The Practice of Equality

Jacques Rancière and Critical Pedagogy

by Stephen Cowden (Volume editor) David Ridley (Volume editor)
©2019 Edited Collection X, 196 Pages


This book is the first to focus specifically on the highly original contribution to the field of Critical Pedagogy made by the sometimes «irritable» French philosopher Jacques Rancière. The book represents a significant addition to the growing body of work on Rancière as well as to the field of Critical Pedagogy. While introducing and contextualising Rancière for those unfamiliar with him, the book also develops an understanding of the singularity of his conception of pedagogy for those already acquainted with his work. Central to the book is Rancière’s vision of education as a «practice of equality» – a method grounded in an assumption of intellectual equality between students and teachers. Throughout the chapters of the book, the contemporary relevance of this vision is drawn out for educators in schools and universities, adult and popular educators, as well as for political activists. For anyone and everyone with an interest in teaching and learning, this book contains vital insights for the survival and development of education as a democratic, critical and emancipatory project.

Table Of Contents

  • 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

| ix →


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).

| 1 →



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.


X, 196
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2019 (February)
education critical pedagogy Rancière Jacques Rancière and Critical Pedagogy The Practice of Equality
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2019. X, 196 pp., 7 fig. b/w

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