When I was a schoolboy, I took part in an experiment in intellectual emancipation. Although our town on the Minnesota prairie was small, we had a fairly progressive school. The era’s contradictions found expression in its architectural form: prison-like on the outside, on the inside it featured open-plan classrooms. The school, I later realized, also served as a refuge for the era’s victims: ex-hippies, draft resisters, potheads, closeted gays—our teachers. Having failed to liberate themselves, they set to work on us. Especially fortunate in this regard were those farm kids they considered “gifted.” With the aid of spooky metal contraptions outfitted with a mirror that directed a beam of light at variable speeds down a printed page, we taught ourselves to “speed-read.” We were permitted to read whatever books we liked. I speed-read Crime and Punishment and became forever liberated for a place and a language that back then (at the age of twelve) I could hardly believe existed.

In The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation, Jacques Ranciere nominates a hero for weary veterans of the culture wars and those suspicious of elites, whether conservative, revolutionary, artistic or academic. Had Joseph Jacotot (1770–1840) not lived, Ranciere would have had to invent him. Jack of all trades and polymath, the Republican Jacotot escaped to Belgium and a  teaching gig after the Restoration. Faced with a group of Flemish-speaking students eager to receive his instruction, Jacotot hit upon the novelty of asking them to use a bilingual edition of Fenelon’s Telemaque to teach themselves French. Which they did, without any instruction on their master’s part. Inspired by his chance success, Jacotot set to teaching subjects he really knew nothing about (for example, the piano and painting) and formulating the principles of “universal teaching.” In fact, these principles are old as the hills. All humans have the capacity to learn by induction, without the benefit of a teacher’s explanation. Even with the most progressive intent in the world, the desire to explain, according to Ranciere, conceals the will to dominate and leads to “stultification.” Inequality may be a fact of social life, but when we assume, on the contrary, the equality of intelligence(s), we set in motion the circle of emancipation. This emancipatory gesture is perfectly captured in something Jacotot said during his wildly popular “lessons”: “I must teach you that I have nothing to teach you.”

“The dark cloud of unknowing hangs over Mr. Campbell’s head.” This is how my tutor, Mr. Boyd, characterized me during a “don rag” when I was a freshman at St. John’s College (Santa Fe). Here in the high mountain desert was another band of refugees from the culture wars. Ranciere’s Jacotot might have found something to admire there. Like his first group of Flemish emancipés, armed with their master text Télémaque, we had hundreds of Great Books standing between us and our tutors, some of whom were barely competent to teach us the Greek, history, mathematics, and philosophy contained in them. What prevents stultification and domination is this “thing in common” that is no thing and no one’s—the book. Whatever his real-life views, the author wrote his words “under the sign of equality”; he assumed that, given the will, the chance, and the need to do so, someone (anyone) could understand what he wanted to express. The teacher only provides the occasion and verifies that the student’s will and intelligence remain committed to the search. Be he Jacotot or a peasant boy’s illiterate father, he is there to encourage repetition and ask questions. Not ones that, like Socrates, he secretly knows the answers to, but ones whose tentative answers will be the index of the student’s sincerity. As Jacotot puts it, the disciple makes the master. The book—for Ranciere, the materialized ideality of language—is what relates one to the other while safeguarding against the collapse into hiearchy. Language is the measure of distance between us as individuals and our common humanity. Man is a will served by intelligence, hypothesizes Ranciere. The equality of intelligences is what underwrites the (willful) making of meaning, the translation of will and thought into words and works, and their counter-translation by others.

Jacotot, the painting and music teacher who couldn’t paint or play music, would have recognized kindred spirits in the self-taught and self-declared Leningrad artists of the 70s and 80s. Just as his campaign for universal teaching was a guerilla action in defense of the Revolution’s betrayed promise of equality, Timur Novikov’s claims that his New Artists were young geniuses and the real force behind perestroika can be seen as both parody and the vestige of another real revolution about to fail. Whatever its ideological contradictions, their project was (to invoke Ranciere’s key theme) a (re)partitioning of the sensible that had everything to do with what might have become a democratic politics (embodied in their revival of the avant-garde notion, one shared by Jacotot, that everyone can be an artist) and not the policing of goods, spaces, and discourses we find instead in today’s Russia.

Alain Badiou accuses Ranciere of indulging in the fiction of a community of equals because he doesn’t believe in activism’s ability to unmake a society of inequality. Politics isn’t merely a matter of figuring and ventriloquizing the invisible and the unheard (as Ranciere has done so eloquently in books like Nights of the Proletariat), of introducing bits of dissensus into hegemonic consensus, but of organizing, albeit without the backing of a party or a socialist state. And even if we consciously avoid the worst methods of the past, we are bound to employ the arts of persuasion—hence, of explanation—to achieve our ends, whether a graduate student union at Yale (my own experience) or an engaged art and thought in a city flush with oil-fueled consumerism (the project of this broadsheet). We should nevertheless always have in mind Ranciere’s essentially poetic lesson. The poem, he argues, is always the absence of another poem, the one the reader has to create. And our own calls to action are only echoes of the free, spontaneous outburst of creativity, generosity, militancy, and research that we hope to inspire in ourselves and others.

Thomas Campbell was born in 1967 in rural Minnesota. Nowadays he is a grad student, teacher, and union activist at Yale University (New Haven, Connecticut). He is also a sometime resident of St. Petersburg.