First impressions

Jacques Rancière’s “The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation.”[1] First impressions:

  1. The author: I’d vaguely heard of Jacques Rancière and had recently read a book in which he and Bourdieu were referenced quite extensively[2], which helped me place him within a set of left-wing, French philosopher/sociologist/political theorist academics influenced by and writing just before, and for a long time after, the events of 1968, and interested in the ideas of class, education and art.

Image: Verso books last accessed 28 February 2020.

  • The cover: Five lessons? – I wondered what these would be, and would I spot them? 
  • The introduction: Reading this on the bus was not the best location for concentration and when I read that JR would be recounting the story of a school teacher I didn’t actually realize that the this was the whole book and that the book could be read like a story. I didn’t get far – geographically or intellectually, but by Fenchurch street I had partially revised in my head the educational debates of the 1980s that had also struck the UK and led to Education reforms in English schools. These were reforms that had impacted on me as a child. The restoration of grammar and the teaching of rules to working class children, so that we would, as always, be ‘Learning to Labour’ as Paul Willis[3] put it. 
  • I wondered how different the French reforms in pedagogy had been to those in England and how much cross-fertilisation was happening between the francophone and anglophone, continental and analytical philosophies and ideas? The section on pedagogical reforms of 1980s France summarize them nicely as , on the one hand, the ‘whole person’ approach and a compensatory approach (creating “priority zones” which provided extra funding and teaching places in poor areas) and then later a return to rigid examinations (I remember those); civic instruction (maybe passed me by – perhaps when I was playing truant – or was this just encoded into the subject matter?). Selection, Encyclopaedist, rationalist, enlightenment thinking over creativity. Had these ideas been applied to education at all ages? What differences were there in University level education? In the UK we converted all of our polytechnics to universities – did a similar (equalizing?) thing happen in France and where did all of this fit into the debate about pedagogy? 
  • I looked up something about this conversion (equalization?) – well, I read an old Guardian article by Peter Scott “It’s 20 years since polytechnics became universities – and there’s no going back[4]. The article gave me what I was after – a time reference – the date of this merge: 1992. He claimed the move went against the Thatcherite politics of the time. Interestingly he referred to class reproduction through education as achieved through two mechanisms: retaining university for a privileged few with a few deserving scholarships, or ‘more honourably’ a belief in excellence and equity as in opposition to one another “the more of one, the less of the other”. Whilst Scott disagreed with both of these ideas I was interested to see them reproduced in the article just as I was reading the paragraph on ‘The Practice of Equality’ in the introduction to Rancière’s book. The first impressions I gained of the ideas about equality in ‘The ignorant Schoolmaster’ seemed so much more positive: we are all equally intelligent and equality as practice rather than future goal.
  • Going back over the text with equality in mind I note the examination of the pupil teacher relationship and whether skills and knowledge are transmitted unidirectionally from an all-knowing teacher. I am reminded of Dall’Alba’s article “Improving teaching: Enhancing ways of being university teachers[5]. In that article Dall’Alba considers knowledge transmission and acquisition. The article also considers knowledge more in terms of practice – and what is gained through a participatory process is more knowing than known, a transformation we embody and enact rather than something we are given and then possess. The teacher facilitates learning and the student engages with a variety of sources, including their own. It is not the teacher’s, and in Rancière’s book, it is not Jacatot’s special knowledge that must be passed to the student. 
  • Thinking of the TEF in the context of the book’s introduction, the idea that teaching programmes and their outcomes vary according to intake might well be attacked by Rancière, just as he has criticised giving working class students less abstract material. The TEF states that teaching quality is assessed according to “the extent to which teaching stimulates and challenges students, and maximises their engagement with their studies” but also “The data used in the assessment are benchmarked for each provider to take account of its student mix, entry qualifications and subjects”. Does this mean that the TEF has different expectations of how demanding courses will be within different institutions? Are Oxbridge students given more to read, more challenging material and pushed harder? What is the difference in my teaching at prestigious Art Schools like Chelsea, The Royal College and Camberwell and excellent but less prestigious art schools like the Cass? If the TEF expects difference, and if we were to consider that it is a myth that human beings have different levels of intelligence, then the TEF may well be reproducing this myth, at least when there is no diagnosed ‘learning difficulty’. Or am I misinterpreting the TEF or Rancière?
  • These are just preliminary thoughts from reading the introduction, thoughts designed to get me thinking about the text. I might also need look at the TEF again, as well as actually reading the book.

[1] Rancière, J. Trans. Ross, K. (1991) The Ignorant Schoolmaster. Stanford, California. Stanford University Press.

[2] Apter, E. (2018) Unexceptional Politics: On Obstruction, Impasse, and the Impolitic. London & New York. Verso.

[3] Willis, P. (1978) Learning to Labour: How working-class kids get working class jobs. London & New York. Routledge.

[4] Scott, P. (2012) “It’s 20 years since polytechnics became universities – and there’s no going back” The Guardian. Available at: Last accessed 28 February 2020

[5] Dall’Alba, G. (2005) ‘Improving teaching: Enhancing ways of being university teachers’ Higher Education Research & Development. Vol. 24, pp. 361–372 Routledge.


At first what I liked about the TEF framework was that it took into account the likelihood of obtaining highly skilled graduate employment. I have noticed discourse in the past linking education and improving employment prospects, but had found them irritating because I knew graduates who couldn’t get jobs related to their degree or even degree level jobs. So specifying the percentage of students getting highly skilled graduate employment seemed like an improvement.

And then…I remembered that the TEF awards are made for the university as a whole and not a particular course, so that limits the usefulness of the measure.
And then…I thought about the messages behind these measures. Just by mentioning employment prospects the student (just as I was when reading this) will be directed to think not about education as an intrinsically worthwhile pursuit, an opportunity to immerse themselves in art making in a supportive and stimulating environment where they can share and develop ideas. Instead, in true capitalist style the student is directed instead to consider their employment prospects. 

And then…the awards themselves provide financial rewards for universities to improve their scores. They can charge an extra £250 per undergraduate student, per year. The idea that universities would need financial incentives to improve their teaching and the student experience strikes me as somewhat offensive. It is a rather pessimistic (and market fundamentalist) view of human nature. I’d rather think that non-monetary values are enough. Just the desire to teach and help others could be enough, when harnessed and supported. I’ve been reading recently about the possibility that monetary incentives serve to crowd out people’s intrinsic motivations to act, and eventually erode and replace our morality. 

And then… there are those student satisfaction surveys. How good accurate are they? Sometimes it seems to me that very privileged students have very exacting and demanding standards and are likely to be less satisfied when the slightest thing goes wrong, whereas disadvantaged students might be used to putting up with things and therefore mark their poorer institutions more favourably than they should. I don’t have any evidence for this though. Also, my friend gave her university high scores just to make sure that they stayed high up in the league tables. Again not an accurate measure.

I understand that TEF might reassure students that the teaching at a higher education establishment has reached a required minimum standard, but I would question how and if the TEF measures and assesses teaching practice.

So, the more I think about it the more flawed the attempt to measure something like education is. Like measures of GDP so much is missed out and the concentration on the measurements, and its components, can send us off in the wrong direction. Wouldn’t the money and time and effort be better spent on more teaching – and giving art students what they really complain about – more contact time and more studio space. 

On Vilhauer

A few paragraphs into “Understanding Art: The Play of Work and Spectator” I’m thinking that this article is not so playful. Still, I told my girlfriend about the article and she acted out a bit of a playful interaction with one of the pieces of art on my lounge wall and communicated back and forth with the painting, which was definitely a fun event. I’m not sure what shared understanding she and Mr Wallinger have reached though. Maybe I should read on.

In all seriousness 

“It is only in the total mediation of meaning that the work of art reaches its completion and the phenomenon of play we’ve been tracing finally has “the character of a work, or an ergon and not only of energia.”

Reading Vilhauer’s chapter “Understanding Art: The play of Work and Spectator” I was interested in the idea that firstly “human play reaches its ultimate consummation in the work of art” secondly that this process of consummation or completion seems to require the arrival at shared understanding.

This first idea of art as somehow the zenith of human play (the zenith of play might be over stating things I admit) interrogated my limited interpretation of play. To me play seemed to be about exploration regardless of outcome, but the outcome of any play seems to be inevitably an evolution in understanding of some kind.

This ultimate consummation seems to be related to the idea that the meaning represented in the artwork is recognized by the viewer. Is this different from how meaning is recognized in other forms of play? Doesn’t the child make meaning and reach shared understanding with other participants in a game of house? Don’t players of monopoly share common understandings about human emotions, and how the world works? Is art better than this? Or, just different? 

Secondly, the idea of art being completed through the process of the interactive event engendering a shared understanding made me consider whether it was possible for art to be unsuccessful. What if nobody wants to engage, or no shared understanding is reached. This seemed to me an interesting subject that resonates with students who want to know what makes a piece of art successful and whether an individual artwork can rely on universal understanding.

(Draft section)

The Gadamer engaged audience section brought to memory a piece of my own artwork and unexpected audience participation.  Which probably questioned not just the engaged audience but highlighted the unwritten contract of behaviour in public, museum or gallery 

A song for the unhappily happy.