Thursday, March 12, 2009
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.