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Democracy and Distinction: Arendt, Rancière, and Education

This paper focuses on the role of educational institutions in democratic societies. I compare Arendt’s work on authority and education with that of Jacques Rancière. Though they share a conception of democracy as isonomic self-governance among equals, they differ sharply on the value of authority in pre-adult education. I focus on four texts: Arendt’s essays from Between Past and Future and her address on Lessing,Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster and his Disagreements. John Dewey’s view of democratic practices reaching ‘all the way down’ in a democratic society, as well as his attempt to solve the problem of expertise in steering the bureaucratic state whose propagandist powers exceed its citizens understanding, forms the backdrop of the discussion.

I begin by laying out Rancière’s account of Jean-Joseph Jacotot’s “universal education” project: to teach in a language that he did not speak within the context of the French Revolution’s radical equality. This includes an account of the stultification of faculties that he will come to associate with the state’s police power. Certain teaching styles have a tendency to produce a structured relationship of knowing and ignorance. The result habituates mastery and activity in the teacher and ignorance and passivity in student. The solution is to begin with the presumption of radical equality, which for Rancière always begins with our equal access to the world or a text and an equal capacity for reason-responsiveness. For Rancière, we can only achieve democracy by beginning with this equality and carefully cultivating it throughout. The alternative is a ‘partage du sensible,’ a grouping of society into specific parts devoted to particular actions. Rancière calls this hierarchical grouping the ‘police’, and identifies it with a suppression of the space of appearance which he calls ‘the absence of a void.’ The account of politics as antagonistic to this settled distribution of the sensible indicates a repeated dissent from the original partition of the people.

In contrast, Arendt’s account of public freedom entails distinction between the radical non-domination of the public realm and the dwindling authority still somewhat preserved in the private sphere. The most dangerous thing about philosophical truth claims is that they might be right. The problem with expertise is that it is incompatible with plurality. This very veracity might extinguish the possibility of agonistic politics with monotonous agreement. Thus the philosopher shares with the tyrant her desire to replace conflicting opinions with a single rule. Insofar as they differ, it is the philosopher who appears more tyrannical, since she seeks an eternal truth and thus hopes to rule beyond her death. Yet at the same time, Arendt attempts to preserve a space for truth in the realm of education, where she holds that authority must reign so that every citizen who joins the public realm has a respect for the truth, even as that truth is transmogrified into opinion once it appears publically.

In Arendt’s work, we can see the difference between the Enlightenment’s quest for ‘truth’ and the scientific demand for accuracy or ‘being right.’ Philosophy concerns itself endlessly with God, immortality, and freedom, while science attempts to settle these questions the same way it settles the specific gravity of milk or the load-bearing capacities of a bridge. Arendt argues that the loss of this infinite conversation comes at the expense of friendship. Yet, like Aristotle, she recognizes that friendship cannot be the condition of self-government: politics begins when friendship is no longer possible. Despite the many accusations of Grecophile nostalgia, she is thus at odds with a political theory rooted in the scale of the Athenian polis and its original partition.

Rancière accuses her of effacing the constitutive disagreements of politics, however, his account of this elision is tied to a facultative equality that Arendt herself celebrates. I thus conclude with some reflections on the account of isonomy given in Herodotus’s Histories, where Otanes identifies democracy with the strict equality accomplished through lots. The appeal of this vision of isonomy is that the lottery supplies an equal opportunity for rulership to each citizen, guaranteeing equality well in excess of the ideal of equality ‘before the law.’ This equality is only possible when combined with two forms of accountability: that literal accounting by which an officer must give an accurate tally of expenditures during the administration or be held liable, and the figurative accountability by which the officer owes his fellow citizens his reasons in public deliberations before, during, and after the decision is taken.