In order to think about Raciere’s Universal Teaching in a practical setting, I want to focus on two vital points: comparison and trust.
When Jacotot trains the poor person to read (p 22), notice what he does. He gives the man two facts a verbal and a written sentence, and asks him to think about their relation. “There is always something the ignorant one knows that can be used as a point of comparison, something to which a new thing to be learned can be related” (p 28). The work of learning in Universal Teaching is not to come up with the answers out of our own minds, but to think about two things and talk about their relations. This might mean a song and the notes in front of you. A word and its letters. Two sentences in the same book. Whatever will open up a space where students can now do the work of thinking all on their own.
In other words, the teacher does not explain the answers to a student, but the teacher does point the student to a “thing” to study and asks questions to keep the student studying that thing.
2: trust of the book, the material “thing”
“One must be learned to judge the results of the work, to verify the student’s science” says Ranciere on page 31. So yes, it’s true that if I am ignorant I won’t know whether or not my daughter’s answer is “right.” Ranciere agrees freely with the critique on this point. However, listen to him all the way through, and I think we have something very profound to work with. “The ignorant one himself will do less and more at the same time. He will not verify what the student has found; he will verify that the student has searched” (p31). Is searching all that is required? ask the critics. Yes, it is — if we trust the book. This is the key element that makes all the difference to me. This whole principle is beautiful, if wetrust the book.
These two points – comparison and the book – need to be combined to make the most sense to me. The student is given a book (or whatever else) that the teacher trusts to have intelligence, ie, to have something to say. They are givensomething – a fact that then the student can compare to something else. Then yes, as long as the student searches, he or she will learn. “Whoever looks always finds. He doesn’t necessarily find what he was looking for, and even less what he was supposed to find” (page 33). But this is only a problem if you do not trust the book to communicate properly. As I understand it, the point of Ranciere’s “circle” is that you give students something to work with, and then no matter what direction they go it will be fruitful. Do you see the trust implied here? You not only have to trust the student to have intelligence, but you have to trust the book (the circle you put them in). There are two intelligences at work here: that of the student, and that of the book. And both must be trusted.
Trust applied to in an LDS context
This, precisely, is why I think this is so important to consider in a church situation. Here of all places, we ought to trust our book – the scriptures. And trusting the students to read them and have a productive discussion is a hard choice to make. We have to let go of what we think should happen or the way we think they should read. But they will only perform and surprise us if we trust them ahead of time. It’s a leap of faith, a seed to be planted and see if it grows or not. But if we encircle them in a scriptural passage, and ask them what do you see? what does it say? what do you think about this passage? what is the context? etc., then I think Ranciere’s statement will apply: “Whoever looks always finds. He doesn’t necessarily find what he was looking for, and even less what he was supposed to find” (page 33). But it is this surprise that makes study, especially of the scriptures, so exciting and productive.