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Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Island of a Book - Jacques Rancière's The Ignorant Schoolmaster, Don De Lillo's Cosmopolis

In 1818, Joseph Jacotot, a professor of French literature, was begining his lecturing days in the University of Louivain, expecting those to be a calm, uneventful period in his eventful life and career which begun when he was 19 and teaching rhetoric at the University of Dijon.

The students loved him and there were Flemish students who wanted him to teach them, but he knew no Flemish and they spoke no French. So Jacotot decided to give it a try, a bilingual edition of the French classic, Fénelon's Télémaque, being published at the time.




The students were given a book and asked to learn the French text using the translation. Jacotot entered the experiment with low hopes but having the bilingual edition (what Jacques Rancière in his work The Ignorant Schoolmaster refers to as the minimal link of a thing in common), he thought it worth a try.

" He expected horrendous barbarisms, or maybe a complete inability to perform. How could these young people, deprived of explanation, understand and resolve the difficulties of a language entirely new to them? No matter! He had to find out where the route opened by chance had taken them, what had been the results of that desperate empiricism. And how surprised he was to discover that the students, left to themselves, managed this difficult step as well as many French could have done! Was wanting all that was necessary for doing? Were all men virtually capable of understanding what others had done and understood?*
*Fénelon’s didactic and utopian 24~volume novel, Télémaque (1699), recounts the peregrinations of Telemachus, accompanied by his spiritual guide, Mentor, as he attempts to find his father, Odysseus. In it, Fénelon proposes an “Art of Reigning” and invents an ideal city, Salente, whose peace-loving citizens show exemplary civic virtue. The book was extremely displeasing to Louis XIV, who saw himself in the portrait of Idomeneus. But it was much admired by Enlightenment philosophers, who proclaimed Fénelon one of their most important precursors. In terms of Jacotot’s adventure, the book could have been Télémaque or any other.
— TRANS."
(The Ignorant Schoolmaster, pg.2)


The Ignorant Schoolmaster is a book about Jacotot's curious educational adventure. It is about teaching as a process not between the teacher as the master of knowledge and understanding and the student as the ignorant one, not between the intelligences of the teacher and the student locked in hierarchical opposition of higher and lower, better and worse, more and less. 


"The pedagogical myth, we said, divides the world into two. More precisely, it divides intelligence into two. It says that there is an inferior intelligence and a superior one. The former registers perceptions by chance, retains them, interprets and repeats them empirically, within the closed circle of habit and need. This is the intelligence of the young child and the common man. The superior intelligence knows things by reason, proceeds by method, from the simple to the complex, from the part to the whole. It is this intelligence
that allows the master to transmit his knowledge by adapting it to the intellectual capacities of the student and allows him to verify that the student has satisfactorily understood what he learned. Such is the principle of explication. From this point on, for Jacotot, such will be the principle of enforced stultification."
(The Ignorant Schoolmaster, pg.7)


" It is this word that brings a halt to the movement of reason, that destroys its confidence in itself, that distracts it by breaking the world of intelligence into two, by installing the division between the groping animal and the learned little man, between common sense and science. From the moment this slogan of duality is pronounced, all the perfecting of the ways of making understood, that great preoccupation of men of methods and progressives, is progress toward stultification. The child who recites under the threat of the rod obeys the rod and that’s all: he will apply his intelligence to something else. But the child who is explained to will devote his intelligence to the work of grieving: to understanding, that is to say, to understanding that he doesn’t understand unless he is explained to. He is no longer submitting to the rod, but rather to a hierarchical world of intelligence. For the rest, like the other child, he doesn’t have to worry: if the solution to the problem is too difficult to pursue, he will have enough intelligence to open his eyes wide. The master is vigilant and patient. He will see that the child isn’t following him; he will put him back on track by explaining
things again. And thus the child acquires a new intelligence, that of the master’s explications. Later he can be an explicator in turn. He possesses the equipment. But he will perfect it: he will be a man of progress."
(The Ignorant Schoolmaster, pg.8)

It is about teaching as a process of emancipation and as a process in which one teaches what one doesn't know.

" Jacotot decided to devote himself to this. He proclaimed that one could teach what one didn’t know, and that a poor and ignorant father could, if he was emancipated, conduct the education of his children, without the aid of any master explicator. And he indicated the way of that “universal teaching”— to learn something and to relate to it all the rest by this principle: all men have equal intelligence." (The Ignorant Schoolmaster, pg.18)

Like Télémaque, Cosmopolis is just another book. 

" The book. Télémaque or another one. Chance placed Télémaque at Jacotot’s disposal; convenience told him to keep it. Télémaque has been translated into many languages and is easily available in bookstores. It isn’t the greatest masterpiece of the French language; but the style is pure, the vocabulary varied, and the
moral severe. In it one learns mythology and geography. And behind the French “ translation,” one can hear the echo of Vergil’s Latin and Homer’s Greek. In short, it’s a classic, one of those books in which a language presents the essential of its forms and its powers. A book that is a totality: a center to which one can attach everything new one learns; a circle in which one can understand each of these new things, find the ways to say what one sees in it, what one thinks about it, what one makes of it."
(The Ignorant Schoolmaster, pg. 21)

To learn something and relate to it all the rest.
Everything is in everything. 
There is no outside.
How many readings of Cosmopolis on this blog, how many things in the thing, the book, itself? 

No man is an island, 
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
  - John Donne