Voyou Désœuvré

According to OFSTED,

At GCSE, the sheer volume of poetry, with the focus on technical analysis, coupled with “overly didactic teaching methods”, is putting pupils off.

I wish I’d been taught technical analysis of poetry when I was doing GCSEs; indeed, a bit of excess didacticism would have made a nice change from the strange “not actually teaching” method adopted by my teachers. Until a chance encounter with F. R. Leavis’s New Bearings in English Poetry, I had no interest in poetry at all, which seemed like a pointlessly deformed form of expression, arbitrarily constraining writing in favor of a childishly contingent similarity of sounds or rhythm. Leavis’s explanation that these constraints could mean something made an enormous impact on me, and I remember wondering why none of my teachers had thought to mention it.

It’s probably unfair to name this post after Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster, particularly as I’ve never read it. But there is a certain style of teaching (it may well not be the one advocated by Rancière) based around a kind of faux-ignorance which is deeply reactionary. The pose of ignorance adopted by my English teachers devalues the education it’s supposed to be providing: if I am expected to be able to figure this stuff out on my own, why do I have to sit in school to do it? Teachers are not ignorant; they are teachers precisely because they know things their students do not know, and if this knowledge is worth anything they have an obligation to share it, not to pretend it doesn’t exist. Furthermore, to recognize this asymmetry of knowledge is a precondition of recognizing a more fundamental equality: that the student can understand, assimilate and accept or reject the same knowledge the teacher has already acquired.


  1. richard, 12:49 pm, December 8, 2007

    ‘Teachers are not ignorant;’ yes they are

  2. voyou, 1:36 pm, December 8, 2007

    Well, they shouldn’t be teachers, then. If a teacher isn’t going to tell a student something, they should leave the students alone to read books.

  3. Tom, 11:15 am, December 9, 2007

    Presumably you don’t like Rousseau, then. I agree; I know much better than my class that you shouldn’t poke people with pencils, and I regularly tell them this, although it doesn’t seem to have gone in very well.

  4. Dave, 6:16 pm, December 9, 2007

    I was spoiled, educationally speaking, by a system in which teachers facilitated a deep inquiry into a text by guiding students through the process of discovery. It’s neither faux-ignorance nor didacticism, but rather the existence of a conversation between all participants. Teachers should teach methods of exploration rather than expect students to absorb received knowledge. The latter form of knowledge transmission seems to me deeply reactionary because of its basis in hierarchy and power (i.e., good training for listening to orders from those in power).

  5. voyou, 7:55 pm, December 9, 2007

    I don’t think I agree with the idea that imparting knowledge is particularly connected with hierarchy – just because somebody tells me something doesn’t mean I have to accept it. Indeed, it’s precisely the one-way nature of knowledge transmission that is liberating; if somebody is lecturing, I can choose to ignore them, agree with them, disagree with them.

    The idea of teacher as guide strikes me as having at least as much potential for hierarchy, possibly more, because the person being guided is continually being nudged by the guide, which may make it harder for them to sort out their own responses from the direction of the guide.

  6. Dave, 10:40 pm, December 17, 2007

    You are, in general, right about the process of ‘guiding.’ I experienced that earlier in my schooling – teachers who want to preserve the knowledge-transmission of the lecture but without the moral taint of authority (is that all it takes to help ex-radicals sleep at night?). That method is no more useful than lecturing, and in fact perhaps worse, since you become complicit in your own acceptance of received ideas – because the hierarchy becomes invisible.

    The guiding I was referring to (from later in my education, at a very fancy prep school I must admit) isn’t guiding in this sense; mostly my teachers threw the book down on the table and let us hash it out ourselves. Which is to say, who needs teachers if you’ve got students to learn from? [I was no longer involved in hard sciences by this point, i should also note.] That was a true process of exploration, in contrast to the “let’s-explore-but-we-have-a-definite-goal-and-I-will-make-sure-we-get-there” approach of my earlier schooling.

    I’m hanging on to my ideas that knowledge transmission = hierarchy, but with the caveat that yes, of course, you’re right that teachers can’t really impose thoughts; only, in practice continued resistance is rather difficult. I think that’s tied to training; schools are not about transmitting knowledge, but about transmitting ways of interacting with knowledge. Which is why most schools teach by lecture or ‘guiding,’ and the schools of the ruling classes teach students to guide themselves.

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