • BHodges said

        find those who are not exercising their will – for whatever reason, including and especially social constraints – and emancipate them.

        Yes, this is the impression I get. I don’t know that I entirely agree, but perhaps that is because I still feel that knowing more or higher concepts is superior. In other words, I privilege the ability to accumulate, remember, or synthesize information over the “trying” part. So it seems too idealistic, but that could be my problem of not having high enough ideals.

        “What do you think already on this subject?” But rather, “What do you think about what you just read? What was the author saying? What does it imply? How does it compare with the rest of the book?”

        The problem I see is that we bring so much to what we are reading and learning that it becomes difficult not to find what we expect, or to answer those (better) questions in a way that justifies what we already thought or hoped. I think we are reading Ranciere the same in this quote, but at the same time I am introducing a different hazard of his approach.

  7. Robert C. said

    I loved this chapter! My favorite section was the critique of “dividing up of . . . roles” in the “To Each His Own” section. This really helps me understand better the dangers of division of labor that are inherent in capitalism, and in many attitudes that get promulgated in church regarding division of labor pertaining to callings.

    But rather than expounding on any of my own thoughts, I’d like to respond to Julie’s post, and a comment Ben wrote (#2). Before doing so, I have to say I’m very sad that Julie seems to be projecting her gripe against K-12 pedagogy on Ranciere’s writing. I know Julie to be very intelligent, so I can only surmise she simply didn’t take the time to really read Ranciere carefully or to think through the implications of his thought, because I think her comments are well off the mark (and I’ll hint at where I think the key misunderstanding is below).

    I’m going to respond to these quotes:

    Ranciere: “It is a totality that the student holds in his hand, that he can span entirely with a glance. . . . There is nothing to understand. Everything is in the book.”

    Julie: No, it isn’t. The student might read or even memorize The Crucible and Inherit the Wind, but unless someone explicates to the student the background of McCarthyism, the student will be left outside of those works. No work is its own totality.

    Ben: I am also interested in how his technique on “everything is everything” is related to our gospel understanding of “line upon line.” Is there really a progression of knowledge, as I seem to read the scriptures as saying, or is Ranciere correct in saying that it is more the process that is most important?

    Let’s consider Nephi’s appropriation of Isaiah 28 in 2 Nephi 28:30. Nephi writes (with my emphasis):

    For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have. (2 Nephi 28:30)

    The point of the verse, it seems to me, is not that God will reveal a little knowledge at a time. Rather, the point is that God will prove whether one is being diligent, paying attention, searching, etc. by giving a little at a time, and checking to see if it’s received faithfully or whether it’s disregarded. (Note, a similar point is made in D&C 98:12, “For he will give the faithful line upon line, precept upon precept; and I will try you and prove you herewith.”)

    This, it seems to me, is precisely Ranciere’s point in this chapter. If an illiterate person were told that he could learn to read, and given sufficient encouragement, then it would be possible to learn, even if a knowledgeable teacher weren’t present. Granted, one process vs. another might be more quick, but that’s not the point. Ranciere’s point is that belief in one’s potential to learn, and the process of learning, are much more important, in the long run, than the pace of learning:

    We can see that it is a question of philosophy and humanity, not of recipes for children’s pedagogy. (p. 41)

    Put tritely, as students, we are our own worst enemies, inasmuch as we give in to the lie that we are not capable of learning. In the “line upon line” passage, God doesn’t damn those who are slow to learn; rather, he damns those who don’t try to learn, and/or those who don’t believe they can learn (by not receiving each precept he offers, by “hav[ing] enough”).

    As far as actual pedagogical technique goes, per the quote above, I don’t think Ranciere is really saying anything very specific except that what is paramount in universal, emancipatory teaching is that the teacher instills in her students a belief that they are capable of learning, and that they don’t need a mentor to always show them the answers. Being a resourceful learner (which is more about a belief in oneself than in any special access to particular resources) is much more important than having the right mentor or reading the right book or learning the right method or technique.

    I’m in a university setting (like Ranciere is), and I think his writing is very much a breath of fresh air. Professors and students give in to a kind of hierarchical learning that encourages students to demand more from their teachers in a way that is short-sighted and stultifying. Education has become something of a commodified/packaged bundle of knowledge that is transmitted, rather than an emancipatory experience that helps you learn how to think and learn for yourself.

    And this seems to be God’s point. What particular precepts that are given are not what is important. Rather, it is the process of learning/receiving that is important, and that is the ultimate determinate of whether we will eternally progress or be eternally damned, believing that we can’t search or seek or learn the mysteries of God for ourselves….

  8. Robert C. said

    Also, as a quick response to Bhodges point #4 (in comment #6—I think the other points have been addressed already) regarding the danger of confident ignorance:

    I think this is one reason Ranciere spends so much time talking about the sense in which true conversation requires mutual respect of intelligence in “The Bind Man and His Dog” section. Having other intelligences verify your rigor is what is crucial. The danger (which is, indeed, all too common, esp. in academia!) is that criticisms will be dismissed as coming from inferior intelligence rather than being taken seriously and actually engaged. (In many ways, this might be thought as a version of Kuhn’s criticism of the scientific method as always occurring within a community with paridigmatic norms, biases, prejudices, etc.)

    • BHodges said

      The danger (which is, indeed, all too common, esp. in academia!) is that criticisms will be dismissed as coming from inferior intelligence rather than being taken seriously and actually engaged.

      Yes, really common, imo. Another common mistake would be the back-slapping friends approach where people gravitate naturally to circles that agree with their own views. So they don’t even get to the criticism part.

  9. KirkC said

    Ok, finally done reading this chapter. I am bogged down with stuff to read elsewhere, but I wanted to keep up with the great conversation on here.

    I, like Karen, first and foremost, am reading Ranciere in a gospel-teaching context. Therefore, this passage from the second paragraph on page 24 jumped out at me:

    “First, your children repeat like parrots. They cultivate only one faculty, memory, while we exercise intelligence, taste, and imagination. Your children learn by heart. That’s your first mistake. And your second: your children don’t learn by heart. You say they do, but that’s impossible.”

    When I read this I thought about the scripture mastery program in seminary, with which I am sure Ranciere would whole-heartedly disagree.

    • Karen said

      Hmm, that’s complicated Kirk. The passage you quote is actually someone criticizing Jacotot’s method, because he often did have his students memorize things.

      However, I think you are right that he wouldn’t like the idea of repeating scripture mastery scriptures just to pass them off and never think about them again. The way we tend to teach scripture masteries does sound like this passage of Ranciere, actually from the same paragraph you quoted:

      “The child advances. He has been taught, therefore he has learned, therefore he can forget.”

      Unfortunately our purpose in scripture mastery lessons is often not to make them think about what they are reading, but just to “pass it off.” (Then they often forget them.) I would think Ranciere would love it if they memorized whole chapters of the Book of Mormon, so that no matter where else they were in scripture they could begin to compare and think about the relations between passages.

      In short, it’s not the memorization that is the problem, but memorizing so that we can “move on” rather than memorizing so we can think.

    • RobF said

      Now that Ranciere and KirkC have brought it up, I think that the scripture mastery program might just be the most important thing we teach in seminary. 25 years after having been a seminary student, what do I still carry with me? Any particular lesson learned? Any specific doctrine? No–it’s the bits and pieces of the 100 scriptures I memorized. They come into my mind all the time and provide an entry point into all other scriptures–“a center to which one can attach everything one learns” (20).

      That said, I’m really surprised that I’m making this statement, since though I loved scripture mastery, I think before reading Ranciere I would have been too quick to dismiss it as just a silly game…

  10. BHodges said

    Julie: Can you contact me at lifeonaplate @ gmail.com? I can’t fund your contact info and have a few unrelated questions. Thanks!

  11. BHodges said

    By the way, is there a way to change the comment view so it isn’t tiered, but instead ordered by date?

  12. RobF said

    First off, thanks to everyone for sharing their thoughts. I’m really enjoying seeing how various intelligences are struggling in various ways with this text, charting their own way through it, perhaps with varied degrees of intention!

    Here are a few of my own perambulations through this chapter:

    1) In general, I wonder if we sometimes have unstated views of education as information transfer that are at odds with Ranciere’s view of education that seems to me more about learning to learn. Some of the criticisms seem to come from doubting the efficacy of a method for obtaining or mastering information, which may or may not be Ranciere’s main interest?

    2) I love the description of the master as only standing at the door while the student enters and explores a text with no escape from exercising his liberty (23). As gospel teachers, do we open such doors in our classes or other “teaching” moments?

    3) I also like the statement that infinity is not now the master’s secret, but the student’s journey (23). In thinking about eternal progression, I like Robert’s description of God verifying our attention to learned truths, rather than spooning us out a little bit of knowledge at a time while holding most of it, as Ranciere would say, up his sleeve. Is there also somehow in the explicative pedagogy he’s criticizing an echo of ever learning and never able to come to a knowledge of the truth?

    4) I’m bowled over by this: “there is inequality in the manifestations of intelligence, according to the greater or lesser energy communicated to the intelligence by the will for discovering and combining new relations, but there is no hierarchy of intellectual capacity” (27). I’m in love with the connection between learning, intelligence, and will (or might we say agency?) that Ranciere describes. In some sort of gospel way, maybe it could lead us to speculate that it isn’t how much you learn that is important (most people will die without having a whole lot of information crammed into their heads), but the application of attentiveness or will that is of eternal import?

    5) I’m challenged by Ranciere’s assertion that the Socratic method is perfect form of stultification, creating inequality (29). I can see times in the past where I have tried to “lead” a discussion where I want it to go with these Socratic questions, exercising power over the discussion because I thought it was more important to somehow lead someone to a “truth” that I had predetermined. How might this idea lead us to see gospel teaching differently–especially in light of the popular criticism of teachers who try to “get through” the lesson, rather than follow a discussion through what Ranciere might call an intellectual adventure?

    6) When Ranciere claims that materiality of the book keeps two minds separate, whereas explication is the annihilation of one mind by another (32), I was led to think about Zion being of one heart and one mind. Is there some way to understand such a Zion in a Rancierian fashion that doesn’t involve the annihilation of one mind by another? I thought I saw a partial answer to that in his statement that ideality of language refutes any oppositions between people–does that mean that in Zion we don’t all think the same, but we all recognize each other as equal intelligent subjects, having an equal mind?

    7) Finally, when Ranciere says that “To emancipate someone else, one must be emancipated oneself” (33) I wondered if we could liken this to the gospel injunction to warn your neighbor once you have been warned yourself? In this light, sharing the gospel wouldn’t be about imparting knowledge (once you’ve memorized the principles of the missionary discussions, share them with your neighbor), but of emancipating your neighbor by helping them to recognize their eternal intelligence and setting them on the intellectual adventure of emancipation (salvation? exaltation?).

    Lots for me to think about. I’m getting ready to post the initial post on Chapter 3, and know we are all busy, but hope we can redouble our attention to the text this week. Let it be the material that keeps us separate, but also bridges our separate minds, creating both equality and community!

    • BHodges said

      In general, I wonder if we sometimes have unstated views of education as information transfer that are at odds with Ranciere’s view of education that seems to me more about learning to learn. Some of the criticisms seem to come from doubting the efficacy of a method for obtaining or mastering information, which may or may not be Ranciere’s main interest?

      Great point. I think you may be right, and the emphasis on teaching people how to learn, or emancipating them so that they know they can learn and want to learn, is a key. I have thought about this in terms of LDS apologetics, where I might answer someone’s questioning doubt and let them walk away, but in the future who will they ask? How will they know what to look for, will they care to look? It’s the old feed a person or teach them to fish dilemma.

      • BHodges said

        I’m in love with the connection between learning, intelligence, and will (or might we say agency?) that Ranciere describes. In some sort of gospel way, maybe it could lead us to speculate that it isn’t how much you learn that is important (most people will die without having a whole lot of information crammed into their heads), but the application of attentiveness or will that is of eternal import?

        Spot on, too. This all ties into our knowledge, but also our acts. We will be “judged” by our condition, not by what we have done (or even “known” in terms of intellectual grasp or awareness). But the things we know and do contribute to who we become and our agency and opportunity play big roles in the outcome.

        I really like your synthesis here.

  13. KirkC said

    #11, Hodges, that is exactly why I dislike using the reply button. It gets real confusing.

    • Jim F. said

      Gosh, that’s exactly why I LIKE using the “reply” button: it puts responses right next to the things to which they respond so that I don’t have to search all over the place as I do when everything is in purely chronological order.

      • BHodges said

        For my purposes I’d prefer a linear discussion all the way down. I copy/paste these into Word documents in order to highlight, annotate, etc. But that’s basically a huge pain when I have to insert comments here and there instead of pasting at the bottom of the document. For the sake of the site itself I think the “reply” methods currently being used is superior, but not for my selfish designs, so I wondered if there was a way to personalize the comment section but it seems there isn’t. That’s fine, I can work around it. :)

  14. Karen said

    Ranciere sums up this method in two words on page 29: a master “interrogates” and “verifies.” But to teach by asking questions such as “What do you see? What do you make of it?” (and then of course make sure they are getting this from the text), assumes a great deal of trust – we have to trust both the intelligence of the text to have something to say, and trust the class to be able to read it! But this seems to be such a rich possibility in a church setting, where we can certainly trust our texts (scriptures, RS/MP manuals, conference talks) to have something worth saying.

    Here are three stories to illustrate how I think Ranciere could be applied. If you see a flaw in my thinking, I’d be glad to hear it!

    First story: Just over a year ago, I tried this out with some Beehives. I gave them the title of the lesson and the objective statement, and asked them to pick a passage to study from. The girls looked up scriptures in the index, then debated among themselves which one sounded the most like the title of the lesson (it was “Following the Example of your Lord Jesus Christ”). They settled on a verse in 1 Peter (not something they were familiar with at all). We read it through once, and then I asked them questions like, “Why this word?” or “What does this line have to do with the next one?” etc. It was probably the most enlightening, productive, helpful Young Women lesson I have ever taught or sat through. By the end, they had learned many ways in which they could follow the example of Christ. None of the ways were trite, and none of the ways were my own ideas, nor theirs. It was all from 1 Peter. After the lesson I asked if they had learned, and they said, “Yes!” Then I asked, “And did I tell you what it said?” “No! We did it!” They were so thrilled. (And so was I, you might have guessed. :)) The Spirit was there and we all learned a ton.

    Second story: Our daughter was supposed to read a very simple book with lots of small words in it. She kept looking everywhere except the book and saying, “I can’t. It’s too hard.” It was obvious she could do it, but wouldn’t even try. So, we put her in a room with a philosophy book, and she couldn’t come out until she read the first sentence on her own! After a long time of complaining, she finally opened the book and sounded out the words. And, believe it or not, she did it. She knew the phonetic sounds of the letters, and she had finally applied her intelligence. (We didn’t hear “I can’t” about a little kids book for a long time after that.)

    Third story: Recently the “I can’t” has resurfaced. Currently, she is working through a book one paragraph at a time. I decided that as she reads it to me I won’t look at it, so I can force myself to be ignorant. When she needs help with a word, I ask her questions that force her to look at the word, “What is the first sound? What comes after that word?” etc. Then I ask her to tell me about what she read, “What did it say Violet was doing on the beach?” etc. Then she has to look back through it to answer. She is definitely not reading all the words right, but she is doing far better than I would have guessed, and she is understanding the overall story. I am hoping that since I can’t even see the words, her “I can’t” will disappear again.

    • sjames said

      Karen,

      These are interesting experiences, and I’ll confess I was a little surprised by the second and third stories. I put that down to the ‘cultural gap’ between my thinking and the Rancierites, the Ranciere apologists ;). My concern is the emergence of another kind of hierarchy – the Hierarchy of ‘Wills’ that I read in these stories which seems to be antithetical to what Ranciere sympathisers have been advocating under the headings of ‘will’ and ‘chance’. I can understand the desire to create an ‘I can’ attitude, to overrule the ‘feeding on demand’ culture that western children are immersed in, but not at the expense of cultivating a correct view of that deeply ‘humilified’, and sometimes humiliating, quality, ‘I can’t’.

  15. RobF said

    Karen, those are great examples. I especially like your Beehive lesson. When I’ve taught like this it has always been a great lesson. Other times, when I’m tempted to pontificate, it may seem like a great lesson, but I don’t think it “sticks” as much.

    I love this talk about “can’t”. Reminds me of the saying my dad used to tell me–“can’t is a slugger, to lazy to try” (always made me think of Casey at Bat). BTW, in looking up the origins of this saying I’m wondering if it is a local baseball version of the following poem:

    I Can’t is a sluggard, too lazy to work;
    From duty he shrinks, every task he will shirk;
    No bread on his board, and no meal in his bag,
    His house is a ruin, his coat is a rag.

    I Can is a worker; he tills the broad fields,
    And digs from the earth all the wealth that it yields;
    The hum of his spindles begins with the light,
    And the fires of his forges are blazing all night.
    ~William Allen Butler

  16. joespencer said

    At last… (allow me to confess that the dismissive readings drove me away from the project for a week, but that the recent “return to Ranciere himself!” has restored my faith and interest in the project, so here I come, prodigal-like…)

    Robert #7: Great reading of Nephi/Isaiah. I really like the way you’ve inflected that passage. It tempts me to take up the whole series of complexities of translation in Isaiah 28 and how the long-standing interpretation of tsav letsav ve qav leqav as a children’s educational rhyme might be of some import here….

    Several people #9: Scripture mastery really is interesting to think about in light of Ranciere. Maybe the problem with scripture mastery as I’ve experienced it is precisely that there isn’t enough memorization: the students are allowed to rattle through it a few times, mess up half the words, but still pass it off, even if they can’t say anything coherent or interesting about the passage. Maybe Rob’s right: scripture mastery might be CES’s best-kept secret….

    Rob #12.3: I really like this connection between two “infinities” and the question of eternal progression. Perhaps Brigham was one of very few Latter-day Saints who have actually believed in universal learning, because he believes God will always be learning….

    Rob #12.4: Your mention of agency here, as well as the way you cast the rest of this comment (and coupled with BHodges’ response), makes me want to “translate” Ranciere in Mormon theological terms as follows: will in Ranciere is what we would call (when it is scripturally understood) faith. Hence, it is less how many or what works we have in the end, but whether those works have been done in faith, that will be judged—as I understand the plan (particularly as laid out in the Book of Mormon).

    Rob #12.6: I think you’ve worked out the answer in outline already. That is, “one heart and one mind,” in terms of Ranciere, would amount to: “Zion is that gathering of people who all believe that intelligence is equal.” No?

    A few points I’ll bring to the table myself:

    (1) p. 20: “There was only one rule: he must be able to show, in the book, the materiality of everything he says.”

    I think this outlines a very nice theology of scripture-reading. Why bother to have a book, a written text, and not just a set of orally transmitted traditions, etc.? Because it makes things material, and it forces us—masters and students—to be honest, as Ranciere says later in the chapter. Rather than the Levi-Straussian idea that the written word is precisely what undergirds social power structures, it is the written word that trumps such structures, if we are emancipated. (And this is why Plato opposed the written!)

    (2) p. 22: “Take it and read it, he says to the poor person. I don’t know how to read, answers the poor person. How would I understand what is written in the book?”

    Isaiah 29 anyone? A good deal of the power of Ranciere’s overarching message here is for me in the way that it makes sense of what is so liberating about Joseph Smith’s fascinating relationship to the written.

    (3) p. 23: “There is nothing to understand. Everything is in the book.” (My emphasis.)

    This is an important clarification, I think, of Ranciere’s project. It is not that emancipated teaching leads to understanding through another means, but that the very idea of understanding is itself dismissed in favor of getting to the texts.

    (4) p. 29: “The Socratic method is thus a perfected form of stultification.”

    This has been mentioned in passing, but I think the richness of Ranciere’s point shouldn’t be overlooked: Meno’s slave remains a slave.

    (5) p. 33: “Whoever looks always finds. He doesn’t necessarily find what he was looking for, and even less what he was supposed to find.”

    Pure gospel truth, no?

    (6) p. 35: “The [stultifier’s] solution to this contradiction is found in the ordered balance of instruction and moral education, the dividing up of the roles that fall to the schoolmaster and to the father of the family. Using the light of instruction, the first chases away the false ideas the child receives from his parental milieu; the second, by moral education, chases away the extravagant aspirations the schoolchild would like to extract from his young science and take back to his life condition.”

    This (along with the larger passage into which it falls) is, I think, a remarkable critique of the democratic notion of education: it is instituted precisely in order to separate learning from life, and so to reproduce the relations of production. It is “a double stultification.”

    (7) pp. 38-39: “The book seals the new relation between two ignorant people who recognize each other from that point on as intelligent beings. . . . The family unit is then no longer the place of a return that brings the artisan back to the consciousness of his incapacity. It is one of a new consciousness, of an overtaking of the self that extends each person’s ‘own affair’ to the point where it is part and parcel of the common reason enjoyed by all.”

    Playing a bit with the language, it is possible to see Ranciere as spelling out the very idea of sealing families. The sealed family, in Mormon scripture, is entirely a question of a something being written in a book (see D&C 85; 128; 132, etc.), and it is a question of rewriting the very nature of the family, making of it something liberating, rather than something oppressive. Inasmuch as Ranciere here spells out the possibility of disentangling the family from Engels’ criticism of it as a capitalist institution without having to abolish the family, he might well be providing LDS thinkers with some interesting resources for thought about what it means to speak of sealed families.

    And on and on.

  17. RobF said

    Joespencer#16
    “[Ranciere] might well be providing LDS thinkers with some interesting resources for thought about what it means to speak of sealed families.”

    Now that’s something that sends me scurrying back to the text(s). What does it mean to have your name or inheritance “written in the abook of the law of God”? How is that book ever read? In what way does inscribing (and reading?) from that book provide for emancipation (salvation? exaltation?)? I’m interested in hearing what more you might be able to say about that.

    While we’re at it, what can we make of a patriarch as “emancipatory father” and “intractable master”?

    • RobF said

      Is there some sense in which “everything is in the book” (Ranciere) and getting “into the text” (Joe) literally means having your name and inheritance inscribed in the book? What does it mean if your name is not found in the book that you are not to have an inheritance in Zion? While we often take that literally, could it also mean something like “if you haven’t been emancipated in a (Rancierian fashion) through finding yourself of one heart and mind through the text (whatever that is?), you have no place in Zion”?

  18. […] discussed Ranciere’s book here on the blog in a series of posts to be found here, here, here, here, and here. An electronic version of the book, which is unfortunately missing a few […]

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