Not long ago I finally read my first full book by Jacques Rancière (The Ignorant Schoolmaster). I admit I was a bit wary, not for what I'd already read by the philosopher himself, but from the way he's frequently discussed, his role as the sort of radical French thinker taken up by bobos and artists and impressed humanities grad students: post-Marxist and still "viable" now that we are post the peak of postmodern theory's power. (Or is that a grand narrative? Help!) I think the unfortunate thing about people like Rancière, Žižek, even the late great headscratcher Deleuze is that they don't really piss anyone off. Not really, and not the right people one should want to piss off. I don't use this to paint all of these contemporary philosophers with otherwise the same brush: Žižek is only very intermittently worth reading, whereas Rancière seems to be very worthwhile. (Deleuze has fantastic stuff too, but he's got his limits, as Luc Moullet's sly deflation shows with respect to the Cinema books.) It's more a matter of staying realistic about the alleged radical potential of these figures' works. People sometimes talk about continental theorists like they're talking about indie rock bands. (I admit I've done it myself.) It's a pointless game; it's a form of philosophizing taken from its unsexy envelopment in actual society.
Marx still creeps under a person's skin. His words, his ideas, can rub the right people the wrong way.
The basic argument of The Ignorant Schoolmaster is an echo, refashioned, of Jacotot, a radical egalitarian who tried to demolish pedagogy as such so as to reach the fundamental (equal) intelligence open to all humans. The constantly reinforced division between the learned instructor and the ignorant pupil is stultifying; the point of an emancipated education is not to help people along the continuum of progress but to assume equality as a premise, and to help the pupil realize not the gains that signify shed ignorance but the equal potential which is inborn. The ignorant schoolmaster need not know the subject, only how to act as interlocutor to the pupil who guides herself (more or less). It's an interesting polemic, and as translator Kristin Ross points out, the majority of the text is Rancière subtly mimicking, overlapping Jacotot. Who's ventriloquizing who here? It's a fairly well-written book, a breezy read but also a substantive one.
One of the most important lessons I took away from college about teaching, as a student, was for the instructor to regard the class with forthright, uncomplicated respect for its intelligence. In the context of the system, which is set up with hierarchies and thus hardly amenable to Jacotot's emancipation itself, there is no use downplaying or disguising one's own superior knowledge or even more sharply manifested intelligence. But to tacitly require that student use his intelligence to meet you in the same arena (by wordlessly acknowledging this very intelligence), the instructor takes a vital step in keeping the classroom alive.
(Still to read: Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed. That's been sitting on my shelf, beckoning, for slightly too long.)