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Jacques Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991.

There are books that you read at exactly the right time. I have been struggling with a long time with the feeling that libraries are without a mission, without a solid, concrete purpose. All our discussions around what to call our users/patrons/customers suggest it; the silos that exist in any library of a certain size, to my mind, prove it. I don’t think that librarians or staff working in cataloguing, acquisitions, systems, public services, information literacy, etc, etc, have a set of goals that cross all those areas. Part of this is due to the privileging of technical knowledge in librarianship - some of this is rigorous in some units (like metadata and cataloguing), very weak in others (like public services), and in still others is rigorous but (if done right) not library-specific (like library systems units). The values and mission statements of libraries, which are primarily brand- and optics-related, only make the problem worse: the lack of actual values and missions is obscured by the fact that we have value and mission statements on our websites.

So, for what feels like a long time, I’ve been wondering about a possible unifying mission for libraries. What kind of thing would that look like. Many of the possibilities are predicated, unfortunately, on a liberal ideology that, to my mind, is in the process of collapse after a hegemony of two or three centuries. Individualism, pluralism, and self-improvement tend to be the values underpinning our mission statements (though, true to any hegemonic ideology, these are unstated and unconscious); these unspoken values lie at the heart of librarianships perennial argument over “neutrality”. Would it be possible to come up with a mission (if only provisionally) that was not based on these unspoken and unquestioned values?

Rancière, in a way, is attacking liberalism in another area, that of education. The Ignorant Schoolmaster is a meditation on the radical educational strategies of Jacques Jacotot, a teacher and politician who, after the restoration of the French monarchy in 1815, went to Belgium and established a school. He spoke no Flemish, and his students no French, but Jacotot was able to develop a pedagogy by which a pupil could be taught something the teacher does not know. Rancieère argues that Jacotot’s method departs from the traditional view of education, which is explication: a teacher explains things to student with an aim to bringing their level of knowledge up to the teacher’s own. For Rancieère, this model of teaching requires that the intelligence of the student to be subjected to the will of the teacher. A condition in which the intelligence of one is dominated by the will of another is a condition of subjection, and in the intellectual field, Jacotot and Rancière refer to this as “stultification” (abrutissement). What Jacotot’s educational method aims for is not instruction, but emancipation; the condition of “an intelligence in the service of a will”. The traditional pedagogy, too, is predicated on an inequality of intelligence (teachers know more than students, the middle classes know more than peasants), whil Jacotot’s method is based on a fundamental commitment to the “equality of intelligence”.

Now, Rancière’s description of the world of the “Old [School]Master”, the system of explication and instruction that result in stultification and self-contempt based on the belief instilled in students that they are stupid, fits to a t my own experience of education, at least in primary, secondry, and undergraduate level. The role of professors, for example, in my undergrad, was pretty clearly not to lead students towards any kind of intellectual emancipation, but was to impart a few facts (enough to pass a course), and induct students into the socio-political order (that is, an order of subjection and exploitation), and when challenged, generally responded in a way calculated to put the student in their (intellectual) place.

My education primarily took place within the library. Rancière describes the role of the book in Jacotot’s educational method:

By leaving his intelligence out of the picture, he had allowed their intelligence to grapple with that of the book. Thus, the two functions that link the practice of the master explicator, that of the savant and that of the master had been dissociated. The two faculties in play during the act of learning, namely intelligence and will, had therefore also been separated, liberated from each other. A pure relationship of will to will had been established between master and student: a relationship wherein the master’s domination resulted in an entirely liberated relationship between the intelligence of the student and that of the book— the intelligence of the book that was also the thing in common, the egalitarian intellectual link between master and student. This device allowed the jumbled categories of the pedagogical act to be sorted out, and explicative stultification to be precisely defined. There is stultification whenever one intelligence is subordinated to another. A person— and a child in particular— may need a master when his own will is not strong enough to set him on track and keep him there. But that subjection is purely one of will over will. It becomes stultification when it links an intelligence to another intelligence. In the act of teaching and learning there are two wills and two intelligences. We will call their coincidence stultification. In the experimental situation Jacotot created, the student was linked to a will, Jacotot’s, and to an intelligence, the book’s— the two entirely distinct. We will call the known and maintained difference of the two relations— the act of an intelligence obeying only itself even while the will obeys another will—emancipation. (p. 13)

So, my question became: what if the library recognized and took ownership of its etymological history as a place of books? What if it began to take seriously a mission not of “access to information” or “access to material”, but of emancipation. What if instead of information literarcy, we thought about intellectual emancipation? Instead of the multiple goals of cataloguing, systems, or public services, we engaged seriously with a mission of emancipation? In an academic context, we could provide a counterweight to the traditional (explicatory) model of pedagogy dominant in the academy; in the public context, we could provide a liberation from the cultural dominance of neoliberal capitalism and its requirements for consumption. The value of libraries, to my mind, a motto we would do well to take really seriously, is how Rancière sums up the place of the book in this radical, emancipatory project: “The book is the equality of intelligence” (38).


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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