16th April 2020. I have been reading The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation by the French philosopher Jacques Ranciere (translated by Kristin Ross, ISBN 080471969-1). The book concerns the extraordinary and radical educational theories of the 18th century French academic and educator, Joseph Jacotot. Jacotot, who was living and teaching in Belgium, was asked by some Flemish students to teach them. But Jacotot spoke no Flemish and the students no French. He decided that he needed to find a “thing in common” and, as it happened, a bilingual edition of Telemaque, a novel by the French author Fenelon, had recently published in Brussels. Jacotot asked the students to learn the first half of the French text and afterwards to read the rest of the novel. Later he asked the students to write in French about what they had read. He was surprised to find that their French was grammatical and accurate, as much so as that of a native speaker.
Jacotot’s system was based on three principles: all men have equal intelligence; every man has received from God the faculty of being able to instruct himself; everything is in everything.
The student has a codex which he must decipher on his own, guided by three questions: what do you see; what do you think; what do you make of it? The master’s role is to ensure that the student sticks to the task, nothing more. It is an exercise in liberty and equality. Nothing more is required other than will and determination. It is about being alert, curious, interested, engaged in your task.
It left me thinking about the common classroom fear of saying something wrong or stupid. All that is needed is to be interested, to pay attention and to speak up. There is no wrong answer.