Nina Power is the latest contributor to our special series
The idea that intelligence is something that belongs to all is not a new idea. Plato, who elsewhere is hardly in favour of egalitarian forms of political organisation, famously demonstrated in The Meno the capacity of even the most ill-educated, a slave boy, to understand and work out mathematical solutions on the basis of nothing other than his own innate intelligence. As Socrates puts it: “This knowledge will not come from teaching but from questioning. [The slave boy] will recover it for himself.”
However, we live in an age where we see a resurgence of the idea that some people are fundamentally less intelligent than others The spectre of racism and sexism haunts these supposedly neutral attempts to measure intelligence, as in Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s “bell curve” argument, currently the most cited argument in the entirety of the social sciences – precisely because it is wrong. Thus the contemporary axiom or assertion that everyone is equally intelligent is something of a revelation, for all its bluntness.
The work of Jacques Rancière, who never tires of repeating his assertion that equality is not just something to be fought for, but something to be presupposed, is, for me, one of the most important ideas of the past decade. Although Rancière begins the discussion of this idea in his 1987 text The Ignorant Schoolmaster, it is really only in the last ten years that others have taken up the idea and attempted to work out what it might mean for politics, art and philosophy. Equality may also be something one wishes for in a future to come, after fundamental shifts in the arrangement and order of society. But this is not Rancière’s point at all. Equality is not something to be achieved, but something to be presupposed, universally. Everyone is equally intelligent.
But what does the axiomatic assertion of the equality of intelligence mean? Surely not everyone is as capable as each other? Doesn’t Rancière’s claim fall to pieces when you look at differential exam scores, degree results and the entire way in which intelligence divides up and separates out humanity in general?
Rancière takes his cue from the maverick nineteenth-century French pedagogue Joseph Jacotot, whose simple question was “[w]ere all men virtually capable of understanding what others had done and understood?” What this means is that, as Peter Hallward puts it, “Everyone has the same intelligence, and differences in knowledge are simply a matter of opportunity and motivation. On the basis of this assumption, superior knowledge ceases to be a necessary qualification of the teacher, just as the process of explanation – together with metaphors that distin¬guish students as slow or quick, or conceive of educational time in terms of progress, training, qualification, and so on – ceases to be an integral part of teaching.”
In principle then, there is no reason why a teacher is smarter than his or her student, or why educators shouldn’t be able to learn alongside pupils in a shared ignorance (coupled with the will to learn). The reason why we can relatively quickly understand complex arguments and formulae that have taken very clever people a long time to work out lends credence to Rancière’s insight that, at base, nothing is in principle impossible to understand and that everyone has the potential to understand anything.
For me, this idea renders teaching a joyful practice, far removed from the cynical approach that some pedagogues adopt, namely that there is the odd very good student and everyone else can go rot. The equality of intelligence is a concept at once philosophical and political: if everyone is equally intelligent, then why should we put up with being told how to think, or what to think about, by those with a vested interest in maintaining the hierarchies of the status quo?
The Emancipated Spectator, Jacques Rancière (Verso, 2009)
Nina Power is a senior lecturer in philosophy at Roehampton University and reviews editor for tpm
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