The ultimate ignorant school master?

One of our doctoral students, Ms. Mako Miura, recently challenged me with a question I had never entertained. We were discussing Jean Lave’s model for learning through participation (1991). We were focusing on some of the examples Lave mentions that point to the asymmetry between those in the “peripheral” position and those in the “full” position. Prototypically, we have an apprentice, initially ignorant but granted the legitimacy to participate, and the master who granted this legitimacy and eventually gets the apprentice to “learn” through participation that which characterizes a particular “shop floor” (to index Garfinkel). I emphasized that Lave is building a “model” to help us through initial analyses of the “educational” (“instructional,” “learning”) aspects of the organization of any floor. And I proposed we approached the encounter between first time parents and their child as just such a floor where a very legitimate participant will be learning everything that already makes this particular “family” (to keep it simple): familial configuration, ethnic or regional particularities, language, “culture.”

As this point, Miura asked: “could we argue that, on this floor, it is the child who is at the center and the parents who are on the periphery as they will have to ‘learn’ parenting?”

I must say that, whenever I have taught Lave (& Wenger)’s book, I have never pondered whether we should also consider the possibility of a feedback learning whereas the apparently “full” person discovers what apprentices are like, how they are learning, and what these apprentices are doing with that. I do not think that Jean Lave (or Ray McDermott with whom I once participated with her in a joint seminar on “ignorance”) ever considered such a possibility. And yet, particularly if we approach the issue after reading Rancière’s Ignorant Schoolmaster ([1987] 1999), as we did in the class, then the question is one we should take seriously.

The issue is a classic one in cultural anthropology, particularly in the Boasian traditions led by M. Mead and many others who build on what appears to be a common sense generalizations. Here is the way Geertz once put it:

One of the most significant facts about us is that we all begin with the natural equipment to live a thousand kinds of life but end up in the end having only lived one.” (1973, 45)

In other words related to ignorance and knowledge, one starts knowing nothing (but able to learn anything) and immediately gets taught in the language, styles, religion, etc., of one’s population, thereby limiting further and further what one can do with the rest of one’s life.  Cultural anthropology is, also, about the ongoing restriction on possibilities (and the powerful ones re-enforcing these restrictions).

I suspect any introductory class in cultural anthropology (and all related discipline) starts with a version of this and will include discussion of enculturation, socialization, the development of an identity, etc.

This is probably where I would start, if I had to teach such a class.

father changing an infant's diaper
Father and infant on an educational floor: who is teaching what to whom and how?

But, things are not so simple when one considers the “shop floor” where a child and their parents first stare at each other wondering what to do next. The parents may be quite articulate about their wonders.  They probably deliberate extensively with each other and with all the significant others with whom they are currently living or who directly impinge on their lives (parents, peers, the media, pediatricians). The infant may not be able to do much more than smile or cry but anyone who has been with a child, however young, has experienced the ongoing investigations that the child is doing (via , first, eyes, arm movements and such, and, soon, through various forms of vocalizations that turn into words). The child, we must assume, is not just “absorbing.” The child is also analyzing, exploring, testing, etc., and doing it more and more articulately as time passes (consider the 3 year-old who keeps asking ‘why?’). I am not proposing anything here about the child’s “consciousness.”  I am just suggesting that we should never assume what a lack of linguistic articulation might imply in relation to analysis, exploration, testing, etc.

One thing that is certain is that, along with anything else the child may be doing, they are arguably, imposing their will to live on bumbling parents and thereby teaching them (plural) how to deal with them (singular) while being totally ignorant of what it is that they are teaching.

The infant would thereby be the ultimate “ignorant schoolmaster”…

Food for thought for future anthropologists who will conduct research on early child development, the production of particular family styles, and such.

[this is also a message to you (EB, GR, MN) to push dis- (vision, hearing, mental) studies to take very seriously what is otherwise a pious cliche “teachers learn from their students” (as it certainly applies to me): what exactly is it that a blind/deaf/confusing/… person teach the most significant persons in their entourage (assemblage) through ongoing everyday interaction in routine activities? How do they do it and with what stuff? (The prototype that should guide any research in this line is Goodwin’s work on communication with a person with aphasia (2004))]


Geertz, Clifford   1973     The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.

Goodwin, Charles   2004    “A Competent Speaker Who Can’t Speak: The Social Life of Aphasia.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 14, 2:151-170.

Lave, Jean and E. Wenger   1991     Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Rancière, Jacques   [1987] 1999     The ignorant schoolmaster: Five lessons in intellectual emancipation.. Tr. by K. Ross. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

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on the grounds of instruction into grammaticality

… scholars and other shamans might be as puzzled as two senior professors when they read the title of an edited volume by de Oliveira et al.  It goes: Multiliteracies in English as an additional language classrooms (2021).  As members of the audience addressed by this volume, they wondered whether there was a typo someplace, whether the title was ungrammatical or proof of bad editing, whether it was an attempt to Joycean play or a form of Jabberwocky.

Then a less senior professor pointed out that “English as an additional language” is to be treated as a package as it is the current proper way to say what used to be said as “English as a second language.” Thus the title should be parsed as “Multiliteracies in EAL classrooms” and is thus fully grammatical. It is also indexes that the authors are up to date in expected academic education research writing about the topic. The whole thing is normal and orderly and it allows for two senior professors to be shown ignorant and in need of an EAL teacher. And it also allows for a suspicion that they were being somewhat disorderly and in need of instruction into the appropriate.

Given that the two professors pride themselves on their work on literacy, language, culture, power, etc., they could not just stand corrected. They also had to wonder what exactly is grammatical in English and how it is established. If, as someone quipped a long time ago, a “language” is a dialect with an army—as well as schools of education, school teachers and other institutions in charge of publicizing the proper or normal (orthography, word order, pronominal usage, etc.), then one may wonder how this army exactly does its work of ordering the normal when so many keep disordering it. If, as another great man once said “here comes everybody,” what will they do when they arrive?

So, I write:
“Ignorant education research one university faculty member blog writer says…” that he expects this string of nouns to be taken as acceptable, proper, normal (as well as pedantic) and does convey that “one writer of blogs who is member of the faculty of a university famous for its research is also ignorant …” I keep seeing such strings in the titles of articles in the New York Times, as well as in scholarly publications. Stringing nouns for titles must thus be considered “grammatical” in English. However, it is essential to note that it is not grammatical in the other “language” I “know” well: in French where, for example, “faculty member” must be rendered as “membre de la faculté” (and NOT as “faculté membre”). It is also essential to note that people with decades of speaking English (one who got to it as an “additional” language, and one for whom it has been the only one) can be puzzled by such strings.

I am interested in this brief moment in my life because it can be used as another occasion to wonder about what is most general about all languages, and all ways of speaking any language. To do this I like to go back to first principles and then work my way back to the reality that, one more time, I was told I was ignorant of one special aspect of English.

My first encounter with the search for such principles occurred when I read (and re-read) Saussure’s famous book on “general” linguistics. “General” is the key word here and indexes that the book will not say much about any particular language but will outline what should be true of all human languages (as it might have been put until recently) or, better, what should be true of the grounds of all human speaking to each other (but not necessarily of other ‘speakings’-or ‘writings’ for that matter–if one wants to use the verb “to speak” for communication among animals or plants). In brief, Saussure proposed that all human speaking involves:

. arbitrary conventions

. maintained by contracts among some consociates

. about the relationship between

– an object (signified) and

– words (signifiers) produced by the vocal box of the human body
. organised as strings (“syntagms”)
. where each item can be transmuted among others (“paradigms”)

In other words that can only capture aspects of the experience of reading Saussure: when I stroke a furry animal with claws lounging on my lap, I report that I am “petting” a “cat” that can also be, in other conventions supported by a different contract, a “chat” (billee, nwamba, and many other sounds that may work here but not there). This should be “general” and thus is to be criticized when it does not handle all the cases one encounters. The critique can end either with a complete rejection (as most linguists and others do with Saussure) or with a reconstruction (as I do here).

Let’s start with petting the cat: it cannot quite be said anymore that the petting or the cat are objects. I take them to be experiences. Furthermore, these experiences can be reported not only through the vocal box, but also though the hands and face, in pictures, in music, etc. It can also be reported in various ways (“styles,” “register”) from the more prosaic (“the cat ate the mouse”) to the more poetic:

Les amoureux fervents et les savants austères
Aiment également, dans leur mûre saison,
Les chats puissants et doux, orgueil de la maison,
Qui comme eux sont frileux et comme eux sédentaires. (Beaudelaire)

This poetic register reveals and constructs (conventional/arbitrary paradigmatic) associations (between cats, lovers, and scientists) as well as allow for high intellectual play (e.g. by Jakobson and Lévi-Strauss 1962)—not to mentions popular musicals (Cats!). All this may have been packed into Saussure’s paradigms, but that is not enough.

Whether there are any cats in Cats is an irrelevant question as long as all signs in the play use conventions that signal catiness (for example “cat-face,” or yellow slanted eyes)–at least according to Anglo-American conventions about catiness.eyes from poster for the musical Cats

In all cases however, the very possibility of play with the conventions involve well established, and well defended, conventions. For example, when with others speaking in “English” then “the cate ate the mouse” and “the mouse ate the cat” report on very different experiences. In French, “le chat a mangé la souris” keeps the word order but adds gender to both animals.

As Saussure, a historical linguist, well knew, there is no way of predicting how human beings will report seeing cats eating mice—except that they will find a way as long as they practically acknowledge that only this way works at this moment for these people. Saussure wrote about this practical acknowledgment using the word “contract”—most probably quoting Rousseau and thereby establishing that his general linguistics is about social, rather than cognitive, processes. And then he left it at that.

But this, again, is clearly not enough and the experience that triggered this post can help move beyond “contract” (or “social construction”). Someone who has worked for many decades with the “contract,” someone who “speaks English” having learned it as an additional language (or not), can still be told that he is ignorant, be disciplined for the ignorance—and then be somewhat unhappy about it all. How is this to be dealt with, in general?

And so, Garfinkel to the rescue: speaking is not only a matter of having learned a language and then using it mechanically and thoughtlessly, it is a matter of continual work with, and against, one’s consociates. Speaking is always social (interactional, communal, political). Speaking is not simply a matter of encoding experience, and then trying to reconstruct an experience on the basis of what one has heard about someone else’s experience (generally referred to as “decoding”), it is also a matter of checking around what the other humans involved are doing. Starting with Jakobson wondering, already, about pronominal use ([1957] 1990), noticing this social work has, or course, been the task of what is now known as “sociolinguistics” and “conversational analysis.” “Knowing” a “language” is never enough for speaking. As Ofelia Garcia (2014) may have been the first to codify, the very idea of A language in multilingual settings hides the reality of the work of settling on a form associated with one language for part of a utterance or conversation when the others might be settling on another form. So she wrote about “translanguaging.” If one adds to all this the possibility of multiple registers used alternatively within some conversation, the complexity of “speaking with” must involve a continual process of construction, correction, instruction, assertion of authority to correct and instruct, resistance to correction that will be more or less successful and reveal power differentials in meting consequences.

The last sentence is an initial attempt to get back to “general” linguistics, and particularly that of Saussure’s. What Saussure (and before him Rousseau) failed to develop is what Garfinkel said in so many different ways: drawing and maintaining a contract is necessary hard word but having to renegotiate every aspects of the contract would lead to paralysis. Take this fragment from Joyce’s Finnegan’s wake about (I think) “idendifin[ing] the individuone in … regattable oxeter (Joyce, J. Finnegan’s wake 1939: I.3.81). It may be fun, but would not work well in everyday life when reporting who is coming towards you…
it is essential for reports of cats eating mice that the audience does not question what a cat might be, whether it was a male of female cat, an old one or a young one, ETC. And yet of course, the contractual normal and orderly is actually fragile and in need of continuing instructional work. To restate Saussure, the “langue” (A language) is that which contractual work is attempting to maintain even as it is threatened by the “parole” (play, resistance, etc.)

And so, I would now rewrite the earlier summary of Saussure to say that speaking always involve:

. arbitrary conventions

. developed by ongoing ordering work among some consociates

. about the relationship between

the (“lived”) experience of the world and

– performances founded on the affordances of the human body (vocal chords, hands, faces, brains, etc.)
. organized as strings in time
. where each item can be transmuted among others thereby allowing for multiplying relationships and compounding the work of (dis-)ordering conventions

And now to play, if I say, “never was there ever a cat so clever as magical mister Mistoffelees” I am not just saying something, in English, about a cat, I am also indexing at least two poets (T.S. Eliot and W. Lloyd Weber), my own education into both high and middle-brow poetry, and most probably my ignorance (or yours) of much that can also be triggered by the statement: I “knew” that Mephistopheles is a name for the Devil, but just “learned” (thanks Wikipedia!) that the name is based on a German demon, based on a Greek construction, who appears most famously (before T.S. Eliot) in Goethe’s Faust (itself a retelling of an older legend). I suspect some would also find in the statement about a magical cat an index to European domination of current popular culture while Lévi-Strauss—as he did once with Santa Claus ([1952] 1993)—would start jumping around the world looking for other associative conventions between cats and …


García, O. and L. Wei 2014 Translanguaging: Language, Bilingualism and Education. Basingstoke, U.K: Palgrave Macmillan.

and C. Lévi-Strauss 1962 . “« Les Chats » de Charles Baudelaire,” In L’Homme: tome 2 n°1. pp. 5-21.

Jakobson, R. [1957] 1990 “Shifters, verbal categories, and the Russian verb., in On Language. Edited by L. Waugh and M. Monville-Burston. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Russian Language Project. pp. 386-392.

Lévi-Strauss , C [1952] 1993 “Father Christmas executed,” in Unwrapping Christmas. Edited by D. Miller. Oxford: Clarendon Press. pp. 38-51.

de Oliveira et al., eds 2021 Multiliteracies in English as an Additional Language Classrooms Methods, Approaches, and Lessons. The University of Miami School of Education and Human Development Series.

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