Of slumdogs and schoolmasters – new article on Jacques Rancière and Sugata Mitra

This is an article on Jacques Rancière and Sugata Mitra that I’ve just finished for the forthcoming ‘Popular Cultural Pedagogy, in Theory’ issue of Educational Philosophy and Theory, edited by Paul Bowman. Alternatively, it’s also available as a PDF on Academia.edu and Scribd

Of slumdogs and schoolmasters: Jacotot, Rancière and Mitra on self-organised learning

Richard Stamp

‘What the hell can a slumdog possibly know?’

Released with impeccable timing for the 2009 Academy Awards nominations, Slumdog Millionaire (dir. Danny Boyle & Loveleen Tandan, UK, 2008) was heralded by a flurry of media attention that seemed to make its eventual Oscar-winning success a foregone conclusion. Part of the success of the story of Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), an uneducated call centre chai wallah whose often horrific ‘adventures’ furnish him with the knowledge to answer almost every one of the questions on the TV quiz show, Who Wants to be a Millionaire, might have to do with the film’s ‘timeliness’: it’s confirmation of the global success of the Millionaire TV brand (owned by the same company, Celador, who co-financed the film) and a chance to revisit the scandal caused by the conviction of one participant, a retired British army officer, for cheating on the British version of the show; it’s testimony to the dramatic growth of the Indian economy, particularly in technology and communications sectors, contrasted both with India’s own deepening social-economic inequalities and with more ‘domestic’ British concerns over increasing ‘outsourcing’ of certain tertiary industries; it’s exemplification of a growing cross-fertilisation between Western and Asian film industries and cultures; and the more particular ‘human interest’ stories of the young actors, picked from the Dharavi slum to play the main characters in childhood, and whose earnings from the film, it was said, offered a chance of escape and the risk of exploitation.[1]

More unusually, perhaps, the film also drew attention to an otherwise invisible (in mainstream media coverage, at least) piece of academic research begun in the slums of New Delhi in 1999. The ‘Hole-in-the-Wall’ experiment, carried out by a team from NIIT led by Sugata Mitra, had originally consisted in placing an internet-connected computer in the wall of the Kalkaji slum that adjoined their office in New Delhi. The team remotely monitored the slum children’s uninstructed interactions with the computer and recorded the speed with which individuals not only acquired computer literacy skills – from the most basic operations such as clicking icons and creating folders to navigating web pages, sending email and operating different applications – but most importantly shared this new knowledge with each other (see Mitra & Rana 2001). These supposedly illiterate children had taught themselves and each other how to use a computer that operated in a language (English) they did not know.[2] They demonstrated that they were ‘able to self-instruct and to obtain help from the environment when required’, without explanation of what to do: in the words of one researcher’s diary, “NO INSTRUCTION” was the key instruction to us’ (Mitra & Rana 2001: 230, 226). In other words, these illiterate children appeared to learn without being taught.

Mitra’s ongoing pedagogical research received attention in The Guardian (Tobin 2009) and on Radio 4’s topical sociology programme, Thinking Allowed (Taylor 2009), largely thanks to its link with the novel, Q & A (2005) by Vikas Swarup, upon which Simon Beaufoy had based his Slumdog screenplay. Swarup was on record as identifying two ‘inspirations’ for his debut novel: first, he cites the fact that the UK cheat on Millionaire was a ‘well educated’ former British Army officer as the reason why he chose to focus on a contestant ‘who would definitely be accused of cheating’; and then adds (‘incidentally’) that he had also ‘come across a news report of how street children in an Indian slum had begun using a free mobile internet facility entirely on their own.’ (2006: 369) (The report, of course, was about Mitra’s ‘Hole-in-the-Wall’ experiments.) The resulting impetus for the novel is thus described as a juxtaposition of two themes: ‘a gameshow [sic.] and […] a contestant who has no formal education, who has “street” knowledge as opposed to “book” knowledge.’ (2006: 369) By recasting the ‘Hole-in-the-Wall’ research as a demonstration of ‘“street”’ rather than ‘“book”’ knowledge, Swarup’s use of a familiar distinction potentially acknowledges the (equal) worth of different ‘kinds’ of knowledge, but at the same time fixes them within an already existing hierarchical division of ‘street’ and ‘school’. But does this matter and is it at all consequential? What happens in this transition from academic research project to popular fiction and cinema?

According to Tobin (2009), Mitra’s sole complaint to Swarup about the eventual title of the film did not lie with the use of the word ‘slumdog’ – which drew comment from other quarters (see note 1, above) – but with ‘millionaire.’ Mitra would have preferred ‘Slumdog Nobel Laureate,’ which indeed captures the way in which he sees his research project as promoting social change rather than the desire for wealth. Arguably the aim of these experiments is to contest the rigid division of ‘knowledge’ by attempting to demonstrate the equal capability of so-called ‘street kids’ to exhibit ‘book learning’. It is in this respect that neither Jamal Malik nor Ram Mohammad Thomas (the first-person narrator in Q & A) identify wholly with the position of ignorance attributed to them by the authorities: ‘What the hell can a slumdog possibly know?’ the police captain asks his subordinate – ‘The answers,’ replies Jamal. In fact, the captain’s question is adapted from a far subtler one asked at the beginning of Ram’s first-person narrative, as he waits for certain arrest under suspicion of cheating:

There are those who will say that I brought this upon myself. By dabbling in that quiz show. They will wag a finger at me and remind me of what the elders in Dharavi say about never crossing the dividing line that separates the rich from the poor. After all, what business did a penniless waiter have to be participating in a brain quiz? The brain is not an organ we are authorized to use. We are supposed to use only our hands and legs. (Swarup 2005: 12)

The ontological assumption within the police captain’s question – that a certain kind of being can only possess a certain level of intellectual capability – is here elaborated more fully. In the novel, Ram emphasises the operation of social and economic institutions, the ‘dividing line[s]’ between the Dharavi’s poor and the rich of Mumbai that ‘authorize’ not only who can live where, but also who can use which ‘organ’ and for what ‘business’. The attributes of ‘stupidity’ and ‘ignorance’ are themselves effects of a particular distribution of the body, its organs, their faculties and the social roles they are made to fit. In so doing, the narrative might appear to undermine Swarup’s own distinction between ‘street’ and ‘book’ knowledge, by opening onto another way of describing the relations between education, intelligence and authority.

Against explication

In this respect, Ram’s reflection on his elders’ advice is a compact illustration of what Jacques Rancière analyses in terms of the ‘distribution of the sensible’ [‘le partage du sensible’], which he uses describe the many procedures by which forms of experience – broadly understood as the domains of what can be thought, said, felt or perceived – are divided up and shared out between legitimate and illegitimate persons and forms of activity. To borrow Peter Hallward’s succinct summary of Rancière’s ‘most basic assumption’, the equality of intelligence: ‘everyone thinks, everyone speaks […], but the prevailing division of labour and configuration of society ensures that only certain classes of people are authorized to think.’ (2005: 26) The brain – as synecdochic figure for intelligence – is not an organ that slum dwellers like Ram are ‘authorized to use.’

The import of the ‘distribution of the sensible,’ then, is that it allows us to recognise that forms of knowledge are always necessarily ‘double’: on the one hand, a form of knowledge [un savoir] ‘is an ensemble of modes of knowing [connaissances]’; and on the other, it is also ‘an organised distribution [partage] of positions.’ (Rancière 2006: 3, translation modified) It is from within just such a distribution of forms of knowledge, practice and social positions that Ram is ‘supposed’ to know his place. The means by which individuals come to know their place is a recurrent theme of Rancière’s The Philosopher and his Poor (1983 [tr. 2004]), which traces the roots of dominant forms of progressive social thought (including Marx, Sartre and Bourdieu) to their philosophical source in Plato’s theory of justice. In the manner of the allegory of the three metals in the Laws – by which Socrates explains the three orders of artisan, warrior and ruler – the sayings of the elders assign Ram’s body, actions and will a place according to the social distribution of nature and function. Like Plato’s shoemaker, his ‘business’ is that which defines not only his place, but also what he can do there: ‘All that remains for us to identify the worker is his work alone. Not his production […], but the fact that he is not to do anything else than his trade.’ (Rancière 2004: 28) On Rancière’s reading, Plato secures the divisions of the social order of the polis, which is the order of the just city, through a ‘double lie’ of nature and function: first, the shoemaker cannot be a thinker because his occupation leaves no time for philosophical thought (in other words, his nature allows him only to do one thing at a time); second, there can be no imitation, no mixing between different orders (in other words, although a shoemaker might well turn his artisan’s hand to carpentry, for they are equivalent, ‘there can be no exchange of place and function’ between either artisan and warrior or warrior and ruler (2004: 29)).[3]

Rancière’s political analysis of the distribution of the sensible (or ‘theatocracy,’ in the terminology of that book) in Plato’s account of the just state exploits two central concerns in his earlier archival study of workers’ cultural activities and education in 19th century France: the subversive possibilities of emulation that accompany a (real or imagined) movement across social borders; and the self-organised learning of those not authorised to think or speak. His extensive archival work on workers’ cultural activities in France at the end of the second Empire, published in Proletarian Nights (1981 [tr. 1989]) and a series of essays (see, for example, Rancière 1988), provoked furious reactions from some social historians when he observed that these activities focused less on articulating some authentic form of working class cultural expression and more on emulating the ostensibly bourgeois culture they encountered in cabaret and elsewhere. If the workers in their workshops dreamed of success, rather than attending to their labour, it was not in order to protest their material subjugation; instead, they used their breaks ‘to teach themselves or each other the rudiments of music and versification, so that in the end some of them could express themselves better in verse than in prose.’ (Rancière 1988: 50) In other words, as they began to ‘move around within the space of the bourgeoisie’ (1988: 47), workers taught themselves by first imitating and then improvising upon what does not, strictly speaking (in Marxist terms), belong to them.

A worker who had never learned how to write and yet tried to compose verses to suit the taste of his times was perhaps more of a danger to the prevailing ideological order than a worker who performed revolutionary songs. (Rancière 1988: 50)

But if it is a question neither of radical cultural innovation nor ‘specific working-class culture’, then what is happening here? In short: a cultural order is in the process of being ‘dis-ordered’. What Rancière calls these ‘singular apprenticeships in a common culture’ attest to ‘an uncivilized relationship with culture,’ a ‘culture in disorder’ (1988: 50) rather than an uncivilized one. The orderly allocation of capacities, places and functions is disturbed by ‘the migrants who move at the borders between classes, individuals and groups who develop capacities within themselves which are useless for the improvement of their material lives’ (1988: 50), thereby effecting a redistribution of what particular kinds of bodies and subjects can do, think, write or compose. Still couched here in an analysis of social class, Rancière’s description of these activities as a ‘cooperative school of worker-poets’ (1988: 50) prefigures one of the central concerns of his subsequent work on education: the potential for ‘universal teaching’ to allow uneducated and even illiterate individuals to teach one another what they do not know.

The potentially emancipating experience of these ‘uncivilised’ relationships with culture is most fully and explosively explored in The Ignorant Schoolmaster (1987 [trans. 1991]), which tells the story of a ‘chance revolution’ (2) experienced by maverick French pedagogue, Joseph Jacotot, in 1818. Finding himself in Louvain, speaking no Flemish yet charged with teaching students who spoke no French, Jacotot stumbled upon a paradoxical pedagogical ‘method.’ Asking his students (through an interpreter) to learn a French text – Fénelon’s Les Aventures de Télémaque (1699) – by reading it in a bilingual French-Flemish edition, and then to write what they thought about it in French, Jacotot was surprised to find that in the process they had learned how to construct French sentences by themselves, without instruction or explanation in grammar or vocabulary. Only one conclusion could be drawn: ‘they had learned by themselves, without a master explicator.’ (Rancière 1991: 11) Now, up until this point Jacotot had been a good and faithful adherent to the progressive methods for teaching, believing without question that to teach meant ‘to transmit learning and form minds simultaneously, by leading those minds, according to an ordered progression, from the most simple to the most complex.’ (Rancière 1991: 3) But this chance experiment began a new line of questioning: if it was possible to learn perfectly well without being instructed, what was the purpose of instruction and explication? Was it possible that anyone was capable of understanding any product of the intelligence of any other human being? What would be the consequences of supposing the equality of intelligence and affirming that ‘the same intelligence is at work in all acts of the human mind’ (1991: 16)?

Such questions entail further experiments in suspending the very mastery customarily assumed as the sine qua non of all pedagogy. Jacotot repeated his chance experiment by teaching subjects about which he knew nothing: painting, music – and so on. What he had stumbled upon was the circular power of emancipation:

one can teach what one doesn’t know if the student is emancipated, that is to say, if he is obliged to use his own intelligence. […] The ignorant person will learn by himself what the master doesn’t know if the master believes he can and obliges him to realise his capacity.’ (Rancière 1991: 15)

Such a ‘method’ runs counter to all good pedagogical sense, including those progressive methods that aim to nurture the intelligence of the student by proposing equality as something ‘to come’, in an ‘ordered progression’ guided by those with appropriate expertise. As Charles Bingham and Gert Biesta (2010) note in their Rancière-inspired study of emancipatory education, even the most progressive, reformist and apparently ‘critical’ approaches to pedagogy remain methods of explication (or explanation, the term they prefer). So it is not a matter of choosing a better over a worse method, a more progressive or a more conservative pedagogy: ‘The confrontation of methods presupposes a minimal agreement on the goals of the pedagogical act: the transmission of the master’s knowledge to the students.’ (Rancière 1991: 13-14) If the ‘essential act of the master was to explicate’ (1991: 3) it is because explication – this ‘myth of pedagogy’ – is also the social logic by which a world is divided up into ‘knowing minds and ignorant ones, ripe minds and immature ones, the capable and the incapable, the intelligent and the stupid’ (1991: 6). Explication thus names a particular distribution of the sensible, which Rancière describes in terms of ‘the very workings of the social world, hidden in the evident difference between ignorance and science.’ (1991: 16) For Jacotot, all explication – even the most liberal and progressive – works to preserve the gap between the master’s knowledge and the student’s ignorance, thereby reproducing the very inequality it pretended to diminish: equality is indefinitely postponed through the superiority of the master’s science. In asking his own students to read and then write about a text in a language they did not know and he did not explain to them, Jacotot had ‘dissociated’ the two faculties at play: his intelligence (in his knowledge of French) and his will (in his position as master). Without a common language of instruction, the book became the common element (the intelligence) with which the students’ intelligence could engage. The master’s domination consisted merely in obliging his students to exercise their intelligence – and in verifying that they had done so diligently.

According to Rancière, this is the fundamental distinction of Jacotot’s method from Socrates,’ in spite of their superficial resemblance: Socratic instruction through anamnesis is ‘as much the demonstration of [the pupil’s] powerlessness’ as it is that of learning (1991: 29). In contrast, Jacotot’s ignorant master interrogates ‘in order to be instructed, not to instruct’ (1991: 29). In other words, the only way to practice equality is to know no more than the student, to be an ‘ignorant master’: ‘To teach what one doesn’t know is simply to ask questions about what one doesn’t know.’ (1991: 30) That anyone can teach what they do not know, that it is possible for everyone can teach anyone anything – such is the radically egalitarian disorder that Jacotot discovers: ‘a rupture with the logic of all pedagogies’ (Rancière 1991: 13).

Thus, for Rancière, it is not that Jacotot’s is a ‘better method’ of teaching than others. It is rather a question of juxtaposing two very different conceptions of intelligence: one that stultifies (the belief that there are differences in intelligence); and one that emancipates (the opinion that there is only one intelligence). It is not even a question of proving that all intelligence is equal, since intelligence cannot be measured in isolation from what it produces – its acts and effects.

There aren’t two sorts of minds. There is inequality in the manifestations of intelligence by the will for discovering and combining new relations; but there is no hierarchy of intellectual capacity. Emancipation is becoming conscious of this equality of nature. This is what opens the way to all adventure in the land of knowledge. (Rancière 1991: 26-7)

If we can only know intelligence by its effects, its different manifestations, then the task of the researcher is ‘reduced to multiplying the experiments inspired by that opinion’ in order to see ‘what can be done under that supposition’ (Rancière 1991: 46). It is an opinion, not a fact. The equality of intelligence, as Rancière variously repeats, is only the ‘point of departure, a supposition to maintain in every circumstance,’ to be demonstrated and verified ‘always and everywhere’ (1991: 138). (By the same token, of course, the inegalitarian belief in the inherent differences between intelligences – in spite of the considerable efforts of phrenologists, legislators and social psychologists – remains an opinion measurable only in its (stultifying) effects.) The ignorant are not to be defined through lack of knowledge, but through their enforced ‘stultification’ by which they are made to believe their own inferiority. According to Jacotot/Rancière, children are not stultified by this or that procedure, but by an explicatory order that tells them that they can’t do it by themselves – and that the master is the required condition of their learning. For if what emancipates is the supposition that ‘the same intelligence is at work in all the acts of the human mind’ and that everyone is already ‘virtually capable’ understanding what another intelligence has produced, what stultifies is ‘not the lack of instruction, but the belief in the inferiority of their intelligence.’ (Rancière 1991: 16, 39) It is for this reason that Rancière consistently argues that there is no difference or hierarchy in intellectual capacity, merely differences in its manifestation: a task performed with greater or lesser attention, in this or that context, and so on. But there is nothing novel in this most familiar of all ‘methods.’ Indeed, as Rancière quickly points out, it is the one ‘practiced by necessity by everyone,’ every time we have to learn something without instruction (a native language, for example): the ‘difficult leap’ occasioned by Jacotot’s universal teaching is simply the methodical repetition of this ‘method of chance’ or ‘nature’ (1991: 16). It is the will with which one applies an intelligence that makes the difference.

To return to our example, the narrative circuit of the film (and the novel, in spite of differences in character and location) rests on the replay-and-pause of a video recording of the TV show, which consists of repeated attempts to verify Jamal’s intelligence – the very capacity that a ‘slumdog’ like him is not ‘authorized to use.’ The circuit opens with the intertitle that run through the opening intercut shots of Slumdog Millionaire, mimicking the multiple choice question format of the quiz show:

Mumbai, 2006

Jamal Malik is one question away from winning 20 million rupees.

How did he do it?

A: He cheated

B: He’s lucky

C: He’s a genius

D: It is written

As the videotape replay triggers Jamal’s own memory of the happenstance events that have furnished him with the answers to precisely these questions, it becomes demonstrably clear that he is neither cheat nor genius, nor particularly lucky (at least no more or less than anyone else). Nothing differentiates him other than a determined will to be reunited with Latika (Freida Pinto), which opens onto the familiar narrative territory where chance and fate are indistinguishable. This looping narrative circuit is finally closed when the police captain, forced to admit the ‘bizarre’ plausibility of Jamal’s story and to verify that although most ‘slumdog chai wallahs’ are liars Jamal is ‘too truthful,’ releases him from custody to return to the television studio and face his final question.

The ‘will to figure out’

So just who is the ‘ignorant master’? In the first instance, this title refers to Joseph Jacotot, as ‘the Founder’ of this peculiar non-method that he calls ‘universal teaching’. But the immediate consequence of this method is that anyone can do it; in fact, everyone has already practiced it insofar as they have learned something without being instructed. Anyone can be an ignorant master. To practice universal teaching, it suffices merely ‘to learn something and to relate it to all the rest by this principle: all men have equal intelligence.’ (Rancière 1991: 18) In other words: to become emancipated by recognizing that the same intelligence is at work in everything. The task for Jacotot is not to raise up the ignorant by imparting knowledge – in other words, it is not to educate the poor – but rather to emancipate by obliging an intelligence to manifest itself. In other words, the paramount problem is ‘to reveal an intelligence to itself’ so that an ignorant person can ‘believe himself capable of learning by himself’ (Rancière 1991: 27, 16).

This is why the relation of will and intelligence is so central for Jacotot. If ‘man is a will served by an intelligence’, it is because there is no meaning without the effort of will (1991: 54). Rancière recounts the three stages by which Jacotot defines an act of intelligence: first, ‘to see and compare what has been seen’ (as a result of chance); then, ‘to repeat, to create the conditions to re-see what has been seen’; and finally to ‘form words, sentences, and figures, in order to tell others what has been seen’ (1991: 55). The work of exercising intelligence is thus carried out through the repetition commanded by a will – and repetition, he reminds us, is boring. The demonstration of equality thus requires an infinite vigilance, whose vertiginous demand can just as easily give way to ‘laziness’ of inequality, ‘where each person receives a superiority in exchange for the inferiority he confesses to.’ (1991: 80) In other words, as Jacotot himself puts it in 1838: ‘Idiocy is not a faculty; it is the absence or the slumber or the relaxation of [intelligence]’ (cited Rancière 1991: 55).

One might suspect Jacotot (and Rancière) of sliding towards a form of voluntarism at this point, yet there is nothing expedient about his method. The scene he describes is less the assertion of power than it is the process of self-reflection by which one ‘reasonable being’ comes to know himself in assuming his equality with everyone else. If Jacotot allocates the source of error to the lack of will rather than to its presence (pace Descartes) it is because what lies at the heart of universal teaching is a ‘situation of communication between two reasonable beings’ (Rancière 1991: 63). Since it is language that is arbitrary and not the will, the thought of one person is always told and translated ‘for someone else,’ who must in turn retell and retranslate it, not in order to ‘unveil’ the truth of the thing but to ‘figure out’ the will of the other: ‘the will to communicate, the will to figure out [la volonté de deviner] what the other is thinking, […] under no guarantee beyond his narration, no universal dictionary to dictate what must be understood.’ (1991: 62) In other words, each will figures out the other through a process of translation and counter-translation between thought and language that recalls Jacotot’s very first ‘chance’ experiment, whereby the ‘relation between two ignorant people confronting the book they don’t know how to read is simply a radical form of the effort one brings every minute to translating and counter-translating thoughts into words and words into thoughts.’ (Rancière 1991: 63) Another way of affirming that it is the same intelligence at work in all acts of human intelligence.

But is positing this will to figure out sufficient to account for the acquisition of complex or even contested forms of knowledge? This is a question put forcefully by Peter Hallward when he asks whether Rancière’s radical critique of explication risks over-simplification insofar as it relies upon Jacotot’s insistence that all learning is ‘merely a question (in human societies) of understanding and speaking a language’ (cited Rancière 1991: 37): ‘To what extent is it possible to avoid recourse to the economy of explanation in fields of knowledge that are less accessible, less “ready-to-hand” than those of natural languages – fields like quantum physics or neurology, for instance?’ (Hallward 2005: 41) He is certainly justified in questioning the reliance on language learning as the presumed model for all learning. Is the explicatory model of pedagogy so easily separable from more abstract, theoretical subjects? Furthermore, behind his question lies another: to what extent might the egalitarianism of ‘learning on your own’ be simply confined to an individual’s imagination, rather than focused and organised into a social movement? In other words: if the act of the teacher has nothing to do with the content of his knowledge, what hope is there for communicating better the forms of expertise involved in more complex bodies of knowledge, perhaps even emancipatory (political) ones?

Concealed within these critical questions is a scepticism that ‘universal teaching’ might suit elementary forms of education (language acquisition, literacy and numeracy skills, tool-based learning) and those for whom such education would be ‘required’ – the very young, the illiterate, and so on – but is ill-suited to the demands of more complex, ‘higher-level’ learning. These are the very same questions faced by Jacotot in his own lifetime and Rancière’s response to them returns us to the axis of stultification and emancipation. It is not, he argues, a question of refusing to make own hard-won knowledge and valuable expertise available to others:

We can certainly use our status as legitimate ‘transmitters’ to put our knowledge at others’ disposal. I’m constantly doing it. But what is ‘stultifying’ from a Jacotist perspective is the will to anticipate the way in which they will grasp what we put at their disposal. (2011: 245)

To be emancipatory requires a master to rigorously dissociate his or her knowledge from a position of mastery, understood as ‘the effect his will can have upon the actions of his pupil’ (2011: 244). Jacotot and Rancière say this same thing many times and in many ways: the teacher can either transmit knowledge or emancipate – the two functions are incompatible.

But perhaps the more concrete way of answering Hallward’s question is to turn to the increasingly Rancièrean parallels in most recent of Mitra’s experiments with self-organised learning systems. The theoretical background to the first ‘Hole-in-the-Wall’ experiments (1999-2004) was always explicitly constructivist, focusing on aspects of play and exploration as forms of ‘self-structured and self-motivated processes of learning’ (Mitra & Rana 2001: 224). They describe the approach at this early stage in quasi-surgical terms as ‘minimally invasive education’ (Mitra & Rana 2001: 221), by which they indicate that – like Jacotot’s experiments in universal teaching – no explanation or instruction was offered: ‘None of the questions [asked by the children] were answered with any instructional sentence.’ (2001: 226) In all of the documented experiments, the children are never given explanations of how to do something; they are simply asked what they think of something, or in some instances given factual questions (‘Who was Pythagoras?’) to research using internet-based resources (Mitra 2010). Yet just as important is an emphasis on collaborative learning, which the children demonstrate that they are not only ‘able to self-instruct’ as a group, but also to ‘obtain help from the environment when required’ (which included making use of available expertise in the slum, such as a youth with some knowledge of computer software).

The most notable development after the original ‘Hole-in-the-Wall’ experiments that inspired Q & A and Slumdog Millionaire has been an interrogation of the limits of the kinds of self-organising learning systems exhibited in that earlier research. As detailed by Mitra and Dangwal (2010), their research questions have shifted the territory from testing the acquisition of computer literacy skills (tool learning) to more abstract and less ‘ready-to-hand’ (see Hallward 2005) fields of knowledge. In an echo of Jacotot’s first experiments, Mitra’s team in 2007 asked a group of Tamil-speaking children from a remote south Indian village (Kalikuppam) ‘to learn basic molecular biology in English on their own’ using a version of the familiar Hole-in-the-Wall device (Mitra & Dangwal 2010: 673). The explicit objective of the Kalikuppam experiment was to set the children an ‘impossible target’: to give them access to ‘difficult’ material on molecular biology, in a language they did not speak (English) and ask them what they made of it. Left on their own for two months, without external help or instruction, the researchers felt that surely this task would demonstrate that ‘yes, we need teachers for certain things’ (Mitra 2010). Indeed, after two months, when Mitra asked them what they understood of molecular biology, the children confirmed that they understood nothing. What gets the biggest laugh at Mitra’s numerous talks, however, is the response of one girl from the group, who explained: ‘Apart from the fact that improper replication of the DNA molecule causes genetic disease, we understood nothing else.’ (2010) Nevertheless, the group scored 30% on the paper (Mitra & Dangwal 2010). This result is below a pass, but still remarkable: indeed, according to one reviewer of the cited research paper when it was first submitted for publication, these scores were ‘too good to be true’ (Mitra 2010). But instead of concluding that only a qualified teacher, or expert, could improve this result, they posed a further, most Jacotot-resonant research question: ‘Could a friendly mediator with no knowledge of the subject improve the performance of these village children?’ (Mitra & Dangwal 2010: 674)

In a remote region, where the absence of good, qualified teachers was one of the factors prompting the ‘Hole-in-the-Wall’ project, the role of ‘friendly mediators’ might be filled by parents, grandparents or other trusted adults. The role consists of praising and encouraging, rather than instructing: what the authors call ‘a “grandparent” model of encouragement, using phrases such as “I wish I could do that!”, “how on earth did you figure that out?”’ (Mitra & Dangwal 2010: 680). Whoever they are, according to Mitra and Dangwal, they are ‘not likely to be trained to teach, nor are they likely to have any specific subject knowledge… they may even be illiterate.’ (2010: 674) They would be, in other words, ignorant masters! In this instance, a young woman in Kalikuppam, who was liked by the children and nervous of her own lack of subject knowledge, was recruited to encourage and urge on the group. Once again in parallel with the role of Jacotot’s ignorant master, whose purpose is solely to verify that the students exercised their ‘will to figure out’ what the master does not know, the result is that ‘the children taught her.’ (Mitra & Dangwal 2010: 674) After another two months working in groups under the encouragement of their ‘ignorant mediator,’ the test scores rose to 51% (comparable to peers in New Delhi’s privileged private schools). The demonstrable impact of Mitra’s ‘friendly, but not knowledgeable, mediator’ (2010: 683) thus returns us to the question of what it is, exactly, that an ignorant master does? First, she teaches what he does not know; but also (and perhaps more importantly) she dissociates two functions (and faculties) that are bound up in all forms of pedagogy – her knowledge (intelligence) and her mastery (will).

For Mitra, the results of these experiments verify his thesis that a ‘self-organising system of learning’ might not only alleviate the considerable pressures upon limited educational resources in a rapidly developing and massively inequitable society (2010: 683). But they also require us to revisit Jacotot’s own experiments in emancipatory education under the presupposition of the equality of intelligence, which, as Rancière never ceases to point out, only ever ‘point of departure, a supposition to maintain in every circumstance,’ whose implications can only be demonstrated and verified in always specific practical experiments.[4] This urgency of emancipation is why it might matter, to us all and not just to Mitra or Rancière, that an Oscar-winning film could not have been called Slumdog Nobel Laureate.


Bingham, Charles & Gert Biesta (2010), Jacques Rancière: Education, Truth, Emancipation. London & New York: Continuum.

Citton, Yves (2010), ‘“The ignorant schoolmaster:” knowledge and authority,’ Jacques Rancière: Key Concepts, ed. J.-P. Deranty. Durham: Acumen, 25-37.

Dangwal, Ritu, Swati Jha & Preeti Kapur (2006), ‘Impact of Minimally Invasive Education on children: an Indian perspective,’ British Journal of Educational Technology, 37(2): 295-298.

Hallward, Peter (2005), ‘Jacques Rancière and the Subversion of Mastery,’ Paragraph 28(1): 26-45.

Juluri, Vamsee (2010), ‘Indophobia: The Real Elephant in the Living Room’ [online], Huffington Post, 8 January 2010. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/vamsee-juluri/indophobia-the-real-eleph_b_415237.html

Kinetz, Erika (2009), ‘Mumbai residents object to “Slumdog” title’ [online], USA Today (Associated Press), 22 January. Available at: http://www.usatoday.com/life/movies/news/2009-01-22-slugdog-mumbai-protest_N.htm

Mitra, Sugata (2007), ‘Can kids teach themselves?’ LIFT Conference, Geneva. Video recording. Available at: http://www.ted.com/talks/podtv/id/175

— (2010), ‘The child-driven education’, TED Talks, 7 September. Video recording. Available at: http://www.ted.com/talks/podtv/id/949

Mitra, Sugata & Ritu Dangwal (2010), ‘Limits to self-organising systems of learning – the Kalikuppam experiment,’ British Journal of Educational Technology, 41(5): 672–688.

Mitra, Sugata & Vivek Rana (2001), ‘Children and the Internet: Experiments with minimally invasive education in India’, British Journal of Educational Technology, 32(2): 221-232.

Power, Nina (2009), ‘Axiomatic equality: Rancière and the politics of contemporary education’ [online], Polygraph 21. Available at: http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2010-07-01-power-en.html

Rancière, Jacques (1988), ‘Good times or pleasure at the barriers,’ Voices of the People: The Social Life of ‘La Sociale’ at the End of the Second Empire, ed. A. Rifkin & R. Thomas, trans. J. Moore. London & New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 45-94.

— (1989 [1981]), The Nights of Labor: The Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth-Century France. Trans. J. Drury. Philadelphia: Temple UP.

— (1991 [1987]), The Ignorant Schoolmaster. Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. Trans. K. Ross. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

— (2004 [1983]), The Philosopher and His Poor. Durham & London: Duke University Press.

— (2006), ‘Thinking between disciplines: An aesthetics of knowledge’ [online], Parrhesia 1: 1-12. Available at: http://www.parrhesiajournal.org/parrhesia01/parrhesia01_ranciere.pdf

— (2010), ‘On Ignorant Schoolmasters,’ in Bingham, Charles & Gert Biesta, Jacques Rancière: Education, Truth, Emancipation. London & New York: Continuum, 1-16.

— (2011), ‘Against an Ebbing Tide: An Interview with Jacques Rancière,’ Reading Rancière: Critical Dissensus, ed. P. Bowman & R. Stamp. London & New York: Continuum, 238-251.

Rancière, Jacques & Nina Power (2010), ‘Interview with Jacques Rancière’ [online], Ephemera: theory & politics in organization, 10(1): 77-81. Available at: http://www.ephemeraweb.org/journal/10-1/10-1rancierepower.pdf

Rifkin, Adrian (2005), ‘Il y a des mots qu’on souhaiterait ne plus lire,’ Paragraph 28(1): 96-109.

Ross, Kristin (1991), ‘Rancière and the Practice of Equality,’ Social Text 29.

Sellars, John (2003), ‘Simon the Shoemaker and the problem of Socrates,’ Classical Philology 98: 207-16.

Swarup, Vikas (2006), Q & A. London: Black Swan.

Taylor, Laurie (2009), Thinking Allowed. BBC Radio 4, transmitted 21 January. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/factual/thinkingallowed/thinkingallowed_20090121.shtml

Tobin, Lucy (2009), ‘Slumdog professor,’ The Guardian, Tuesday 3 March. Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2009/mar/03/professor-sugata-mitra

Zakaria, Fareed (2009), ‘Slum Voyeurism?’ [online], Newsweek, 29 January. Available at: http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2009/01/29/slum-voyeurism.html


Slumdog Millionaire (2008). Directed by Danny Boyle & Loveleen Tandan, UK, FilmFour/Celador Films.


[1] The film provoked a range of critical responses both from within India and the Indian diaspora that its representations of slum life and Indian society more widely rested upon Western stereotypes, or even ‘Indophobia’ (see Juluri 2010). In addition to Indian tourist board complaints that the familiar (even ‘Dickensian’) ‘rags to riches’ narrative peddled ‘poverty porn,’ or that its barely partial glimpses of the religious complexity of Indian society offended some conservative Hindu groups, the most widespread complaint concerned what some saw as the defamatory use of the word ‘slumdog.’ According to an AP/USA Today report, protests by Dharavi community groups against the film’s screening in Indian cinemas were accompanied by placards proclaiming: ‘I am not a Slumdog. I am the Future of India.’ (USA Today 2009 – see also Boyle’s response to this claim in Zakaria 2009) That this protest takes place over the name ‘slumdog’ underlines the importance of the film’s social and historical (colonial-postcolonial) contexts, as Juluri (2010) points out: ‘Why does Slumdog Millionaire, one of the most exhilarating movies of our time, depict the majority of Indian characters in it as irredeemably cruel and barbaric (not the nice Indian hero with the British accent though, of course not)? Why did the fictional slur “slumdog” and the image of poverty reportedly figure so often in the Australian attacks?’ The complex processes of postcolonial subjectification (Rancière’s term) at work between novel, film and audiences – including those of the film’s first UK terrestrial screening on Channel 4, which was accompanied by a range of linked programming, such as Kevin McCloud: Slumming It (2 episodes, broadcast 14-15 January 2010) and Slumdog Secret Millionaire (broadcast 18 January 2010) – would entail quite another paper! (All sources cited here are taken an excellent overview of these issues on the Wikipedia entry, ‘Controversial issues surrounding Slumdog Millionaire,’ available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Controversial_issues_surrounding_Slumdog_Millionaire.)

[2] In a public talk on his work archived on TED, Mitra (2009) reports that when they were asked how they had managed to use resources on a computer in a language they did not know, the children in one such experiment replied: ‘You left a machine that only speaks English. So we had to learn English.’

[3] Socrates returns as the central figure against which Rancière defines Jacotot’s ignorant mastery. In this respect, it is worth noting, with Nina Power, that ‘[p]erhaps Rancière is a little harsh on Socrates’ (2009: 2). Her caution is given weight in John Sellars argument that the Cynics considered the historical person of Simon the shoemaker ‘the most authentic Socratic’ (2003: 215) for his exemplification of self-sufficiency and freedom of speech. As ever, there is more than one Socrates…

[4] In a recent interview with Nina Power (2010: 3), Rancière offers a brief sketch of his own view of the egalitarian effects of the internet, which he describes as ‘a living refutation of a pedagogical model of “the good way,”’ citing the ease with which users can pass from one link to another and from the superficial to the complex, in parallel with Mitra’s conclusions from his continuing experiments in ‘self-organised learning’.


1 Comment

Filed under Papers

One response to “Of slumdogs and schoolmasters – new article on Jacques Rancière and Sugata Mitra

  1. Came across this while looking for critiques of Sugata Mitra’s ideas, and read through this very interesting article, waiting to get to the point of criticism. There wasn’t one. I was surprised. SM can seem to have a radical approach to education, but in practice his approach suits the prevailing system very well (learners immersed in shiny tech, encouraged to think that education is about answering questions, assuming that knowledge is information, and intelligence is the ability to find and process information). Two roads are opened up for the slumdog: that of scientist and that of entrepreneur. I don’t see the challenge to a stultifying social order. A radically democratic form of schooling, on the other hand, might provide a model of a very different kind of society, and growing up in that might help children believe that society should be other than it is. But to argue for the need for that kind of schooling you would need to have an elaborate pedagogy. As far as I can see, SM doesn’t have that.

    I have tried to develop a shorter and snappier critique of Professor Sugata Mitra here: http://tornhalves.blogspot.it/2012/08/prof-sugata-mitra-and-enemies-within.html

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s