The Practice of Equality

Jacques Rancière and Critical Pedagogy

by Stephen Cowden (Volume editor) David Ridley (Volume editor)
Edited Collection X, 196 Pages

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Introduction (Stephen Cowden / David Ridley)
  • 1 Rancière, Freire and Critical Pedagogy (Sarah Galloway)
  • 2 ‘Glearning’ from Rancière (Oliver Davis)
  • 3 Neither ‘Sociologist’ Nor ‘Republican’: The ‘Singularity’ of Rancière’s Intervention in French Education Debates (Jeremy F. Lane)
  • 4 Flipping for Profit or Equality? Rancière and the Marketisation of Higher Education (David Ridley)
  • 5 Alternative Genealogies of Resistance – Lyotard, Rancière and ’68: Before and After (Jones Irwin)
  • 6 The Positive Project of the Radical Political Subject: Self-activity and Verification of Intellectual Equality (Mark Howard)
  • 7 Reading Rancière Symptomatically (Mike Neary)
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series index

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Figure 2.1. Evans, Walker (1903–1975): Sharecropper’s Family, Hale County, Alabama, March 1936. New York, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Gelatin silver print, 7 5/8 × 9 5/8’ (19.4 × 24.4 cm). Gift of the Farm Security Administration. Acc. n.: 385.1941. © 2018. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence.

Figure 2.2. Frontispiece and title page of the 1715 English translation.

Figure 4.1. UK Higher Education participation levels 1972–2010 (McGettigan 2013).

Figure 4.2. Historic Higher Education funding per student 1948–2007 (McGettigan 2013).

Figure 6.1. Italian workers’ demonstration in the 1960s.

Figure 6.2. Mario Tronti’s influential book Workers and Capital.

Figure 6.3. Radio Alice was the first ‘free radio station’ of the ‘creative’ area of social autonomy. Creative autonomy involved communities, formed around elements such as independent radio, and art and theatre movements, which used innovation and imagination to undermine the predominant party form of politics (see Cuninghame 2007, 165–168).

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The one who speaks when they are not to speak is the one who partakes in that in which they have no part.

RANCIÈRE (2013a: 32)

In 2010, Oliver Davis wrote the first monograph introducing the work of the iconoclastic French philosopher Jacques Rancière to an English-speaking audience. Since then we have seen a growing body of work considering the breadth of Rancière’s contributions to a wide range of fields. Despite this rapid growth, there has been only limited interest in addressing his specific contribution to the field of education, and to critical pedagogy in particular (Bingham and Biesta 2010; Lambert 2012; Pelletier 2009). In this book, we would like to present a range of views which have in common a series of arguments and explorations concerning Rancière’s conceptions of pedagogy. This work is important not just because of the highly unusual way he enters that field – through an account of Joseph Jacotot, a radical pedagogue working in Belgium at the time of the French revolution – but also the way that Rancière uses Jacotot’s radical principle of ‘Universal Teaching’ to open up questions about the politics and possibilities of pedagogy that are highly relevant for teachers and students in contemporary educational institutions. For us, Rancière’s profound insights into the nature of pedagogy are captured in the title of this book – that teaching is a ‘practice of equality’ – and all the chapters within the book embody this conception in different ways. We have situated the book within the field of radical educational theory and practice known as ‘critical pedagogy’. While we are fully aware that nowhere in any of his work does Rancière ever use the term critical pedagogy, we want to argue for the value of placing him in that ← 1 | 2 → tradition. Not only do Rancière’s writings on pedagogy act as the foundation for the distinctive approach to art and politics in his later work, but the pointedness of Rancière’s critique of conventional pedagogy facilitates new ways of thinking about critical pedagogy itself.

Rancière and the critical pedagogy tradition

What is critical pedagogy? Firstly, when talking about this body of ideas and practices it is important to distinguish this from the general concept of ‘critical thinking’ – this is because critical pedagogy is both an example, but also more importantly a critique, of the conventional conception of critical thinking (Cowden and Singh 2015). Critical thinking in its broadest sense can be defined as being concerned with the ways in which people develop the capacity, through cognitive processes and skills, to evaluate or analyse information. The dominant way of conceptualising critical thinking has come to be associated with forms of teaching and learning that seek to develop a student’s capacity for logical inquiry and reasoning, and much of the contemporary literature on critical thinking approaches this from a ‘science of learning’ approach. This seeks to understand the way learning takes place in the human brain, and then to apply this knowledge through techniques or structures to multifarious fields and sites in which learning takes place; the work of the Johns Hopkins Science of Learning Institute is a classic example of this approach.1 While this research undoubtedly offers insights, from the perspective of critical pedagogy there are some glaring omissions. This is an approach which entirely fails to address the fundamental philosophical and political questions about the purpose of critical thinking. It also assumes that particular institutional contexts are the sites where this critical thinking takes place without asking any questions about the point and purpose of these institutions, who designs ← 2 | 3 → and decides what is taught in them, and who is permitted access. Critical pedagogy insists on the centrality of these questions, and in that sense could be characterised as fundamentally concerned with the ethical basis of teaching and learning.

The Brazilian educationalist Paulo Freire (1921–1997) is considered by many as the founder of the theoretical and practical tradition of critical pedagogy. In his hugely influential 1968 book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire sets out an educational philosophy that seeks to characterise educational processes or what he later called ‘acts of learning and knowing’ as inherently political (Cowden and Singh 2015). In the foreword to the 1996 English edition of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Richard Shaull characterises Freire’s starting point as the idea that education can never be neutral; it either acts to socialise the learner into the logic of the present system or it becomes the practice of freedom. Here freedom is understood as the capacity of the learner to ‘deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world’ (Freire 1996: 16). Like the broader concept of critical thinking referred to earlier, Freire’s work draws from the Enlightenment tradition of progressive educational thought, but what is distinctive about his work is his focus on the pedagogical relations within schools, universities and educational institutions and the way these reproduce dominant power relations. In Chapter 1, Sarah Galloway offers an in-depth and deeply personal take on why Rancière matters ‘to those of us who still assume that an emancipatory education is possible’ and offers a discussion on the different ways in which both Rancière and Freire embody the idea that ‘a relationship of equality can be enacted between teachers and students’.

The present educational system in the West produces several different strata of learners: the top grade of students ‘whose “high level of intelligence” makes them fit to rule society; the next grade of domesticated, unquestioning students whose knowledge never threatens the powerful; and at the bottom the poor “uneducable” students, excluded from participation in the system’ (Cowden and Singh 2015: 566). As well as believing that education must be made available to men and women from all strata of society, Freire’s most enduring contributions have been concerned with the way the critical element within critical pedagogy can address and challenge ← 3 | 4 → the subjective experience of educational exclusion. The pedagogical practices he developed and wrote about in his many books sought to embody a radically participatory egalitarianism which conceived education as a transformative rather than alienating experience. Classrooms could become spaces within which students could name and then reflect upon their own circumstances and experiences, and through that process, come to understand these circumstances and experiences in radically different ways. It is for this reason that Freire sees criticality as something which can only be suppressed or stifled within educational processes that are purely instrumental. The first step of any practice of critical pedagogy must therefore be the questioning of the assumptions that structure the classroom as a social context where transformative learning is enabled or frustrated.

Rancière and Freire are both similar and different in the ways in which they seek to address the relationship of pedagogy to wider power structures. Both are centrally concerned with the way pedagogical practices – the way we are taught and the way we come to experience knowledge – are fundamentally bound up with the reproduction of the power of social elites and the inferiority of ‘the people’. Freire characterises this this though a metaphor of speech versus silence; the question of being ‘allowed to speak’ in the classroom was crucial for him. He saw traditional didactic pedagogy as producing silent domesticated students for whom learning remained entirely separated from everyday consciousness and subjectivity. He sought to challenge this by developing teaching methods which aimed to give students license to speak in their own voices and within this process, develop critical insights about the political nature of everyday life. Freire expressed this through a counter-positing of what he called ‘banking education’ with ‘problem-posing education’ (Freire 1996). Within banking education students are conceived of as receptacles to be ‘filled’ by the teacher: ‘education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor’ (Freire 1996: 53). Problem-posing education, on the other hand, seeks to both displace the traditional hierarchical relation between teacher and pupil with a dialogical approach that allows people to understand that ‘problems of human beings in their relations with the world [consist] of acts of cognition, not transferals of information’ (Freire 1996: 60–61). ← 4 | 5 →

Rancière is equally preoccupied with questioning this teacher-student hierarchy, though he approaches this in a radically different way. In his book The Ignorant Schoolmaster (1991), Rancière recounts the tale of Joseph Jacotot, an eighteenth-century Enlightenment pedagogue, who found himself in the situation of teaching French to a group of Flemish students without either party speaking a word of the other’s language. As a practical solution Jacotot gave the Flemish students a bilingual edition of the Les Aventures de Télémaque – a didactic French novel by Fénelon, the then Archbishop of Cambrai, which recounted the travels of Telemachus, son of Ulysses – and asked them to teach themselves French using the method of translation. Jacotot is at one level a stern and forbidding character who stands in stark contrast to the figure of the compassionate humanistic educator which Freire upholds. Rancière describes the emancipatory power of Jacotot’s method of ‘universal teaching’ as lying ‘in the command that had enclosed the students in a closed circle from which they alone could break out’ (Rancière 1991: 13). However, Jacotot’s demands of his students are not punitive; they are rather an expression of the central tenet of his approach – the presumption of equality in the classroom. Equality, for Rancière, should never be considered as an ideal to aspire to, rather it is a presupposition within the process and practice of teaching. For Rancière, ‘equality exists as the ensemble of practices that mark out its domain; there is no other reality of equality than the reality of equality’ (2010: 79). Hence, while Freire presents a dialogical method based on a mutual recognition of the different forms of knowledge teachers and students possess with a pedagogy based on their transcendence, Rancière argues that the presupposition of equality at the outset is what makes a democratic pedagogy possible.

These two approaches reflect the different journeys Freire and Rancière have taken through the pedagogical implications of their Enlightenment heritage and the relationship this has with liberalism and Marxism. Although Freire is a heterodox figure within the latter, he has remained strongly allied to this tradition and, as Jones Irwin (2012) has argued, a form of Hegelian Marxism acts as the foundation for much of his work. While the legacy of Marxism is also of fundamental importance to Rancière, he takes the unusual step of going back to the radicalism of pre-Marxist Enlightenment republicanism to question the platitudinous hollowing out ← 5 | 6 → of democracy as a practice under contemporary neoliberalism. Rancière’s goal is to reveal the stark difference between an equality that is the goal of democracy, endlessly deferred in terms of political ‘realism’ or realpolitik, and an equality that is democracy’s presupposition. It is in this sense that Rancière returns to the methods of the revolutionary educator Jacotot as one who ‘clarified the struggle of those proletarians who could not be the equals of the bourgeoisie whether through the education that the bourgeoisie provided them or through their own culture’, developing a method based on ‘the transgressive appropriation of an intellectual equality whose privilege others had reserved for themselves’ (Rancière 2004: 223). It is in this way Jacotot’s universalist pedagogy provides the bridge between Rancière’s early work on ‘worker-intellectuals’ (Rancière 2012) and his later work on democracy (Rancière 2013a; 2013b).

As a theorist, Rancière is well known for both his ‘irritability’ but also for his profound anti-disciplinarity (Davis 2010). His writing is often described as difficult because it defies easy explanation – this is of course the point, to undermine ‘explication’, to avoid ‘stultification’ (Rancière, 1991). Although The Ignorant Schoolmaster (1991), for example, seems to be quite obviously about pedagogy, it is also a book that radically questions the substantive content of much progressive pedagogy. As Caroline Pelletier (2012: 113) has noted, Rancière’s ‘demolition of the justifications for pedagogy brings into unforgiving light the paradoxes of working in an institution which continuously sorts students (and colleagues) hierarchically according to notions of ability, while upholding a commitment to equality and social justice’. Davis (2010) also draws attention to Rancière’s method of ‘parataxis’ through which theorists and/or politico-theoretical positions are juxtaposed to bring out connections not seen before, to create new ideas from the clashes within and between traditions. Davis uses this method in Chapter 2 to re-stage Rancière’s ‘formidable’ engagement with Clement Greenberg’s conception of literary and artistic Modernism in order to construct a ‘practice of embodied and self-authorising learning’ which, developing Rancière’s work in a highly original manner, Davis calls ‘glearning’. Furthermore, critical pedagogy itself is not excluded from the irritability of Rancière’s critique and we may well feel uncomfortable with the questions Rancière raises concerning the ‘division of the sensible’ that ← 6 | 7 → continues to underlie some conceptions of critical pedagogy (Lambert 2012). As much as we may wish to see the principle of equality as a substantive theory of critical pedagogy, we must also see it, whether we like it or not, as proposing its dissolution.

Rancière and Marxism

Although The Ignorant Schoolmaster is an obvious entry point for critical pedagogues, in this book we have sought to situate this intervention in relation to the wider body of Rancière’s work. Rancière playfully describes his early period in the ‘Preface’ to The Philosopher and His Poor as ‘a seminar on Capital called to an unexpected notoriety; a thesis on Feuerbach interrupted by the din of the street; some time spent circulating between university halls and factory doors; ten years of research in worker archives’ (Rancière 1994: xxv). The above quote points to Rancière’s ‘irritable’ relationship with Marxism during the 1960s, beginning with his apprenticeship with a central figure of French Marxist theory in the 1960s, Louis Althusser. Rancière was very much the loyal disciple of Althusser in this period, and he contributed a chapter to Althusser’s influential Reading Capital book2 which was at that point the focal theoretical point for Althusser’s ‘scientific Marxism’. This work was founded on a ‘symptomatic’ reading of Marx which argued for the existence of an ‘epistemological break’ between the early and late writings of Marx. Rancière later vehemently rejected this position, distancing himself both from Althusser and his Reading Capital essay. Mike Neary’s contribution in Chapter 7 ← 7 | 8 → of this book revisits this material and suggests that the influence of this early work on Rancière’s subsequent development is greater than Rancière himself may have wanted to admit in the period following his rejection of Althusser. Neary looks at Rancière’s paper The Concept of ‘Critique’ and a Critique of Political Economy, noting the way this essay follows Althusser’s argument that Marx’s Capital provides the basis for Marx’s scientific theorising in his mature work as opposed to the anthropological, humanist and ideological earlier writing. Neary shows, however, that on another level this early work allowed Rancière to develop the concept of ‘capital’ in new directions in his later work, which Neary argues, positions Rancière close to recent innovations in Marxist theory associated with Moishe Postone’s (1993) value-form theory and John Holloway’s Open Marxism (Bonefeld et al. 1992a; 1992b; 1995). Hence Neary argues, despite Rancière’s protestations, that there are important methodological precedents in this early work with Althusser on Marx for Rancière’s later work on pedagogy and democracy.

This does not alter the significance of the political disagreement between Rancière and Althusser, which developed as student protests exploded in May 1968 in Paris – protests which Althusser dismissed as petit-bourgeois and not revolutionary at all. In his view, the working class was ‘not yet ready’ for a revolution – even though in the streets outside the Ecole Normale Superiore the students were already linking with the workers. It was this this fundamental dissonance which led to the break between Rancière and his former teacher, expressed most substantially in his book Althusser’s Lesson (2011). In this book Rancière argues that Althusserianism is ‘fundamentally a theory of education’ noting the apparent paradox that ‘every theory of education strives to maintain the source of the power it seeks to shed light on’ (Rancière 2011: 52). Hence for Rancière, Althusser’s theoretical practice only reinforces the privileged position of the master, or pedagogue, over the student. This critique is not just important for Rancière’s later critique of pedagogy, which is clearly already formulated here, but also because this argument about the true meaning of the revolutionary year of 1968 remains deeply contested and unresolved. Althusser’s rejection of the student movement signified for Rancière an idealised notion of the proletariat which ordinary flesh and blood workers had failed to live ← 8 | 9 → up to. This idealisation of an abstraction prevented Althusser from seeing the organic links that were emerging between the student movement and the working class, a process that Kristin Ross (2002) brilliantly re-captured in her book May ’68 and Its Afterlives.

Ross argues that ‘the 68ers’ were more inspired by the Maoism of Vietnam and the Chinese Cultural Revolution than by the strict Marxist-Leninism of Althusser’s generation. This Maoism appealed to radical students as it accepted that revolutionary activity may come from not just from the traditional proletariat, but also from peasants or farmers, and perhaps most importantly, from an international class of oppressed, indigenous peoples – for example in Algeria – fighting for liberation from their colonial masters. The Maoism of the 68ers accepted that leadership was needed, but that this leadership should come from intellectuals organising alongside workers a la base, in the factories, banlieues [suburbs] and bidonvilles [slums]. Student revolutionaries adopted the pre-’68 practice of établissement, where intellectuals took up positions within factories, the idea being that political consciousness could be created in ‘laboratory situations’ with theory developing ‘spontaneously’ within the proletariat (Ross 2002). The anti-Stalinist and workerist elements in France were echoed by developments in Italy, with the radical journal Socialisme ou Barbarie providing an important theoretical link (Wright 2002). In Chapter 6 in this book, Mark Howard explores these connections between French and Italian Marxist traditions during the period, contrasting Rancière’s work on pedagogy with that of the Italian ‘co-research’ tradition associated with Danilo Montaldi and the Quaderni Rossi and Classe Operaia journals. As Howard points out, the co-research tradition was itself partly based on Marx’s 1880 Worker’s Inquiry, in which he prepared a list of 101 questions ‘to survey workers with the intent to understand the conditions (misfortunes) of work from their perspective’.

At the same time as Rancière was accusing Althusser of the ‘economism’ that the latter had claimed to have transcended in Reading Capital, a group calling itself the New Philosophers emerged in France. Many of these were former Marxists subsequently denouncing Marxism, arguing that it could only ever result in Gulag-style Stalinist repression. Like Althusser, the New Philosophers dismissed ’68, in this case for being the revolt of a spoiled ← 9 | 10 → and pampered generation. While Althusser couldn’t see the authenticity of the revolt happening in front of his eyes, the New Philosophers were ‘busy re-encoding the anti-Stalinist elements of gauchisme into celebrations of liberal capitalism’ (Ross 2002: 131). Again, Rancière occupies an irritable space between two opposed political positions, not easily placed within left- or right-wing camps – if only because these are so clearly demarcated by established traditions and theories. In Chapter 5, Jones Irwin revisits the theoretical milieu spanning the pre- and post-68 period, contrasting Rancière’s critique of pedagogy with Jean-François Lyotard’s own ‘rethink and reconceptualization of political discourse on the left’ following this experience of revolt. Within the chapters of Irwin, Neary and Howard we can see the significance of ’68 not just in terms of Rancière’s critique of pedagogy, but for the trajectory of his work immediately before The Ignorant Schoolmaster and his writing on politics and democracy after. The key realisation for many intellectuals who took part in the May ’68 revolt – those who did not denounce it from the side-lines or from television studios afterwards – was that intellectuals ‘had no specific place in May, no particular role; they were like everyone else, part of the crowd … like everyone else, they did not represent a concrete social category, but merely an agent at work with other agents, on the street, inscribed in the same project’ (Ross 2002: 174).

It was this realisation that drove Rancière into the worker archives during the 1970s, and to the establishment of the journal Lés Révolts Logiques. This work eventually culminated in the book Proletarian Nights (2012), which ‘curated the dreams and nightmares of a few hundred workers who were twenty years old around 1830’ who ‘wrested time’ for philosophising from the ‘normal sequence of work and sleep’. Rancière’s work here has very interesting parallels with the re-construction of pre-Marxist radical history as it was being undertaken at an earlier point time in Britain by the Marxist historian E. P. Thompson. Thompson’s 1963 book The Making of the English Working Class transformed the discipline of historiography and remains to this day hugely influential. Thompson’s intention was to ‘rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity’ (Thompson 1963: 12). ← 10 | 11 → Thompson was a founding member of the British New Left, as well as of the New Left Review, both of which came out of a similar anti-Stalinist Marxism as that experienced by Rancière in France. Both Rancière and Thompson recognised, even celebrated, the utopian and backward-looking radicalism of these artisanal socialists – as Marx pointed out, in relation to the ‘farcical’ German revolutions of 1848, anachronism can produce a limited form of revolutionary consciousness. But where Thompson wanted to rediscover, like Richard Hoggart, an authentic working-class culture, Rancière found in the worker archives a politics of mélange, of the transgression of the division of the sensible between workers and intellectuals, of workers stealing time to appropriate the intellectual culture of the ruling classes. In this sense Rancière’s Proletarian Nights (2012) bears a closer affinity to another member of the British New Left, Raymond Williams, who investigated the history, fraught with potential and difficulty, of attempts to establish a ‘common culture’ (Williams 1977).

In Rancière’s The Philosopher and His Poor (1994), written following Proletarian Nights, he attempted to consolidate the ten years of work in the archives into a critique of philosophy. For Rancière, the history of philosophy, and in fact the activity of philosophy itself, are both founded on a lie. This lie began with Plato, who stated that ‘a person can only do one thing at a time’ (Rancière 1994: 4). Although this statement seems obviously false, it nevertheless forms the basis for the modern division of labour and therefore the integrity of skilled labour and craft that inform the essentialism of working-class culture. Within this ‘division of the sensible’, ‘a shoemaker is simply a man who is forbidden to engage in any activity other than shoemaking’ (Rancière 1994: 23). In terms very similar to John Dewey, philosophy is revealed as a defence of social privilege founded on a division between head and hand, concerned ‘less to lock up others than to protect itself from them’ (Rancière 1994: 52). For Dewey (2012), philosophy, at least in its traditional form, offered ‘consolation’ to an intellectual class alienated from productive activity, popular democracy and the raw power of nature. The above quote from Rancière reveals less of the intention of The Philosopher and His Poor to relegate Plato and Marx to ‘the dustbin of history’, and more Rancière’s ambivalence in relation to that historical tradition. ← 11 | 12 →

The Ignorant Schoolmaster

As already mentioned, Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster (1991) recounts the tale of Joseph Jacotot. It was Jacotot’s surprise at his students’ ability to write essays in French that were as good as students he had taught using a more traditional didactic method that led to his realisation that you ‘do not need to know to teach’. Jacotot proceeded (as legend has it) to test out this discovery by teaching a variety of subjects he had no idea about, naming this new method ‘Universal Teaching’. Although Jacotot’s work was very influential in his day, its significance had been largely forgotten until its rediscovery by Rancière. In recounting Jacotot’s story, Rancière mobilises his earlier critique of philosophy by showing that intellectual discovery is not something conferred by the master onto the student, but rather appropriated by the latter through an act of ‘transgressive will’. This provides a third way beyond on the one hand, ‘the old republican pedagogy, proclaiming the universalism of the citizen and the promotion of the children of the common people through science and instruction delivered to everyone in the same way’, and on the other, the ‘modernist pedagogy, supported by sociological analyses of cultural reproduction and advocating a school and a cultural politics that gave high priority to adapting to the needs and manners of the disadvantaged sectors’ (Rancière 1994: 221). Jacotot’s ‘pessimism’ forces critical pedagogy into a corner in which the only alternative to ‘stultification’ is autodidacticism. Like Rancière’s other interventions, The Ignorant Schoolmaster inserted itself into a very specific historical, theoretical, but also directly political debate: the dispute between the so-called républicains and pédagogues about the politics and the purpose of the French education system. In Chapter 3 Jeremy Lane sets out this context and in doing so explains the trenchant nature of his disagreement with leading French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who was at that stage acting as an advisor to ministers within the socialist government of François Mitterrand. This chapter not only maps out the historical terrain into which The Ignorant Schoolmaster emerged, but also allows us to see how direct the policy and organisational implications which flow from these different conceptions of pedagogy actually are. This work is particularly useful for an English speaking audience which might not be ← 12 | 13 → so aware of the ‘singularity’ of Rancière’s intervention and of the ‘vision of both education and society that Rancière derives from his engagement with the thought and pedagogical practice of Joseph Jacotot’.

It is in this sense that The Ignorant Schoolmaster offers theoretical and methodological suggestions for critical pedagogy. For Rancière, the purpose of emancipatory pedagogy, for example, is to reveal intelligence to itself. The method of equality demands that the equality of intelligence is assumed at the outset, not something to be achieved through quantitative or qualitative changes or in consciousness. A pedagogy that is not stultifying is one that brings out the capacity for knowledge that is already in everyone. As Jacotot said (or was it Rancière?) ‘everything is in everything’ (Rancière, 1991: 41). This is arguably the closest Rancière comes to a definition of critical pedagogy: a pedagogy which seeks not so much to transmit knowledge but rather to use experiences of oppression, sometimes initially in confused or unconnected form, as content for the self-education of students as co-researchers. Jacotot in many ways is not the ideal figure of critical pedagogy, intransigently uncompromising, demanding responses from his students, almost bullying them into discovering their own capacity for knowledge. Jacotot’s extreme example, however, reminds us that our duty as educators, especially within higher education, is not to seek knowledge and then to pass this knowledge on to our students, but to guide students to their own knowledge through education as a social relation. This brings us right back to Freire’s (1968) concept of conscientização, or ‘conscientization’, which described the process of developing a critical awareness of one’s social reality through reflection and action on real problems and needs.

All this is highly relevant to the present context. As David Ridley explains in Chapter 4, higher education in the UK is being marketised. This process began in earnest in the UK in 2010 with the introduction of £9,000 student fees and loans, turning students into consumers, followed by the opening up of the sector to new ‘alternative providers’, that is, for-profit universities, which are meant to drive up quality through competition (McGettigan 2013). Much of the ideology behind this marketisation rests on the neoliberal principle of ‘choice’ and one of the key difficulties for critics of marketisation has been the language of progressivism that conservatives have used to argue for this disruptive change. Therefore, ← 13 | 14 → when critics of marketisation defend the public university against choice, they are easily painted as reactionary academics defending social privilege based on a traditional education system divided along class lines. For Ridley, Rancière’s critique of pedagogy, in particular the claim that you do not need to know to teach, sits awkwardly within this dialectic of marketisation. As modern universities become multi-national corporations, neoliberal managers increasingly turn to casualisation and outsourcing to push down labour costs and increase flexibility. Technology is being used to capture the knowledge of academics, who can get on with creating new knowledge (read: generate income from research funding), which is then disseminated online and ‘facilitated’ via an expanding army of de-professionalised ‘tutors’. The point is exactly that these tutors do not need to know to teach. The key site of struggle in this increasingly marketised, casualised and lowly paid sector will in the future be over ‘quality’. Can learning be commodified without destroying its value? Rancière’s critique of the relationship between knowledge and teaching – the very basis of the modern idea of the university – allows critical pedagogues to step beyond this debate and pose the more fundamental question of what kind of a social activity teaching is in the first place.

Rancière’s (1991) critique of ‘progressive time’ will also irritate academic critical theorists. There is a certain practice of criticality in which theory is preferred over action, where there is always more theorising to be done before action is undertaken, and within which the student is placed on an eternal apprenticeship. None of us want to admit to being this figure, yet Rancière demands that we honestly face the critical theorist in all of us. The forces of marketisation are so disruptive, that they bring into question not just the value of academic labour, but also of academic identity; academics invest so much life and soul into their work. Theory can represent for critical theorists a form of consolation for when the world whose brutalising ‘reality’ is too painful to face. Rancière’s principle of equality, however, offers an alternative to such debilitating pessimism. It asks us to be ‘strategically optimistic’, to stop waiting and to begin acting, beginning with the presumption of equality in our social relationships with students. Academics are just as much victims of the division of the sensible within the managerialism of the neoliberal university; in the face of marketisation ← 14 | 15 → many are trapped on the hamster wheel of managerial demands for ever more satisfied students and ever more high-impact research. In this brave new world ‘leadership teams’ concerned with marketing each institution are the new philosopher kings. Rancière demands that we transgress this division of the sensible, taking over the university for ourselves. Thinking with Rancière beyond the division of the sensible at the heart of the neoliberal university encourages academics to look to forms of cooperative governance and ‘neo-collegiality’ as alternatives to neoliberal managerialism (Ridley 2017).

Democracy and Dissensus

As has become apparent from this introduction so far, the question of a democratic pedagogy is fundamental for Rancière, and in his later work the wider meaning and significance of this practice of democracy becomes central. Paul Patton has noted that if politics is generally understood as ‘the struggle over power and resources that take place on a stage defined by legal and political institutions, public reason and public opinion’ then what Rancière wants to do is fundamentally challenge ‘the very existence of the stage as well as the makeup and status of the performers who are entitled to appear’ (2012: 129). In his manifesto-like Ten Theses on Politics, which forms the first essay of the 2010 collection Dissensus, Rancière’s first thesis states:

This points to the distinctiveness of Rancière’s definition of the term ‘politics’ which develops out of his critique of the Platonic belief that ‘a person can only do one thing at a time’ in The Philosopher and his Poor (Rancière 1994: 4). In this sense political conflict results not, as is conventionally presented to us, as a conflict between different interest groups, but rather ‘an opposition between logics that count the parties and parts ← 15 | 16 → of the community in different ways’ (Rancière 2013: 35). Politics, in this conception, is not about the inclusion of the excluded, it concerns rather the way the excluded, in becoming active agents, come to act as a ‘supplement’ which disrupts the logic of the existing order; as Rancière puts it: ‘the people is a supplementary existence that inscribes the count of the uncounted, or part of those who have no part … the equality of speaking beings without which inequality itself is inconceivable’ (Rancière 2013a: 33). Rancière develops this idea through the juxtaposition of politics with ‘police’. The latter term does not literally mean ‘police’ as an apparatus and institution of the state, rather ‘the essence of the police lies in the partition of the sensible that is characterised by the absence of void and supplement; society is made up of groups tied to specific modes of doing’ (Rancière 2013: 36). While the slogan of the police is ‘Move along! There’s nothing to see!’, politics ‘consists in transforming this space of moving-along … into a space for the appearance of a subject; the people, the workers, the citizens’ (Rancière 2013a: 37).

This leads us to Rancière’s conception of democracy and the importance of this conception for critical pedagogy. In his essay ‘Does Democracy Mean Something?’ (Rancière 2013b) Rancière offers a compelling idea of democracy, one that is deeply illustrative of the fate of global politics in neoliberal times. The concept of democracy, Rancière argues, is paradoxical at its foundation. On the one hand, democracy names democratic government as good government, or legitimate order; a form of governmental order that is legitimate and just because it is founded upon democratic principles of equality and self-government. But on the other hand, democracy also means freedom, the rejection of rule by others, and the demand for the rule of the people by the people. The democratic paradox is that democracy understood as freedom and the rule by people always threatens to destabilise and revolutionise democratic government that offers itself as a legitimate order; ‘politics’ always threatens the logic of ‘police’. Democratic government – if it is to remain a government – requires the reduction of the revolutionary democratic excess of democratic individualism and the demand for popular rule. Hence democracy, in Rancière’s view, is a power that at once legitimates and de-legitimates. ← 16 | 17 →

Democracy promises the transparency and self-government that is necessary to legitimate government today, and the realisation of the ‘power of the people, the power of those who have no special entitlement to exercise power’, which is the ‘very basis of what makes politics thinkable’ (Rancière 2010: 79). Democracy in this latter sense is ‘not the population, the majority, the political body or the lower classes … It is the surplus community made up of those who have no qualification to rule, which means at once everybody and anyone at all’ (Rancière 2013b: 53). It is because a democratic politics that is on the side of the messy and disruptive aspect of democracy, the interruption to the dominant order by the ‘voice of those who have no voice’, is always suppressed by oligarchic running of ‘democratic’ institutions that Rancière uses the term ‘dissensus’. Rancière defines this not as a ‘confrontation between interests or opinions’ but rather ‘a demonstration of the gap in the sensible itself’ (Rancière 2013a: 38). Democracy’s paradoxical nature lies in the way it ‘implies a practice of dissensus, one that it keeps re-opening and that the practice of ruling relentlessly plugs’ (Rancière 2013b: 54). Or, as Rancière put it more bluntly ‘democracy is the wrench of equality jammed into the gears of domination; it’s what keeps politics from simply turning into law enforcement’ (Rancière in Bensaid, 2011: 79).

Rancière’s delineation of this concept of dissensus brings us right back to the questions of pedagogy and of critical pedagogy that we began this introduction with. It is crucial to note that Jacotot’s method of Universal Teaching was not a method in which the disadvantaged were offered better opportunities to take their rightful place in society, neither was it the gift of an enlightened pedagogue to his humble students with the view of raising them up in society. It was rather a method which sought to create the conditions for the subversive appropriation of knowledge by working-class and subaltern students through their assertion of their right to be intelligent. This is important for Rancière as, rather than seeking recognition from the existing oligarchies of the intelligent, this new knowledge acts as supplement, as disruption. The critical pedagogy of Rancière is thus one which seeks to disrupt the existing ‘division of the sensible’ though its assertion of the universality of intelligence. It is a pedagogy of dissensus. ← 17 | 18 →


Agamben, G., Badiou, A., Bensaid, D., Brown, W., Nancy, J., Rancière J., Ross, K., and Žižek, S. (2011). Democracy in What State? New York: Columbia University Press.

Althusser, L., Balibar, E., Establet, R., Macherey P., and Rancière, J. (2016). Reading Capital – The Complete Edition London: Verso.

Bensaid, D. (2011). ‘Permanent Scandal’ in Democracy In What State? New York: Columbia University Press.

Bingham, C., and Biesta, G. (2010). Jacques Rancière: Education, Truth, Emancipation. London: Bloomsbury.

Bonefeld, W., Gunn R., and Psychopedis, K. (1992a). Open Marxism: Dialectics and History Volume 1. London: Pluto Press.

—— (1992b). Open Marxism: Theory and Practice Volume 2. London: Pluto Press.

Bonefeld, W., Gunn R., Holloway, J., and Psychopedis, K. (1995). Open Marxism: Emancipating Marx Volume 3. London: Pluto Press.

Cowden, S., and Singh, G. (2015). ‘Critical Pedagogy: Critical Thinking as a Social Practice’. Davies, M., and Barnett, R. (eds), The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Thinking in Higher Education. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 559–572.

Davis, O. (2010). Jacques Rancière. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Dewey, J. (2012). Unmodern Philosophy and Modern Philosophy. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Freire, P (1996). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. London: Penguin.

Irwin, J (2012). Paulo Freire’s Philosophy of Education: Origins, Developments, Impacts and Legacies. New York: Continuum.

Johns Hopkins Institute of Learning. ‘About Us’. Available from: <http://scienceoflearning.jhu.edu/about-us/>. Accessed 7 April 2017.

Lambert, C. (2012). ‘Redistributing the Sensory: the Critical Pedagogy of Jacques Rancière’. Critical Studies in Education 53(2): 211–227.

Lyotard, J.- F. (1984). The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

McGettigan, A. (2013). The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education. London: Pluto Press.

Pelletier, C. (2009). ‘Emancipation, Equality and Education: Rancière’s Critique of Bourdieu and the Question of Performativity’. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education 30(2): 137–150.

—— (2012). ‘No Time or Place for Universal Teaching: The Ignorant Schoolmaster and Contemporary Work on Pedagogy’ in Deranty, P., and Ross, A. Jacques Rancière and the Contemporary Scene. London and New York: Continuum. ← 18 | 19 →

Postone, M. (1993). Time Labour and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rancière, J, (1991). The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

—— (2004). The Philosopher and His Poor. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

—— (2011). Althusser’s Lesson. London: Continuum.

—— (2012). Proletarian Nights: the Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth Century France. London: Verso.

—— (2013a). ‘Ten Theses on Politics’. Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics. London and New York, Bloomsbury.

—— (2013b). ‘Does Democracy Mean Something?’ Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics. London and New York, Bloomsbury.

Ross, K. (2002). May ’68 and its Afterlives. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Thompson, E. P. (1963). The Making of the English Working Class. London: Penguin.

Williams, R. (1977). Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wright, S. (2002). Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism. London: Pluto Press.

1 <http://scienceoflearning.jhu.edu/>.

2 First published in France in 1965. The English version of the book, published in 1968, offered only an abridged form of the book, including only contributions from Althusser and Etienne Balibar. It was only in 2016 that Verso published an English version that also included the contributions from Roger Establet, Pierre Macherey and Jacques Rancière (Althusser, 2016).

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1 Rancière, Freire and Critical Pedagogy

Whilst studying for a PhD in adult education, I engaged in the task of comparing Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1972) with Jacques Rancière’s book, The Ignorant Schoolmaster (1991). I had no qualifying undergraduate degree in social sciences or philosophy, but as a time-served computer programmer I utilised basic tools of logic to create an analysis. My interaction with the theorists’ ideas was informed by personal experiences of education and politics rather than, for example, awareness of academic audiences, or ongoing discussions within the field of critical pedagogy. At the time, I did not anticipate that the results of my analysis would be published (Galloway 2012). After completing my studies, I worked as a shop assistant and as an adult educator in prison, experiences that provoked me to question the purpose of educational theories and their possible relevance to academic fields of study. In this chapter I return to this staged conversation between Freire and Rancière and attempt to justify my opinion that the ideas do matter, because they encourage us to doubt commonly held assumptions about our (limited) potential to change society, instead challenging us to take personal responsibility for formulating and enacting alternatives whilst responding to each other and our shared concerns.

Freire wrote directly to an audience of practitioners and students and perhaps this in part explains why his account of education continues to hold the attention of teachers and practice-based researchers internationally. Whilst the thrust of Rancière’s contribution is to demonstrate how everyone can and must speak on matters of shared concern to humanity, in the UK the main audience for his work has been people with an interest in philosophy or social theory, rather than those occupied primarily with teaching. I do not claim to offer a definitive account or analysis of ← 21 | 22 → Rancière’s contribution and others have also presented discussions stimulated by considering Freire and Rancière together (e.g. Biesta 2012, 2017, Vlieghe 2016, Lewis 2012). Likewise, Rancière’s work has also been considered specifically in response to critical approaches to adult and community education (Wildemeerch 2014, 2016, Harman 2017, Masschelein 2010). What I attempt is to offer is my own take on why Rancière matters to those of us who still assume that an emancipatory education is possible, as well as introducing some of the ideas to a wider audience.

My reading of Rancière and Freire focuses on their common reliance upon the idea that a relationship of equality can be enacted between teachers and students and the common assumption that emancipation is possible, albeit on a temporary basis which I elaborate upon below. Their shared concern is that educational situations serve typically to accelerate existing societal inequality, bringing urgency to the problem of how education might serve an alternative purpose. In this sense, both discuss emancipation in response to the same problem – that by default, education serves to socialise us into existing hierarchies and replicate societal inequality. Indeed, Freire’s alternative emancipatory education is understood as a ‘problem-posing’ education, the rationale being that if we can identify the reality of the problems that we face, then the identification of practical solutions will simultaneously follow, instigating collective action for positive societal change. With Rancière there is a different logic in play: he offers an analysis of the same problem of the socialising effects of education, but, importantly, explaining the problem doesn’t automatically suggest a solution in the form of a recipe for emancipation. This may seem problematic, however Freire also warned against his ideas being turned into methods by readers, instead imploring us to must create our own (Freire and Macedo 1987: 134). A predetermined recipe for freedom is inherently illogical (Biesta 2009) and perhaps there is an inherent danger in attempting to write about emancipation in the first place, lest it be interpreted in instrumental and therefore self-defeating ways.

In addition to the differing approaches to problem solving, at least two aspects of Rancière’s work are significant to how we might discuss and practice education. Firstly, Rancière offers a theory of emancipation which does not place human consciousness at its centre, circumventing ← 22 | 23 → the necessity for critical approaches to education to overcome a ‘naïve consciousness’ amongst students. The idea of naïve consciousness in relation to adult education for political transformation has come under criticism, not least because it might encourage students to be situated in deficit mode, regardless of the best intentions of educators (see Wildemeerch 2014). However, the notion of naïve consciousness is central to Freire’s understanding of emancipatory education which I also discuss in further detail below. Secondly, Rancière offers a way of discussing and critiquing education that does not rely upon understanding power as is relates to identity formation. For me, this is important, given the prevalence of ideas around identity and power in the context of ongoing discussion around adult learning and critical pedagogy. Previously, I have made the case that the conflation of Freire’s work with an ‘empowerment perspective’ on education (Blake and Masschelein 2003) has created confusion, with Rancière’s work pointing towards possible ways out (Galloway 2017). I provide further explanation and illustration below, after introducing some of the theory. But, it seems to me that the two above mentioned aspects of Rancière’s thinking matter greatly because they help to describe educational practices that avoid positioning students as needing expert knowledge from teachers as a precursor to an imagined emancipatory process in the future. At the same time, Rancière describes an emancipatory education that is deeply connected to the shared concerns of humanity whilst simultaneously reliant upon all of us, as individuals, taking responsibility for speaking and being heard. Emancipation cannot be deferred to a non-specific day in the future, rendering it over the rainbow in the ‘the land of Oz’ (Holloway 2016) – we must respond now (Rancière 1991).

I elaborate further by revisiting the conversation which I previously staged between Paulo Freire and Jacques Rancière (Galloway 2012) where I compared each theory. I introduce the ideas of Rancière simultaneously with those of Freire, considering the assumptions they both make and what this means for two contrasting understandings of oppression and emancipation. I then return to the above mentioned aspects of Rancière’s theories and put them to work in critiquing Freire’s ideas, contrasting this critique with how Freire is typically criticised (Galloway 2017). Finally, I present conclusions about the practical relevance of Rancière’s work. ← 23 | 24 →


The way in which Freire and Rancière conceptualise equality is important because they rest their respective understandings of both oppression and emancipation upon this. Both describe equality by making simple assumptions which serve to demarcate humanity from all other forms of life. Freire presents his assumptions as self-evident truths about the innate character of human beings. What separates humanity from animals is that we are conscious of the material world and each other, defining equality in the sense that we are all equally and innately predisposed to socially reflect and act upon the world around us. More than this, our drive for social reflection and action is symptomatic of an eternal striving towards ‘completeness’, for we need not resign ourselves to the ‘world’ as it is (Freire 1972: 70–77, 56–57). This cycle of social reflection and social action is driven by dialogue between people and ‘the world’ in the context of the problems we face and forms the basis of Freire’s description of education as praxis. Significantly, such dialogue is reliant upon human relationships, where love, trust and hope are integral to equality. Whilst Rancière makes assumptions about humanity as a way to defining equality, these are not presented as unchanging truths about the innate character of human beings or understandings resulting from research, but rather as ‘opinions’ which we might believe and act upon. This draws our attention to how the assumptions that we make about humanity, including Freire’s, are not permanent truths, though we might treat them as such, with consequences for the ways we respond to each other and how we come to form our own opinions.

Rancière’s ideas are elaborated through the story of an educator, a teacher named Joseph Jacotot. Jacotot discovers emancipatory education by accident from observations made when he was teaching a language he didn’t know. From the backdrop of this scenario, Rancière presents the initial opinion that all people are equally capable of directing their intellect towards forming their own opinions, or in other words, that all people are of equal intelligence. He also observes that regardless of the equality between people in terms of their intelligence, people do not all apply their intelligence to formulate their opinions in all situations. For example, we ← 24 | 25 → typically find ourselves relying upon the opinions of others and society could not exist without commonly held knowledge. Here two other ideas come into play. Firstly, the idea of the human will, which drives us to put our intelligence to work, or that ‘man [sic] is a will served by an intelligence’ (Rancière 1991: 51–52). Secondly, if people rely on the intellect of other people and the opinions of others, this weakens their own will and the exercising of their own intelligence, undermining intellectual equality. For intellectual equality to exist, each individual must attend to their own intellect, a logic that informs Rancière’s third opinion that ‘it is precisely because each man [sic] is free that a union of men [sic] is not’ (Rancière 1991: 78).

As I mentioned above, both theorists rest their understanding of oppression upon their definition of equality. Each understands oppression as an educational process of knowledge transmission from ‘teacher’ to ‘student’ enacted throughout society’s institutions as well as in formally recognised educational spaces such as universities or high schools. Knowledge transmission serves to weaken human relationships based upon equality, allowing oppression to be defined as the undermining of equality or one that strengthens inequality between people. However, as Freire and Rancière make differing assumptions about equality, their understanding of oppression diverges, though they both agree that there is a default situation where education serves to oppress us. In Freire’s terminology, equality is enacted when we are engaged in social reflection and action focused upon identifying and solving problems that we share. It therefore follows on that education that serves to weaken or eliminate this type of human interaction is oppressive. In contrast, Rancière’s starting point is that all people are intellectually equal and consequently, education is assumed to be oppressive when it undermines our willingness to put our intelligence to work, so failing to recognise the intelligence of others. By considering these two ways of understanding oppression in further detail, implications for the practical activity of ‘teachers’ and ‘students’ should become clearer.

Famously, Freire’s (1972) characterisation of the oppressive dynamics within education is known as ‘banking education’, where the oppressive role of the teacher is to deposit knowledge within students who are situated as passive receptacles. The teacher assumes the role of active subject and the students are situated as ‘objects’ dependent upon the teacher for ← 25 | 26 → knowledge about the world (Freire 1972: 46–49). Banking education denies dialogue between people and weakens social reflection and action with regard to common concerns. Indeed, this lack of engagement with others and the world renders students with a diminished consciousness of the world around them – they have a naïve consciousness or false perception that prevents them from understanding the true character of oppressive society therefore weakening the ability to act and make changes. In this way, Freire connects educational activity with the continuation of social hierarchies and injustices. However, it also leaves Freire (1972) with a problem to solve which is how to envision an emancipatory alternative, where students might become fully conscious of each other and ‘the world’, but without resorting to knowledge transmission or ‘banking education’.

Rancière does not rest his definitions of equality and oppression upon matters relating to humanity’s status as conscious beings, which means that the idea of a false or naïve consciousness does not come into play. However, like Freire, he does identify knowledge transmission as a driver of societal oppression. This is not because it is a process where students are rendered passive objects, but because it encourages students to believe that they must rely upon the intellect of others, instead of attending to their own intellect and acknowledging intellectual equality between all people. When considering the problem of knowledge transmission, Freire identifies lack of dialogue between teachers and students as the source of the difficulty. In contrast, Rancière considers how processes of explanation encourage the flow of knowledge transmission. From an early age, children are encouraged to believe that they will not understand without relying upon the explanations (or explications) of others and in a sense, schools are places where they grieve over the breaking of their wills (Rancière 1991: 3–6). The result is the strengthening of a kind of intellectual laziness (Rancière 1991: 40), where we come to rely upon the opinion of others when it comes to matters of social concern. As with Freire, Rancière describes how oppressive processes cascade throughout all of society’s institutions, including those aimed at countering inequality. Left-leaning parties and charitable organisations may be well intentioned, but the way they transmit their ideas through systems of explanation, acts to replicate rather than diminish ← 26 | 27 → inequality (Rancière 1991: 17), providing further rationale for their need in the first place. The operation of social science research is identified with a particular ‘circle of inequality’ where our everyday opinions are captured and then explained back to us by scholars as if we need assistance to understand them (Rancière 1991: 45).

Freire’s emancipatory education

There is symmetry in Freire’s understanding of how an emancipatory education might be enacted. ‘Banking education’ is driven by a lack of dialogue between students and teachers, so logically, educational activity that encourages dialogue can be considered to be emancipatory in character. As I mentioned in the introduction to this chapter, with Rancière there is no similar logic for whilst processes of explanation are identified as accelerators of oppression, the cessation of explanation does not follow as the solution. Indeed, if practised, arguably the resulting educational activity would resemble existing ‘student-centred’ pedagogies rather than an emancipatory alternative (as discussed by Biesta 2017). However, for Freire, anti-dialogical education is the source of the problem, hence follows on that education which encourages dialogue is the solution. Here, Freire is influenced by the educational philosopher Martin Buber and the idea that relationships of love might transform subject-object relationships into relationships between subjects. Such an equitable relationship identifies the liberatory educator to be one who loves their students, where hope, trust and critical thinking might encourage dialogue, social reflection and action in response to material problems. The quality of the relationship between teachers and students is significant in understanding practical steps that might create dialogue, with a significant role for educational materials in achieving this. Emancipation emerges in this dialogical situation, where the identification of true knowledge about our shared problems manifests alongside trust and solidarity, so that the risks necessary to effecting social change might be taken (Freire 1972: 65). ← 27 | 28 →

The specific use of educational materials, as representations of the world, is necessary for preventing a return to ‘banking education’ as students and teachers together ‘co-intend’ upon these as a way of maintaining dialogue. However, the content and quality of the representations are crucial for they must encapsulate problems and contexts meaningful to the lives of the group, preventing the teacher from having to provide all the answers, or take up a sloganeering role (Freire 1972: 86–87). Freire takes pains to discuss the practicalities for creating suitable educational materials, including ways of researching the lives of students so that their experiences might be encapsulated meaningfully into the content of texts, etc. If successful, the resulting dialogues would dismantle the privileged role of the teacher, with educator and students learning together, as if for the first time, in an emancipatory relationship of co-subjects. Freire describes the consequences of emancipation as permanent, likened to rebirth, but always social in character for an individual emancipation is as impossible as acting as your own midwife (Freire 1972: 25). However, the emancipatory process itself is temporary. Society is ever changing with new situations always arising that limit our ability to act, where dialogue between people and the world is typically suppressed and humanity is driven to search for completeness. Emancipatory education, as a manifestation of praxis,1 takes the form of discrete projects within an oppressive society and occurs within a temporary educational relationship of love, trust and hope. In this sense also, there is never an end point for an emancipatory education. ← 28 | 29 →

Rancière’s emancipatory education

Freire’s understanding of emancipation is concerned with enacting equality, with teachers encouraging a social situation of reflection and action upon the social and material world, and where being free means temporarily being true to humanity’s innate way of being as praxis. Rancière’s conceptualisation of emancipation is also understood as the enactment of equality but, as noted above, whilst teachers’ explanations are understood to undermine equality, this does not make equality reliant upon removing explanatory activity from education. An example of this could be the employment of constructivist teaching methods where students are encouraged to co-create knowledge together free from teacher’s talk (as discussed by Biesta 2017). Neither do emancipatory practices rely upon us being more fully human by acting in accordance with humanity’s innate characteristics, for Rancière’s assumptions do not rest upon claimed self-evident truths about the nature of people. Rancière describes an emancipation that has a different relationship to the truth, where equality is not dependent upon knowledge transfer or the idea that learners need assistance to understand the truth about oppression (Biesta 2012, Galloway 2017, 2012, Masschelein 2010, Wildemeersch 2014).

Nonetheless, the role of the emancipatory teacher does necessitate returning to Rancière’s initial formulations. Rancière (1991: 78–79) assumes that all humans are guided by an individual will and that we use this to employ reason and formulate opinions. What’s more, we all have equal intelligence, or to put it another way, when it comes to matters relating to emancipation, we can all form and express opinions expressed in the assumption that all who listen are intellectual equals. Following this logic, whilst for Freire oppression is taken as the institutionalised suppression of dialogue, for Rancière, it is reliance upon the opinion of others, enabled by teachers’ explanations to students, which weakens our will to attend to our own intellectual powers. This infers that the central role of the emancipatory teacher is to enact equality by assuming that students are intellectual equals, and therefore demanding that students attend to their intellects. To be clear, this means students expressing their own opinions whilst enacting ← 29 | 30 → the assumption that all people are intellectual equals. It is not about encouraging the broadcast of any opinions and emancipatory education is not about students writing or talking however they please. Neither is it reliant upon students expressing particular cultural identities, or ‘speaking truth to power’. Rather, Rancière is concerned with how opinions may be formed in the assumption that we are, all of us, intellectual equals, for unless we hold to the belief that every single one of us is capable of speaking up for the concerns and cares of humanity, then emancipation surely has no point (Galloway, 2017). Emancipation, as education, is about teachers demanding exploration of the logic of equality as ‘a set of practices guided by the supposition that everyone is equal and by the attempt to verify this supposition’ (Rancière 1995: 65). The role of the teacher is to enact this assumption and demand a similar enactment from their students, making the teacher student relationship one of ‘will against will’ rather than ‘intellect against intellect’ for all intelligences are assumed to be equal (see Vlieghe 2016).

Freire’s emancipation is by necessity reliant upon educational materials in the form of symbolic representations of situations that encompass the problems that students face. Similarly, for Rancière, there is also a necessary role for symbolic artefacts, described as ‘the book’ (Rancière 1991: 14–15). It seems to me that unlike Freire, the content of the educational materials is of lesser importance, though Vlieghe (2016) suggests otherwise. However, I do agree when Vlieghe highlights the importance Rancière places upon educational materials and that these might encourage students to put their intellects to work, for ‘intelligence could be defined as a work of translating and counter-translating ideas which are materialized in something’ (Vlieghe 2016: 7). Engagement with symbolic human artefacts requires an act of the will, as acts of translation and understanding require persistence with what is, by all accounts, repetitive and boring activity. Indeed, those of us who have lived in the vicinity of a musician will have heard the same musical phrases practised and repeated time and time again. Rancière assumes that such activity is required for intellectual engagement and as such it is essential to the enactment of intellectual equality and therefore emancipation (Rancière 1991: 55–56). This logic also suggests that when authors of writing or photographs assume their audiences to be intellectual equals, then they too will engage with many acts of repetition and translation ← 30 | 31 → when creating their works. Perhaps such texts require greater degrees of attention from the audience, strengthening the will of individual readers as they work to engage and understand. In this vein, arguably the content of educational materials does not matter so long as it captures a student’s attention, perhaps because they care about it (Vlieghe 2016: 7). Whatever way, educational materials are key to emancipation and discussion of their role is worthy of our attention. But in general terms, for Rancière, the emphasis is on the idea that educational materials should enforce the will of the student so that they attend to their own intellectual capability, rather than to stimulate dialogue around preselected problems as Freire envisions.

As a reminder, Freire’s emancipation represents a temporary collective reflection upon educational materials that assists us to identify the truth about problems that we face, so that we might take social action to effect change. For Rancière, there is a different dynamic in play. Individual opinions are expressed in fleeting and temporary moments of emancipation and significant for being inscribed with equality, rather than for expressing closer identifications with ‘the truth’. However, such expressions are assumed to interrupt and reconfigure explanatory processes of oppression (the ‘explicatory’ or ‘police’ order) with potentially desirable consequences (Rancière 1999: 39–40). In this sense, whilst Rancière describes an individual emancipation, it is not individualistic. A connection with shared concerns is maintained, whilst the intellectual equality of humanity as a group is assumed, but responsibility lies with all of us as individuals to speak out and be heard.

So far in this writing, I have introduced some of Freire’s and Rancière’s ideas, informed primarily by their short texts, Pedagogy of the Oppressed and The Ignorant Schoolmaster respectively. I have demonstrated how commencing with different assumptions about equality results in diverging understandings of emancipatory education where emancipation is a temporary occurrence, but might create the conditions for a reconfiguration of the oppressive societal order. Freire’s understanding of emancipation is geared towards us becoming more human, with students embodying the innate characteristics associated with humanity whilst engaging in collective social reflections and action upon the material problems that we face. The emphasis lies with social relationships of trust, hope and love, ← 31 | 32 → as well as relationships with educational materials in the form of human artefacts. Rancière describes emancipation as the enactment of intellectual equality, where students are demanded to pay attention to their intellect whilst following the assumption that all people are intellectual equals and where material artefacts also hold significance. Hopefully the discussion presented above is assistive to readers interested in becoming familiar with the ideas, with opportunities to ponder. However, I also intend to give my take on why Rancière’s work matters to discussions about critical pedagogy. I accomplish this by considering how Rancière might inform the criticism of Freire’s work. Here I am assisted by Biesta (2012, 2017) and Vlieghe (2016) with additional insights from Gur-Ze’ev (1998) and Holloway (2003, 2016). But to create a backdrop for this discussion, I begin by considering the way Freire’s work is commonly criticised and why, for me, this is problematic.

Critiques of Freire

It seems to me that Freire’s work is typically introduced, explained or criticised within a discussion about power or empowerment, rather than emancipation (see Galloway, 2017). Indeed, Blake and Masschelein (2003) define critical pedagogy in the North American tradition as being dominated by developments of Freire’s conception of emancipation, informed by Pierre Bourdieu and before him Basil Bernstein, in the context of understanding the reproduction of power in society. Lankshear (1999) identifies this pattern when discussing the development of ideas informing the scholarship of critical literacies and culture, where the 1970s and 80s signalled a decrease in influence from the discipline of psychology and a corresponding strengthening of influence from sociology. Gee (2000) summarises this re-orientation as the ‘social turn’, a move which allowed critical and socio-cultural practices always to be viewed in the contexts of power relationships.

The discourse of power and empowerment is noticeable amongst those who have introduced or criticised Paulo Freire’s work (e.g. Barton 1994, Brookfield 2005, Ellsworth 1989, Hamilton 1996, Inglis 1997, Jackson 2008, ← 32 | 33 → Luke 1992, Taylor 1993), though not necessarily informed by Bourdieu (e.g. as with Ellsworth 1989, Inglis 1997). Freire’s work has also been revisited and developed so that power might be taken into account (e.g. see Lankshear and McLaren 1993). However, Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed was authored before the above mentioned ‘social turn’ and so it can come as no surprise to find that the terms ‘power’ or ‘empowerment’ are absent from the text. In later writings, there is some indication of Freire’s fear that the notion of empowerment might encourage individualistic educational practices (Freire and Shor 1987: 108–110). Freire agrees with Shor’s analogy when he describes how ‘empowerment’ understandings situate the teacher as an illuminator who enters classrooms, switches on the light and walks out, mission accomplished (Freire and Shor 1987: 108). However, there are other later publications of dialogues with Freire where the terminology of empowerment manifests and ‘emancipatory’ literacies are referred to as the re-appropriation of ‘cultural capital’ with Bourdieu cited (e.g. Freire and Macedo 1987: 145).

It remains the case that Freire’s seminal writing is not concerned with power relationships, whilst Bourdieu has been influential amongst critical educators orientated towards the understanding of power in educational settings. For Bourdieu, power manifests as the unavoidable consequence of all discourse production and identity formation, as he makes the assumption that all discourse, be it speaking, writing or physical gestures, serves to enforce meanings that privilege some speakers, whilst excluding others (for a detailed explanation, see Galloway 2015, 2017). What’s important here is that the assumed processes of exclusion are inherently undetectable to the speakers and listeners themselves. It is this misrecognised aspect of discourse that explains how power hierarchies are reproduced and Bourdieu describes it as a form of ‘symbolic violence’ (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977: 4). Through discourse, that is, the ways that we identify ourselves through our speech, clothing, etc., social hierarchies are reproduced as if by genetic transmission (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977: 32). Bourdieu also develops the idea of the ‘habitus’ (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977: 40) which is introduced as a way of explaining how undetectable aspects of a person’s individual discourse serve to reinforce societal and economic structures, as well as how the same hierarchies influence an individual’s unwitting choice of discourse ← 33 | 34 → in the first place. Bourdieu insists that anyone who refuses to recognise how power operates in this way is effectively assisting in its operation. They are guilty of colluding in the maintenance of oppressive social and economic hierarchies (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977: 4).

There are implications here for the critique of Freire’s emancipation. Power operates in inherently unrecognisable ways and when Freire describes a relationship of equality reliant upon dialogue, he is describing an impossibility that is potentially dangerous if put into practice in educational settings. However, it seems that an expert outside observer might analyse discourse as it relates to power reproduction, informing empowering approaches to adult learning (e.g. see Grenfell et al. 2012, or Ade-ojo and Duckworth 2015). In Bourdieu’s terminology, students might become empowered by accruing linguistic, social or cultural capital, which ultimately can be exchanged for economic advantage (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977, Lankshear 1997: 70). However, as already intimated, this is an empowerment that makes students dependent upon experts for knowledge about discourse that might be used to their own benefit, altering their relationship with power structures in society. I’m not dismissing these type of learning objectives and the benefits to students, for example in terms of gaining access to employment and institutions such as universities. However, if we assume that equality is possible, as defined by either Freire or Rancière, these strategies for learning cannot be considered emancipatory.

Reliance upon alternative understandings of power, for example as informed by Foucault (see Inglis 1997 or Ellsworth 1989) leads to similar criticisms of Freire. From Ellsworth’s (1989) perspective, what’s worrying about Freire’s ideas is the suggestion that it is possible to create a relationship of equality between educator and students, sustained through dialogue and trust, for the operation of power is complex and cannot be stepped outside of (Fenwick 2006). Power reproduces through undetectable processes which can never be dismantled and relationships between teachers and students can only be understood in terms of ‘moving about’ or shifting between various identities and associated knowledge (see Ellsworth 1989: 321) with no possibility it seems for education as emancipation. What’s more, researchers and educators such as Freire who do not take power into ← 34 | 35 → account are assumed to be in collusion with power reproduction and are criticised for doing so.

Rancière’s response

There has been acknowledgement that Bourdieu’s theory provides an understanding of power that offers no possibility for escape (Eagleton 1991, Field 2005, Inglis 1997 and Jenkins 1992). Rancière takes his critique of Bourdieu’s work further and in so doing, makes the case for an emancipatory education that breaks away from the concept of power altogether. It seems to me that this is Rancière’s most significant contribution to discussions in the field of critical pedagogy, as the resulting reorientation, which involves assuming that equality is possible, might re-stimulate an important discussion about how critical education could serve to emancipate, which in its broadest terms questions the purpose of education itself. I attempt to illustrate this by considering briefly what Rancière’s theory implies for Bourdieu and, less briefly, what it implies for an alternative critique of Freire’s work.

According to Rancière, a situation isn’t emancipatory, or as he terms it, ‘political’, just because power relationships are understood to be at work in it, indeed emancipation has nothing to do with relationships of power and the revelation of ‘the truth’ of how it operates (see Rancière 1999: 42). Like Freire, Bourdieu presents his central assumption, that discourse enforces symbolic violence in undetectable ways, as an ‘axiom’ or self-evident truth. Indeed, he describes it as the ‘principle of the theory of sociological knowledge’ (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977: 4). In other words, according to Bourdieu, the self-evident truth is that we cannot know the truth of how our speech oppresses others, without the assistance of an expert outside observer. There is a ‘perfect circle’ of power reproduction, where firstly the system reproduces its existence because it goes unrecognised, and secondly the system brings about, through the reproduction of its existence, an effect of its own misrecognition (Ross 1991: xi-xii). ← 35 | 36 →

Rancière points out that this perfect circle is not the truth, but a belief that has been widely actioned by social scientists and educators alike. It is also a belief (or an opinion) that denies the possibility of equality and emancipation along many lines. As a reminder, an empowering education is reliant upon experts formulating knowledge about power, so that teachers might assist students to better understand how power operates and use this to their advantage. It seems that Bourdieu’s own analysis of education neglects the idea that education might resemble anything other than the transfer of knowledge between teachers and students (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977). In contrast, Freire and Rancière draw attention to alternative aspects of pedagogic relationships where notions of dialogue, intellect, trust, hope, responsibility, risk-taking, solidarity and love matter greatly. For me, this is type of territory where discussions about the possibility of emancipation might flow more easily, perhaps helping to shift the stasis induced by power perspectives. I begin to illustrate this below when I attempt to describe criticism of Freire inspired by Rancière.

Rancière and the critique of Freire

Rancière’s ideas offer the potential for a critique of Freire that contrasts with those described above, including the concept of ‘naïve consciousness’ that is central to his work. Freire also emphasises the need to dismantle knowledge transmission between teachers and students. My reading of Rancière does not place doubt upon Freire’s commitment to education for equality, which is demonstrated through the concern Freire expresses to dismantle processes of knowledge transmission so that students are not treated as empty vessels, objectified or denied opportunities for social dialogue and action. This sentiment is also revealed when Freire appeals that we, as teachers, do not follow his ideas as recipes for emancipation but instead create our own (e.g. Freire and Macedo 1987: 134). In this regard, Freire’s employment of a notion of praxis, as social reflection and action in relation to an ever changing social and material world implies endless possibilities ← 36 | 37 → for us to reflect and act in response to perceived social problems. However, the understanding of praxis that Freire relates seems to pose difficulties in the sense that banking education makes people no longer fully conscious of the world. Whilst Freire’s aim is to break the knowledge dependency between teachers and students in educational situations, the idea of naïve consciousness creates a problem as it is difficult to describe an education that can overcome this. It is important to remember here that from the perspective of empowerment, Freire’s education is problematic because it fails to account for power, for equality between teachers and students cannot be achieved. In contrast, Rancière’s critique assumes that emancipation and equality are always possible, the concern being that education enacted under the assumption of ‘naïve consciousness’ might weaken the prospects for equality and emancipation.

In this vein, informed by Rancière, Wildemeerch (2014) considers the practice of critical adult education since the 1970s, observing the significant influence of the idea that through critical reflection, students might better understand the operation of systems of domination, where the educator employs dialogic techniques to encourage a way out of naive consciousness. The analysis suggests a tendency for Freire’s ideas to be interpreted instrumentally by adult educators, as a way of making us more able to ascertain knowledge about how society oppresses, with emancipatory education taking the form of programmed activity aimed at achieving these ends. Though Freire may well have criticised adult educators using his ideas in this way, perhaps the theory lends itself to this type of educational practice. Freire himself illustrates emancipatory education with examples of programmed activity (Freire 1970, 1972). For example, though he places emphasis on co-productive working between teachers and students to create educational materials, the onus still seems to lie on teachers making choices about the knowledge content. This seems difficult to avoid when emancipation is ultimately reliant upon us, as students, ascertaining true knowledge about our problems (see Vlieghe 2016, Biesta 2017).

Freire (1972) expresses opposition to ‘banking education’ because it serves to objectify students by negating their humanity as active human subjects. Relationships of love are distorted and denied, indeed education based upon knowledge transmission can be considered as a form of ‘necrophilia’ ← 37 | 38 → or the love of death, not life (Freire 1972: 40; 50–51). However, paradoxically, Freire’s emancipation relies upon the identification of ‘the truth’ through activity geared towards producing objective knowledge about the social world. Perhaps this reduces human love to an act of identification or objectification (see Gur-Ze’ev 1998: 468–469), negating the possibility of praxis as an embodiment of the human spirit. Emancipation cannot be a process of identification; indeed it may instead be understood as a process of ‘anti-identification’ or the negation of identity (see Holloway 2003: 68).

This doesn’t mean that there is no ‘truth’, or that there is no truth foundation for societal problems. Rather that the revelation of this truth is not necessary for emancipation. What matters are individuals’ relationships with each other and the truth, where the possibility of emancipation is reliant upon each individual creating their own orbit around the truth (Rancière 1999: 78). If individuals’ opinions solidify around a single identified truth then people’s intellects and the products of their intellects will converge, so destroying intellectual emancipation and consolidating the role of intellectual elites that see themselves as having the capacity to understand and convey this truth. For Rancière, identification is ‘policing’ (Rancière 1995: 68) and emancipatory education as an enactment of equality is a process of ‘dis-identification’ (Bingham and Biesta 2010, Rancière 1995) outlined in the context of defining ‘politics’ and the ‘political’. Identification as policing does not correspond with Freire’s (1972) ‘objectification’, where people are prevented from being fully conscious of ‘the world’ and so there is no reliance upon any notion of ‘naïve consciousness’. Rather, he is referring to how processes of knowledge transmission in society, fuelled through the medium of explanations, by teachers, journalists or academics, encourage people to congregate around shared understandings and identifications instead of giving attention to their own intellects and, significantly, the intellects of others. Emancipation, as education, is about disrupting the processes by which we come to hold common understandings and identifications. Whilst the consequences may solidify as new identifications, it is this fleeting enactment, where explanatory logic collides with the logic of equality that is emancipatory (Galloway 2017). Nonetheless, if we assume that Freire’s emancipation is possible and equality between teacher and student is established through dialogical practices, perhaps this signals a larger ← 38 | 39 → problem that negates the possibility of education itself (Biesta 2012). The enacting of Freire’s emancipation requires teachers and students to achieve a relationship of co-subjects, where each learns from the other. Whilst this may be a desirable relationship when considering the benefits for people working together on shared projects, it places doubt upon whether such activity can be considered to be education or educational (Biesta 2012). Rancière maintains the possibility for education, by maintaining a clear distinction between teachers and students, whilst simultaneously maintaining the prospect of dissolving a relationship of knowledge transfer. Rancière’s equality of intelligence is reliant upon a will-to-will relationship, where the teacher has a clear role in encouraging students to attend to their own intelligence and, secondly, in verifying that this type of attention is being paid.

For me, what’s most important about this staged critique of Freire by Rancière is that it demonstrates how complex and penetrating questions arise if we assume that equality might be achieved, including the consideration of what makes education possible. The role of educators, students and educational materials is drawn to our attention along with deep questions around what kinds of educational arrangements can manifest if education is no longer geared towards socialising students into an oppressive society. In this way, Rancière’s work can be shown to take critical education in new or forgotten directions, in ways that analyses of discourse and power cannot.

What matters?

In the introduction, I suggested that there were some aspects to Rancière’s ideas that seemed particularly important. Initially, I highlighted how Rancière shakes up common problem-solving logic, where we tend to assume that if we find the explanation for the cause of a problem, then this will point directly to the solution. When Freire identifies lack of dialogue as an educational problem, the solution is for teachers to stimulate dialogue with students with the prospect of prescribed methods for achieving this aim. But for Rancière, identifying teachers’ explanations as the problem ← 39 | 40 → does not signal that tactics where educators avoid explanation should be employed. In this sense, the prospect of emancipation is not reliant upon identifying and explaining the truth about particular problems and, it seems, there can be no common methods for emancipation. This conclusion is logical in that a recipe for emancipation would in itself be illogical (Biesta 2009), as we cannot follow orders and be free. To restate, if emancipation relies upon us following experts then it surely it has no point.

Instead, our attention is drawn back to the assumptions that we make about people and what these mean for the prospects for equality. What’s important here is the responsibility this places onto all of us to speak on matters of shared concern. Those who care about critical pedagogy share a concern for the repercussions of education, where education must do more than socialise people into an oppressive society. Here Rancière takes away from supposed experts with third person perspectives. Instead importance is placed upon educators enacting relationships of equality with students, demanding that students speak and be heard. The quality of the relationship between educators, students and educational materials takes primary importance, where trust, solidarity, love and hope resonate with shared concerns in ways that perspectives relating to power, discourse and identification cannot.


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Biographical notes

Stephen Cowden (Volume editor) David Ridley (Volume editor)

Stephen Cowden is a Senior Lecturer in Social Work at Coventry University. He has a long standing interest in the area of Critical Pedagogy and is one of the editors of the «New Disciplinary Perspectives in Education» series. In 2013 he co-authored the book Acts of Knowing: Critical Pedagogy In, Against and Beyond the University. He also writes on Social Work theory and practice and on the sociology of Religious Fundamentalism. David Ridley is an independent researcher and journalist who has also taught various subjects at Coventry University for the last six years. In the field of education studies, as well as his work on Jacques Rancière, David is also currently finishing a book on John Dewey, and, inspired by the Lucas Plan, on the idea of a «socially-useful university».


Title: The Practice of Equality