Thursday, March 12, 2009

Slumdog Accountability

Originally, I was going to write a piece on “slumdog epistemology”, but then I read this: The-story-of-Slumdog-Millionaire-decoded . . . and there you have it.

Writing for an Indian readership, Jaimini Mehta notes that the epistemological questions that Slumdog Millionaire raises about “the contextual nature of acquisition of knowledge . . . are of particular relevance now in light of the Prime Minister’s stated objective of moving towards a knowledge economy and knowledge based society”. One might say the same thing of the United States, where talk of emergence from this recession often turns to our own need to become a more knowledge-based economy, to strengthen education for the sake of economic advancement.

In case you missed the movie or Mehta’s analysis, Slumdog Millionaire’s hero, an impoverished young man with a heart of gold, aces an extremely high stakes test – a game show, which wins him 20 million rupees and the woman he loves – by knowing the answers to trivia questions. His knowledge comes not from school, which he barely attended, but from experiences in which that bit of trivia had riveting importance. School neither served him nor failed him (bracketing for now school’s failure to include him); he simply wasn’t there. The movie makes a clear and compelling link between experience, narrative, and learning, one that progressive educators, Dewey and others, might applaud.

But, one might ask, who was accountable for this knowledge? If our “slumdog millionaire” hero Jamal did so well on a high stakes test with no schooling, who deserves the credit? After all, if that’s how we’re to reach a knowledge economy, surely we might learn some lessons from Jamal’s unschooled education.

Slumdog Millionaire is called a “fairy-tale”. Accountability – who or what accounts for Jamal’s knowledge -- shows this to be exactly the case. The movie poses this as a mock game show question -- how did he win? -- to which the correct answer is “destiny”. Destiny is accountable, the movie tries to tell us. Yet if that were really the case, the movie would be far less interesting, the characters less compelling. Rather, I think Jamal wins love and money because of the kind of personal qualities that always advance fairy tale heroes and heroines towards happy outcomes. He is compassionate and loyal. He is persistent, clever, and a sort of “wise child”, savvy but sweetly innocent. He is sometimes hindered by these qualities; throughout the middle of the film, his more calculating and power-hungry brother seems to be the one getting ahead, but in the end, Jamal’s goodness wins him powerful allies who give him the crucial tools he needs.

Compare Cinderella, Snow White, and the whole multitude of other fairy tale characters. Same story, same type of characters. One might say of Slumdog Millionaire, as Bruno Bettleheim famously said of classic fairy tales, that it captures our attention because on a deep level it rings true.

Yes and no. Yes, children trying to survive in social contexts where the adults refuse to take responsibility for their care do need such qualities. But real children for whom society does not hold itself accountable are unlikely ever to develop those traits. How could someone so utterly brutalized by social circumstances remain consistently kind, compassionate, loyal and persistent? Psychology tells us character develops otherwise. Children who see the murders of those they love, who experience betrayal, poverty, and violence over and over, who are over-worked and given little time for play, are unlikely to turn out like Jamal (or Cinderella).

If we really want children to learn and grow to be citizens of a new, knowledge based economic order, then, we had better pay close attention not only to what children know but to how we treat them. (Education scholars have made this point elsewhere, but it has yet to win any of them 8 Academy Awards.) Fairy tales are able to ignore certain psychological realities. Prime ministers and education policy makers should not.


Sejal said...

Nicely said, Amy!

Anonymous said...

I found myself unable to like the film of Slumdog Millionaire very much, because its premise seemed to go beyond magic realism to pure silliness. If I think of it as a fairy tale it may sit better -- the idea of "destiny" is anathema to me, but in a fairy tale it could be allowed, I suppose.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing Amy! I'll be using these--both pieces--in my fall course if you don't mind. I'm also adding them to a file that I'm building on why the focus on education is the wrong focus. I am more and more convinced that until we deal with our inhumane web of social policies--housing, food, transportation, health care, crime--we are never going to live up to the possibilities of public education. The concepts of possibility and promise are things that I picked up from Obama. Pre-Obama I was more likely to talk about American mythology than American promise, but I can get on the positive train.

Whit Fletcher said...

There were many messages in Slumdog, certainly the vast disparity of social classes in India was brought to our attention. What I loved the most was the way Jamal believed in himself, some here have described this as his destiny. A destiny guided by the destined, perhaps? In our desire to craft policies which address macro social issues , let's be sure we don't overlook the power of individuals. Heroes do inspire.

Michael said...

I found this googling "Slumdog Millionaire fairy tale Snow White", it is always nice to find someone you know via random searches on the internet :)

I completely agree with your synopsis, and how this story is not based in reality, but instead through a fictional narrative. It would be nice if the human spirit could develop, as you put it "consistently kind, compassionate, loyal and persistent" without outside influence, but unfortunately it is not how our psychology, or the real world behaves. If stories like this were true: if compassion, kindness et. all were all coded in our brain through some ingrained instinct, there would not be a multi-billion dollar psychological industry. It is important to make this point, because this IS a fictional story. Too many people would come to the conclusion (after watching the movie) psychological character traits are ingrained, not taught. You succinctly summed it up in your last 2 sentences. . .

"Fairy tales are able to ignore certain psychological realities. Prime ministers and education policy makers should not."

I could not have said it better myself. Great Job!!! (P.S. hope Noah and the kids are doing great!)