I have recently had the privilege of participating in an experimental reading group, which takes Jacques Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster as its guiding text. What makes the meetings an experiment is not the format (it’s a pre-reading type of group), but the constitution of the participants and the structure of the meetings. Organized by a local curator/critic/educator, the sessions are led by a number of public and private high-school students who come from disparate backgrounds. These whip-smart teenagers set the tone and direction of the reading group, and the participation is rounded out by a number of other teachers, curators and academics. In this way, the reading group aims to disrupt the assumed social connections between the younger folks and the older folks, opening up an interstitial space where the otherwise stultifying pedagogical relationship no longer functions. Another objective, as outlined by the organizer, is to mash up class distinctions and get a wider perspective regarding the issue of access to higher education.
Practically, there’s a bunch of feeling out the limits, some reciprocal skepticism and the inevitable grappling with expectations that all of us brings along. Otherwise, though, it has been quite exciting and I find myself humbled and surprised in equal measure. I don’t have a lot of teenagers in my life right now and these kids are more confident than I remember being when I was younger, holding their own in our discussions with agile mental prowess. They also seem more comfortable with the educational system and its power dynamics than I had anticipated. They prefer clear course outlines over self-determination; they unquestioningly expect to attend university after graduating from high-school.
In our last meeting, we came across this gem of Rancière’s, which articulates quite nicely one reason why I am challenged by the experimental form of another reading group that I participate in called No Reading After the Internet, which does not require pre-reading (we read aloud together):
“This was an essential exercise in universal teaching: to learn to speak on any subject, off the cuff, with a beginning, a development, and an ending. Learning to improvise was first of all learning to overcome oneself, to overcome the pride that disguises itself as humility as an excuse for one’s incapacity to speak in front of others–that is to say, one’s refusal to submit oneself to their judgement. And after that it was learning to begin and to end, to make a totality, to close up language in a circle” (42).
Granted, this type of improvisation comes to play in both reading groups. With the Rancière meetings, the improvisation is in response to the careful ruminations about the text that each of us have brewed beforehand. Additionally, with No Reading, the improvisation is in response to the text itself. This leaves less space for scholarship and more room for wild speculations that may or may not resonate after their initial proposition.
Rancière’s broader point is that improvisation is widely available, that for each of us it is an inherent capacity to be developed in equal measure to our desire to do so. These reading groups have been productive exercises in my improvisatory skills, which, to be honest, feel a bit withered. Or, perhaps, I just need to get over myself, contemplating deeper and comparing with fervour, trying out hypotheses until one resonates with my collected experiences of the world. In this way, like for any other person, “the virtue of our intelligence is less in knowing than in doing” (65).