Mr. Grandgrid apprehending his children. From Charles Dickens’ Hard Times.

Why a DiEM ‘Citizen’ University?

By Susan Curvers


“Equality is not given, nor is it claimed; it is practiced, it is verified” – Jacques Rancière
Educating citizens has been an intrinsic part of democratic societies since the first use of democratic principles in ancient Greece. Ever since that time, there has been an understanding that a healthy democracy is dependent to a large extend on the virtue of its citizens. However, every idea of the ‘good’ citizen is tied to a notion of the ‘good’ society, making it an essentially contested concept. ‘Citizenship is a ‘contested’ concept in the sense that the criteria governing its proper use are constantly challenged and disputed; such disputes are ‘essential’ in the sense that arguments about these criteria turn on fundamental political issues for which a final rational solution is not available’ [1]. Some would add that it’s the very point of essentially contested concepts that their meaning remains object of discussion. The DiEM25 Citizen University strives to be space in which matters of citizenship can openly be discussed and citizen identities formulated and reformulated on the basis of equality.

Democracy, according to Robert Dahl, is based on two principles of equality: intrinsic equality and civic competence[2]. Intrinsic equality is the principle that says we ought to regard the good of every human being as intrinsically equal to that of any other. The principle of civic competence states that every adult subject to the laws of the state should be considered to be sufficiently well qualified to participate in the democratic process of governing the state. Even though individuals and groups may not always perceive what is in their best interest, there is no criteria on which to definitely conclude who would be better qualified to be entrusted with the final authority over the government of the state. And so Dahl asks: ‘who is better qualified to participate than all the adults who are subject to the laws?’ [3]

Again, the equality principles do not imply that citizens do not make mistakes.  Therefore democracy requires citizens to be educated. However, instead of understanding equality as the outcome of education, the fundamental equality of human intelligence has been proposed by French philosopher Jacques Rancière as the basic presupposition of pedagogy. In his work ‘The ignorant schoolmaster’ [4] Rancière writes about a 19th century French teacher, Joseph Jacotot, who developed ‘universal education’. When exiled from France in 1818, Jacotot became a teacher in the Flemish part of The Kingdom of the Netherlands. Contrary to his presumption that it is the teacher’s task to explicate and deliver knowledge, he experienced he could teach children without even knowing their language. Explication, he realized, is only necessary in a situation in which one intelligence is made subordinate to another intelligence. However, his students were able to learn by their own efforts and the use of books. Jacotot only encourages them to use their own intelligence by asking three basic questions: What do you see? What do you think about it? What do you make of it? And repeat those questions, to infinity. The ignorant teacher just questions and verifies if the work of the intelligence is done with attention. According to Rancière’s reading of Jacotot, there is no inequality of intelligence, but rather an inequality of attention.

‘Essentially, what an emancipated person can do is be an emancipator: to give, not the key to knowledge, but the consciousness of what an intelligence can do when it considers itself equal to any other and considers any other equal to itself. (…) What stultifies the common  people is not the lack of instruction, but the belief in the inferiority of their intelligence. And what stultifies the ‘inferiors’ stultifies the ‘superiors’ at the same time. (…) The superior mind condemns itself to never being understood by inferiors.’ [5]

‘Any individual can always, at any moment, be emancipated and emancipate someone else, announce to others the practice and add to the number of people who know themselves as such and who no longer play the comedy of the inferior superiors. A society, a people, a state, will always be irrational. But one can multiply within these bodies the number of people who, as individuals, will make use of reason, and who, as citizens, will know how to seek the art of raving as reasonably as possible.’ [6]

Emancipation, understood in this way, is a breaking away from the status quo or the order of things. It is a process of subjectification, of the appearance of subjectivity, which is complementary to the existing order. Subjectification is therefore highly political.

Rancière proposes an extensive theory of democratic politics[7]. In his work he has made a distinction between police (or police order) and politics. ‘Police’ is defined as ‘an order of bodies that defines the allocation of ways of doing, ways of being, and ways of saying, and that sees that those bodies are assigned by name to a particular place and task’ [8]. It is an all-encompassing order in which everyone is included, everyone has a role or identity, but only some are seen and heard, because within the police order ‘this speech is understood as discourse and another as noise’[9]. The structures of control and the discourses within this ‘domain of the sensible’ reproduce the existing order (what can be thought, seen, heard) and silence political actors by not understanding what they say, by not recognizing their words as discourse, by not acknowledging their equality of intelligence.

Rancière refers to ‘politics’ as the mode of action which disrupts the order of things (police) in the name of equality. Politics is the redrawing of what is possible, visible and audible in the existing order, through the process of dissensus. ‘A dissensus is not a conflict of interests, opinions or values; it is a division inserted in ‘common sense’: a dispute over what is given and the frame within which we see something as given’[10]. Politics occurs when people who are not recognised as equals within the police order, act on a presupposition of equality and thereby demonstrate their equality. Democracy, in this sense, is what equality demands.

Citizenship within Rancière’s notion of democratic politics, is not a fixed identity, because politics or dissensus, creates subjects with identities that weren’t known, could not be seen or heard, prior to the act of politics. Political subjects are generated through the political act itself, through the practice and verification of equality. Citizens are the ones who demand the status of fully speaking and thinking people and thereby verify whether intellectual equality actually exists and is operative.

What we can learn from Rancière is that equality is not the outcome of a process of education or emancipation; equality is a practice. This practice is highly political, because by being the emancipator, by understanding oneself as equally intelligent as all others, is an act that breaks the status quo and allows new voices to be heard, new discourses to emerge, new orders to arise.

1 Carr, W. (1991). Education for citizenship. British Journal of Educational Studies, Vol. 39, No. 4 (Nov., 1991), pp. 373-385
2 Dahl, R. (1998). On democracy. New Haven: Yale University Press.
3 Ibid., p. 76.
4 Rancière, J. (1991) The ignorant schoolmaster. Five lessons in intellectual emancipation. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
5 Ibid., p. 39.
6 Ibid, p. 98
7 Rancière, J. (1999). Dis-agreement: Politics and philosophy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
8 Ibid., p. 29.
9 Ibid., p. 29.
10 Rancière, J., Concoran, S. (2003). Dissensus: on politics and aesthetics. London: Continuum. P. 69..