The book was published in the early 80s as a contribution to a debate happening in France over education. The debate was over the push by the left to make school a nicer, more welcoming and inclusive place for students. A socialist published a book criticising this arguing that schools should be for education, the issue of how students feel in them is secondary. They are only there to be taught and it is on teaching that people should be focused. Against this Ranciere argued that education does not happen through the transference of knowledge from one subject to another. The teacher is not the holder of knowledge. Rather education is a process of self-education. The learner struggles through problem and through that learns.
While this book is ostensibly simply about education, the argument has obvious resonances with Ranciere’s critique of Althusser and of Leninism more widely where the intellectual/party is the holder of revolutionary knowledge. But this critique can be extended to the entire left, where revolutionaries/activists etc have revolutionary knowledge and they only need to inform people about it.
The book however, although making an argument is structured in a unique way. It describes the emancipatory education of Joseph Jacotot, a French post-Revolutionary philosopher of education who discovered that he could teach things that he himself did not know. The book is both a history and a contemporary intervention in the philosophy and politics of education, through the concept of autodidactism; Rancière chronicles Jacotot’s “adventures,” but he articulates Jacotot’s theory of “emancipation” and “stultification” in the present tense.
This overview of the book is from The Commune. A copy of the book is available at here.