“A Question of Silence”: Why We Don't Read Or Write About Education

This essay has been drawn from the Anniversary Issue of the American Reader, available in our Shoppe, as well as in independent booksellers and Barnes & Nobles nationwide.

Nothing in the public debate on schooling suggests that education matters. Whether test scores do or don’t measure learning; whether schools should be privatized; whether Wikipedia will replace the teacher; whether we will ever escape Algebra; whether we can measure the ways in which kids of color “fail” or “succeed” on exams; whether to teach like a “champion”, a “guide”, or a “pirate”; whether the arts are a right or a privilege: all these questions owe their importance to the system of schooling that turned them into questions in the first place. The entire debate keeps folding back onto itself. It takes its own parameters for granted. The more one asks such self-referential questions (without, say, asking what on earth sets “success” apart from “failure”), the more one contributes to the education system as is—a system that has stagnated for seven generations.

It’s a bloody mess trying to distinguish a trivial discourse on education from a significant one (whereas in most other areas of culture, to make such a distinction is just a plain mess). This is because no matter the state of the discussion, we know that education matters. The evidence of its importance is derived not from books but from lived experience. Education matters because seven hours a day, five or six days a week, people sit in classrooms; because there is real confusion and anger about why schools teach what they teach; because working class students and students of color are attacked by a compulsory system that purports to serve them; because succeeding in school often entails forfeiting the right to develop integrity; because it seems there have been more school shootings in the last twenty years than school walk-outs; because, whether it ever pans out or not, education carries the promise of grace, intelligence, and social behavior, et cetera, et cetera.

Let’s be clear, though—the promise of grace and so on does not justify the existence of the modern education system. Philosophers of education (e.g., John Dewey) do a bang-up job of hiding their complacency behind idealistic cants on the potential of schooling. It endears them to educators. However, the only factor that can perhaps justify the existence of schools as distinct spaces is the absolute dissolution of communities in urban areas. There are no communities of adults—even of children—to raise a human being during the ten or so hours that most parents are away, working. As you can see, even this is a self-referential argument. Public schools have played their own significant part in destroying communities.

If in recent years one type of writing has managed to at least hint at the genuine problem in education, it is the adolescent fantasy novel. Most popular specimens of that genre feature a school as their main character. Harry Potter’s success has more to do with Hogwarts (the school) than with Harry and Hermione. The structuring desire of every novel of this sort is the same: a well-resourced school that offers a meaningful education. The anxiety that eventually takes over the story is also the same: that the school will turn out to be just as authoritarian, just as banal and arbitrary as its real-life counterparts. Amazing in how many novels the heroes have to first run away from the school and then return to burn the building down to the ground (the Potter Complex?). ((E.g., nearly all of Rick Riordan’s books, Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller series, Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series, among others.)) Also fascinating that at the end, the school is triumphantly rebuilt to be…exactly what it was before.

The lack of imagination evident in these narratives reflects the lack of real-world alternatives. In the real-world fantasylands of schooling (e.g., Finland, Cuba, Massachusetts) education looks more or less the same as it does everywhere else. In short, the system is missing—or ignores—its real antithesis, its own real death. Without that counter-argument, educational writing loses focus. Educationalists present schooling as being in a constant state of crisis. Ignoring for a second the obvious fact that without a crisis most educationalists would be out of a job—i.e., closing our eyes to their vested interest in the problem’s persistence—what does this crisis consist of? Apparently, the failure of schools to do what they are supposed to do. But what are they supposed to do? What is their purpose? And why should we stand behind their purpose? This is the line of inquiry that—can you believe it—is ignored.

Of all the civic institutions that reproduce social relations, said Louis Althusser, “one… certainly has the dominant role, although hardly anyone lends an ear to its music: it is so silent! This is the School.” That statement was made in 1970, by which time school buses zigzagged the cities every working morning and afternoon, school bells rang across city and countryside, the words “dropout” and “failure” had become synonymous, education schools were in full swing, and school reform had gained its permanent nook on the prayer-wheel of electoral campaigns. In other words: what silence?

Althusser, of course, was referring to the absence of schooling as a topic in critical discourse. In this regard he was, and continues to be, accurate. The few paragraphs that he appended to the above-quoted statement may well be the only coherent critique of schooling in the upper echelons of critical theory. Critical theory, which has written volumes on Hollywood, television, the arts, madhouses, social science, the state, the novel, speech, space, and every other bulwark of control or resistance, has consistently avoided a direct gaze at schooling (see footnote). ((Here follows a cursory tally of what critical theorists (using the term very loosely to include some old favorite cultural critics) have written on education. I won’t be sad if readers find fault with it:

Horkheimer is silent. Barthes and Brecht, the same. Adorno has one essay and one lecture. Marcuse delivered a few perfunctory lectures on the role of university students in politics—but he makes it clear that you can’t build on them (university politics as well as the lectures, sadly). Derrida has some tantalizing pronouncements, particularly in Glas (“What is education? The death of the parents…”), but they are scattered and more relevant to the family setting than the school. Something similar, unfortunately, could be said of Bachelard—why was he not nostalgic about his education? Baudrillard, Lefebvre, and Foucault all seem interested in the question, if we judge by their interviews and lectures—and wouldn’t it be lovely to hear from them—but they never go into any depth. Even Althusser’s essay, Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, which contains the above quote, quickly shies away from the topic: instead, he concentrates on the Church. In short, professional critical philosophy might have produced a more interesting study of Kung Fu Panda (see Žižek, who is also silent) than of the whole business of education. The one exception would be Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster, which I will discuss.)) Even Foucault, champion of enclosures, keeps out of the schoolhouse. ((Part III of Discipline and Punish includes a discussion, but his analysis there is mixed with all the other institutions that exercise punishment. The only direct references are in two lecture-discussions with students, both from 1971.)) The silence is particularly striking if we see radical philosophy itself as an educational endeavor, an enterprise concerned with ways of seeing and doing.

It’s not that there are no critical conversations within education—there are, and I will discuss them soon. But I think the silence of radical philosophers is emblematic of some special problems in the relationship between education and society.

Around the year 1975, cultural critics, sociologists, journalists—people of letters en masse—washed their hands of education. Society at large left the problem of education to educationalists, which is not so different from leaving politics to politicians. The two phenomena are related since in both spheres at this time, all radical alternatives were more or less officially dismissed as impossible.

Progressive educators, who as a rule crave resources and ideas from outside their field, nonetheless did not seem bothered by the new seclusion. They even welcomed it. Today, every schoolteacher, admin, or researcher learns as part of her training to show open disdain for any opinion on education that doesn’t come from inside the field (“but has she taught?”). In American education schools, it’s possible to get a doctorate without having been assigned a single book from outside your field. Education is such an intensely social process (think of any classroom vignette, all the forces at play) that this intellectual swamp could only survive by a sheer will to isolation. Educationalists need this privacy partly because it allows them to ignore the core contradictions of their practice. The most important of these contradictions is that they have to uphold public schooling as a social good, and at the same time face up to the fact that schooling is one of the most oppressive institutions humanity has constructed. It has to be built up as much as it needs to be torn down brick by brick.

This dilemma bedevils the majority of writing by the most active educationalists. The redoubtable Deborah Meier is a good example—good, because she really is. Meier is the godmother of the small school movement in the United States. She has dedicated her life to making schools more humane and works with more energy than entire schools of education put together. Her philosophical base is one of Dewey’s pragmatism and American-style anarchism. She is also in a unique position to understand the contradictions of schooling, because she has built alternative schools and then watched them lose their momentum and revert to traditional models. What’s more, Meier can write. But when she writes, her books take titles like Keeping School and In Schools We Trust. In which schools, exactly? Not the same ones through which most of us suffered, I assume; rather, the progressive, semi-democratic ones on the fringes of the public system. The problem, apparently, is not schooling itself. It’s just that, inexplicably, the vast majority of schools fail to get it right. The “reformed school” is a sort of sublime object: something that does not quite exist, but whose potential existence justifies the continuation of what is actually there.

We are all familiar with this type of “we oppose the war but support the troops” liberal double-talk, a pernicious language game that divests all ground agents of responsibility—as if there could be a war without soldiers (though we seem to be moving that way) or bad classrooms without teachers. Now, it wouldn’t be fair to place the blame squarely on the teachers’ shoulders—considering the poor education they themselves receive in the first place—but we must also expose this kind of double-talk for what it really is: an easy out. And it is an easy out that abandons the oppressed: in this case, those students who actively resist teachers, those last few who have not been browbeaten or co-opted into submission. ((When Michelle Rhee, the (former) chancellor of public schools in Washington D.C., began shutting down schools, liberals tore their shirts and pulled their hair and finally ousted her. Very few people mentioned that those schools—a veritable prison system—should have been shut down. The problem was not the closures—the problem was that Rhee, like other Republican spawns of her generation, is a loudmouth opportunist who offered no plan beyond her PR campaign. What’s striking is that Rhee was using the exact same language of “crisis” and “reform” as progressives, and nothing in the language itself made her sound ridiculous. Since then, progressives have eased up a little on the crisis talk.))

Because the phenomenon of student resistance to education so blatantly flies in the face of the prevailing liberal mythology of schooling, it is a topic that continues to attract some genuine theorization. ((For a review of literature and some original thoughts, see Henry Giroux’s Resistance and Theory in Education (1983). For a more readable discussion of the same, see Herbert Kohl’s I Won’t Learn From You (1991).)) It’s also a topic that is closely tied to another intractable bugaboo of the discussion: the staggering dropout rate, in the US at least, among working class and immigrant students, and particularly among blacks and Latinos. Education is the civil rights issue of our time—Obama and Arne Duncan’s favorite slogan—was originally a rallying cry among black educationalists. ((The latter, in case you don’t know, is Obama’s Secretary of Education. A (very thin) volume could be written on the absolute lack of political and intellectual gumption that he epitomizes. To the Bush-era, bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act (a severe and ineffective set of testing requirements), Duncan added the Race to the Top initiative, thus bringing much unintentional clarity to the discourse: education reform is a race in which no one’s left behind.)) But if we understand a “civil rights struggle” to be, fundamentally, the story of the disenfranchised and the marginalized classes’ resistance to structural oppression, then this seemingly simple phrase is haunted by a kind of dramatic irony—since a great deal of research shows that what many black and working class students actively resist is schooling itself. Further studies showed that even those underserved students who succeed in schools persevere by dividing their identities; by cordoning off their critical impulses; by maintaining their disaffection even while they keep it well out of the teacher’s sight.




The students’ mode of resistance is separationist and anti-establishment; the educationalists’ goal is integrationist and reconciliatory. How to deal with the contradiction?

Historically, the first step was to assert that change did not come from resistance, but from education itself. That stance, which had been a bulwark of middle class ideology since the mid-nineteenth century, had already been discredited by Marxists; but, with the defeat of revolutionary socialism, it was possible for moderate leftists to resurrect it with a clear conscience. The second step was to decouple race and class—i.e., to abandon any pretense to equality and instead ask for equity. The problem was now to make sure that minorities have the same dropout rate as whites. The intellectual sleight of hand allowed researchers to concentrate on barriers specific to racial groups—in itself a worthy cause—while ignoring the larger problem. The final step was to suggest solutions. A slew of new literature in the 1990s presented the coping mechanisms of successful black and Latino students as possible answers. Perhaps, this literature suggested, schools ought to teach students to code-switch between their home culture and “the culture of power”, to suppress their critical faculties until such times as the yield of such faculties could be well received—maybe then it would be possible for larger numbers of students to beat the education game.

I should make myself clear. Every student has the right to “learn” the culture of power. Teachers are correct to teach their students how to beat a system that’s designed to disenfranchise them. Researchers should study this process. The problem arises when the study of these types of tactics divert attention and resources away from other, less cynical, approaches to these discussions and struggles. Research abets the system it seeks to critique by playing that system’s age-old, seductive game: that of subverting resistance to uphold old structures, instead of channeling resistance to build new ones.

Education, in this sense, is like every other field of social science. You can only ignore the inherent contradictions of a given problem by ignoring the larger antinomies that gave rise to them. This takes skill, and researchers who become good at it flaunt their chops. It’s smart in academia to hint that you understand the huge blind spots in your own discourse. When professors teach about race or poverty, they sprinkle the first two weeks of their syllabi with radical literature. They open their hands and show what they are holding and how exactly they pull their tricks—they describe the steps I have outlined, supra. Then they shrug their shoulders and for the remainder of the course ignore those issues altogether. By the mid-1990s, academics had managed to name and celebrate this attitude. It’s referred to as “tempered radicalism”. Every academic can be a tempered radical, even if he or she is a parapet of bourgeois sensibility. ((“Tempered radicalism”—the phrase—was coined by Debra Meyerson, who researches philanthropic institutions, and Maureen Scully, who studies labor and management joint efforts. See the problem? Needless to say, they both claim that deep inside they have a radical who is dying to get out. It’s worth reading their joint 1993 essay to hear how said radical hides indoors because she is scared of losing her funding or her shot at tenure.)) This allows for a very soft but firm type of intellectual policing. If anyone points out the flaws in their theories, tempered radicals will acknowledge the argument—they won’t have to fight it, since they “agree”—but will make it clear that real life resources (i.e., grants, university positions, etc.) can only be used to deal with “real” problems, not theoretical ones. There are layers upon layers to this institutional cat-and-mouse game. But let’s not waste time.

Let’s just say that you can’t get compelling literature out of a mind that is not interested in compelling itself. However, the problems of educational literature are not limited to untempered careerism. Education poses some special difficulties of its own.




A fundamental problem is that education demands a scientific foothold for practice, and yet science has rarely been able to offer much help. Things get complicated because good teaching is basically an art and deals with human capacities such as love, respect, honor, wonder, community, and all those other fine things on which science remains quite speculative and rudimentary. On the rare occasion that experimental science has managed to help—as was the case with Jean Piaget’s developmental psychology—a few exciting pieces of writing have also appeared. In all successful cases, however, the authors have been careful not to exaggerate the role of their scientific foundation (Eleanor Duckworth is perhaps the most elegant example). The rest of the time, educators have had to grasp at the straws of half-science, and the ensuing complications have strangled the writing.

But don’t be confused. Schooling, in its current form, is primarily neither a science nor an art. It’s a public service industry, and a traditional one to boot. When educationalists talk about “science”, they are often talking about industrial analysis. No one can say clearly what constitutes the “product” or the “service” in this case—and any concentrated attempt would arrive at some inhumane conclusions. But imprecision does not frustrate these measurements. Most educational research relies on measuring imaginary “products”. These are simple and preferably quantifiable representations—test scores being the most common example.

This type of quantitative research is occasionally very useful as a critical tool—it exposes imbalances and deficiencies. However, when it comes to practical solutions, the only thing this type of research can help with is measuring efficiency and effectiveness (it’s an administrative tool through and through). The problem is that in education most imbalances were caused precisely by the administrative attitude that underlies quantitative research: a desire for efficiency, the denial of social complexities, the willingness to eradicate real relationships from human situations and replace them with codified interactions, and the viewing of individuals as isolated statistical bodies. In education, as in other industries, every intervention will have to be subject to quantitative evaluation, and eventually the evaluation will end up reshaping the intervention in its own image. ((Let me describe with an example. Quantitative research has shown that low-income children lose some of their literacy skills during the summer vacation (something any teacher who is allowed more than a year with the same group of kids would already be aware of). So far, so good to know. But for years now, some researchers have been trying to figure out if it’s a good idea to give books to children who don’t have books at home and so don’t get to read when they leave for the summer. You can already see the problem: is it ever a bad idea to give books to kids who can’t afford them? There is no ethics involved here other than the ethics of efficiency. The measuring rod in this research is standardized test scores. It’s a randomized trial. Some kids get books, others don’t: will their scores differ? But remember that what causes kids to not learn to read— something that they do perfectly well if only they are put in a social environment that values reading—is precisely the constant mindless measuring of their skills. Because what are these books that the kids are taking home? Not the books you loved reading as a kid, or any book that a child would choose on her own—they are instead the “age-graded” asinine booklets that Texas publishing houses pump out and school districts lap up. The very same books that are written to make quantitative measurement easier. The very same that turned kids away from reading in the first place. This project has been awarded over sixteen million dollars in public money. It now has the resources to really exacerbate the problem it studies.))

All this is to suggest that educational discourse needs critical theory in order to overcome its own solipsism. Radicalism conjures a set of contradictions that—unlike those I have discussed so far—are not internal to the institution of schooling. They rise out of untested feasibilities. Marx’s pronouncements on education, for example, are few and far between, but each time he addressed the issue, he first hung the whole debate on what he called “the peculiar difficulty connected with this question. On the one hand,” he said, “a change of circumstances was required to establish a proper system of education, on the other hand, a proper system of education was required to bring about a change of social circumstances.”

The insight has immediate implications for practice. Marx would rage at fellow socialists who demanded “equal education” from the state. Did they expect, under present conditions, for the elite to give up their privileges and reduce themselves to “that modicum of education, the elementary school”? And did they imagine that the same type of schooling would serve the needs of both peasants and industrial workers?

Consider in this light the pussyfooting in contemporary education literature around the issue of skill and labor. Conservatives, who have always been more honest than liberals, hold that there is little correspondence between what children learn in school and what they need in the job market. Specifically, they mean that future workers learn too much, too freely, while future managers and technicians learn too little, too rigidly. Where fascists found free reign, e.g., in Italy or Japan, they set up systems with strict sorting mechanisms that took care of this little inconvenience.

Liberal democracies have a harder time. They have had to, at least in theory, ignore the contradictions caused by the division of labor. In fact, they present the school as a space in which division of labor magically doesn’t factor—everyone (again, in theory) gets the same education. As a result, the content of learning has become totally divorced from any sort of practice—and this is justified by claiming that schools should not train anyone for a particular form of labor, lest we economically pigeonhole children. In life, of course, schools continue to sort students into various tracks. Even if the content of what schools teach is irrelevant to labor, the form of learning is designed to train students for various attitudes toward labor. The strict setting of working class schools trains kids to look at work as something-other that descends upon them—like foul weather or a heavy blow—that must be reckoned with and endured; it is a chore to be knocked out as quickly as possible. Middle-class schools present work as a project to be performed. Upper-class kids are trained to look for their own meaning in self-initiated work, and so on. ((See Jean Anyon’s beautiful 1980 study of five elementary schools catering to different economic classes: Social class and the hidden curriculum of work. It’s available online, gratis.))

New economic realities may unburden educationalists of the issue of labor and the embarrassment that comes with it. Industrial jobs are disappearing from developed nations and computers have been assigned many of the routine tasks that were formerly the province of workers. So educationalists are now free to argue that there is no longer any need for learning concrete tasks, and that all students should be trained for managerial skills (again, here “all”, excludes the executive elite). These are euphemistically referred to as “twenty-first century” or “foundational” skills.

The point is that while the coordinates of the problem have changed, the equation that describes it has not. Until now, progressive education willfully ignored the social fact of division of labor. Now, it is willfully ignoring the end of labor—i.e., the fact that there is no longer any rational need for eight-hour days. Jobs should be disappearing. They are not of course, and why they are not has a lot to do with patterns of consumption—something that education is equipped to address and almost never does.

As usual, jingoism: the last refuge. Nearly every analysis of the skills issue relies on rhetoric of international competition. It seems that “the future success of the middle class” rests on the “nation’s ability” to “sharply increase the fraction of American children with the foundational skills needed to develop job-relevant knowledge and to learn efficiently over a lifetime.” ((From the latest of such reports, Dancing with Robots, written by academics from Harvard and MIT. )) It’s not that jobs are vanishing—they are out there, but they must be wrest away, in an honest battle of wits no less, from the Chinese, Indians, and, soon we can predict, Africans. I try, against the protest of my senses, to read all such studies I come across. Not one so far has made any mention of the role of American political, financial, and military hegemony in sustaining “middle-class prosperity” in this country. ((US industrialists who are most keen to export jobs are also most eager to promote this line of thought. See anything by Bill Gates on education. ))

So yes, radicalism—or whatever you would like to call a sharp break with the present system—has something to say. Even if it won’t say it.




To be clear, however, in every revolutionary period, the radical Left has shown an active interest in adult education. The labor movement was inadvertently an educational undertaking. If for decades the Left did not manage to extract a theory of education from its own work, it was not the activists’ fault. But when it came to schooling—the education of children and youth—the Left could not be bothered until the mid-1960s. At first, the consensus seemed to be that the problem would be addressed after the revolution, which was always imminent. Even in the decade following World War I, when every middle class institution—spiritual societies, charities, factories, universities, etc.—scrambled to offer a new form of schooling, radicals stayed away. Even the rise of fascism and the disastrous failure of the Soviet experiment did not bring them back to the topic.

The ‘exceptional period’ in critical theory spanned the decade between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s. During this time, the working class in advanced capitalist societies ceased to be understood as a group capable of or allied to revolutionary force. Instead, it seemed that the only organized bodies capable of revolutionary action could be found in universities. ((Marcuse outlined this view in One-Dimensional Man (1964). The book was quite influential among both students and radical educators.)) May ’68 and other student uprisings highlighted this shift. In Paris, the traditional organs of the Left—unions and the party—abandoned the students.

It’s in this period that we finally see some engagement with the question of education. Althusser and Marcuse wrote the little that they wrote on the topic. Bourdieu published his studies of the school system. ((There is not enough room here to discuss Bourdieu in detail. His research into schooling is mostly quantitative and suffers from the same problems in quantitative research that I have described above. He subtly outlines his own theoretical and methodological problems in the epilogue to The Inheritors: French Students and Their Relations to Culture (1964).)) Paul Goodman wrote Compulsory Mis-Education. A new kind of literature began to emerge as Foucault, Marcuse, Sartre, and others began to meet with students for mutual discussions—unheard of until that point. The transcripts were published in periodicals. Obviously, education was a topic of interest. It is important to note that the impetus came from students: Adorno, who refused to open his classes to such multilateral conversations, suffered severe scoldings from his students.

Still, it would not be the philosophers who offered the most compelling writing on education, but a handful of people writing from the overlooked corners of the education system. Based on his work with Brazilian peasants and his reading of Marx, Fanon, Marcuse, and others, Paulo Freire wrote Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968)by far the most important theoretical contribution to the field, to date. Ivan Illich, an anarchist working with communities in Mexico, wrote Deschooling Society (1971). Eight young boys from the destitute Italian village of Barbiana, studying with an exiled priest named Lorenzo Milani, put together Letter to a Teacher (1967)—the fiercest written challenge to an education system that I know of. If educators and students writing well about education sounds like common sense, you might recall that the best critical studies of art, literature, film, television, medicine, and even the state almost never come from practitioners. It’s not that practitioners are incapable of theoretical work—Brecht did a fine job of it whenever he chose—but philosophers have done it so much better. So far, that’s definitely not the case with education. Then again, none of the authors I have just mentioned were entirely immersed in the school system. Each of them writes with total commitment; each of them has a foot out the door.

Marx correctly identifies the “peculiar difficulty” of education; he is right to insist that any educational theory must address and depart from this paradox. However, Marx’s formulation speaks not only to the educational system, but to the role of education—regardless of the institutional setting—in social transformation. Few people seem to pay attention to the fact that Theses on Feuerbach, which ends with that famous command to philosophers to change the world, begins with a key thought on education:

            The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing,
            and that, therefore, changed men are products of changed circumstances and
            changed upbringing, forgets that it is men who change circumstances and that
            the educator must himself be educated. Hence this doctrine is bound to divide
            society into two parts, one of which is superior to society. The coincidence of the
            changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-change can be conceived
            and rationally understood only as revolutionary praxis.

The need for praxis—what Engels described as “combined action and mutual discussion”—is what dethrones the armchair philosopher. Revolutionary praxis—i.e., active self-divestment and boundary crossing—exiles people to the fringes, gets them fired from their jobs, and worse. In any case, you can’t talk about raising or changing someone else without getting implicated in the problem. Progressives like to repeat the old adage that all education is self-education. They mean (à la John Dewey) that the teacher should set up a learning environment and then step out of the learner’s way. A radical understanding of the motto is quite different: the teacher must step in with the clear expectation of getting jostled and roughed up in the process. All transformation is also self-transformation. When, as in the late-1960s, students demand that type of participation from their teachers, the work is actually easier. In conditions of near-total acquiescence, new energies—and new theories of education—are needed.

Jacques Rancière—a career philosopher of the critical variety—wrote a book about education in 1981. It’s titled The Ignorant Schoolmaster, and its overarching thesis is that if education is to empower the student, the teacher must become willfully ignorant: she must let go of the notion that she is the possessor of knowledge and skill while the student is an empty vessel. To lecture at people is to do violence. The charm of Rancière’s book is in his awareness that he cannot talk about teaching and learning as an abstract thing. His theory is derived from real experience—the method and career of Joseph Jacotot, who was a teacher and educational theorist in the early nineteenth century. The fatal flaw of the book is that Rancière wrote it with two feet planted firmly outside practice. He did not even get involved enough to read about more recent experiments: if he had, he would have seen how Paulo Freire—working on a superficially similar theory—had shed much brighter light on the dark nuances of the teacher-student dialectic. But Rancière’s disconnect with practice becomes truly problematic when he, after deriding the lecture-method for the length of the book, briefly glances at his own profession: the university lecturer. All he can say is that if an academic is teaching about his own new and ongoing research, then it’s ok for him to lecture—so long as “they are teaching what they don’t know.” It’s a cop-out, of course. What you don’t know—even a question—is a form of knowledge. Is there no other way of igniting a question or a yearning in someone else than throwing the question at them? There is—but you won’t know it until you try.

It would be ridiculous to say that there are no purely interpretive tasks left in education. One look at the squalid state of scholarship on the history of education would show otherwise. ((Exceptions include Schooling in Capitalist America, by Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis (1976), as well as Jens Hoyrup’s entire oeuvre.)) But there is no element of culture (bar sex and family) that implicates us as quickly and directly as does education. No one is shielded from it. Nearly everyone is a practitioner. I’ve heard it said that cultural theorists don’t write about education because the real thing is boring enough. I think that assessment is unfair to the task and to theorists, who have written about plenty of tedious things (prisons, for example, or fashion). It would be unfair to suggest that theorists choose topics based on glamour. But the assessment is also not nearly harsh enough. When theorists write about education, they are not writing about someone else’s work—they, for once, are also writing about their own. Isn’t every single one of them a university teacher? If glamour is involved, it’s not in the erotic sense of the word, but in its original sense: professional learning used and fashioned like occult power. If you write about painting, no one asks you to step up and do it differently, because the painter is surrounded by a halo of craft and genius. But if you write about education, and you are a teacher yourself, everyone, including yourself, will have to start wondering. That would disrupt the one-sided, authoritarian, unsound method that theorists, like all their academic friends, use in their classrooms. The lecture would have to suffer. Which would be at least one welcome development.

The American Reader stopped publishing in 2015.
This is a living archive of our work.