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Critique: The Truman Show using Experience & Education

This paper was written for my Master of Education degree. It uses concepts from John Dewey’s book Experience & Education to critique the movie The Truman Show.

Quotes from the John Dewey book are indented. A reflection of the movie based on that quote follows.

Chapter 1: Traditional vs. Progressive Education

Mankind likes to think in terms of extreme opposites. It is given to formulating its beliefs in terms of Eithers-Ors, between which it recognizes no intermediate possibilities.

Truman cannot even fathom that the world around him is make believe. It is either real or it is fake, but to be fake would be beyond his comprehension. Conversely, everyone in his world knows they are a made-up world for just one person who is oblivious to their task, so they cannot fathom the or perspective of Truman discovering otherwise. Lauren (played by Sylvia) was the first inkling of an intermediate possibility in the library when she told Truman she can’t talk to him. On the beach, she hinted that everything was made for him, and that nothing is real. Suddenly, her “father” took her away, and Truman longed to see Lauren again.

When external authority is rejected, it does not follow that all authority should be rejected, but rather that there is a need to search for a more effective search for authority.

After Truman crashes the boat into the dome of the sky and discovers the exit into the outside world, he decides to reject Christof’s authority on his life. He sets out on his purpose, to live a real life, and to find the object of his desire. He does not discount the authority he will find on the real world, but only that of the world he has lived in so far.

Yet I am sure that you will appreciate what is meant when I say that many of the newer schools tend to make little or nothing of organized subject-matter of study; to proceed as if any form of direction and guidance by adults were an invasion of individual freedom, and as if the idea that education should be concerned with the present and future meant that acquaintance with the past has little or no role to play in education.

Was Truman free? To present the appearance that he was living a natural life, I’m sure his routines and daily happenings felt like he had his own free will and choices, but they were subjected to the cast and guidance of the producer and control room staff. Truman was hardly free at all. His father was taken away from him; all he had was the present. There was no past, there was no future.

Freedom of Learner

Chapter 2: The Need of a Theory of Experience

Just as no man lives or dies to himself, so no experience lives and dies to itself. Wholly independent of desire or intent, every experience lives on in further experiences. Hence the central problem of an education based upon experience is to select the kind of present experiences that live fruitfully and creatively in subsequent experiences.

Truman was terribly afraid of water. He couldn’t go on a boat or cross a bridge. This was a result of the past experience of losing his father at sea in a boating accident—a fabricated experience to shape Truman’s development. This past experience surfaced again when his father reappeared unexpectedly on set as a homeless man in broad daylight. Christof then staged a reunion between Truman and his father in a dramatic nighttime scene with fog and lighting.

The philosophy in question is, to paraphrase the saying of Lincoln about democracy, one of education of, by, and for experience. No one of these words, of, by, or for, names anything which is self-evident. Each of them is a challenge to discover and put into operation a principle of order and organization which follows from understanding what educative experience signifies.

Why did The Truman Show television show exist? What was its purpose? Christof says it’s “a television show that gives hope and joy and inspiration to millions.” The Truman Show movie opens with Christof’s line, “We’ve become bored with watching actors give us phony emotions. We are tired of pyrotechnics and special effects. While the world he inhabits is, in some respects, counterfeit, there’s nothing fake about Truman himself. No scripts, no cue cards. It isn’t always Shakespeare, but it’s genuine. It’s a life.” Was the show created to give Truman an experience? To give the world an experience? Was it a cruel experiment to put a newborn in front of a live television camera? The Truman that walked out of The Truman Show television set at the end of The Truman Show movie would not be the same Truman had he not been through the experiences gained throughout his life under the dome. He wouldn’t have met Sylvia playing Lauren. He wouldn’t have desired to travel to Fiji after the travel agent obstructed his trip plans. I wonder who Truman would have been if another child had been born at just the right time and had become the star.

Chapter 3: Criteria of Experience

The mature person, to put it in moral terms, has no right to withhold from the young on given occasions whatever capacity for sympathetic understanding his own experience has given him.

Truman’s experience was a fabrication in a dome by a cast of characters. These actors came from an outside world and acted according to a script for the purpose of creating an experience for a man who had no prior outside experience.

A divided world, a world whose parts and aspects do not hang together, is at once a sign and a cause of a divided personality. When the splitting-up reaches a certain point, we call the person insane. A fully integrated personality. On the other hand, exists only when successive experiences are integrated with one another. It can be built up only as a world of related objects is constructed.

Did Truman go insane at any point? I believe he started to see his fabricated world unravel before his eyes: the stage light dropped from the sky (which was described as part of plane); his father appeared, but whisked away on a bus; his wife’s cocoa commercial; the missing elevator; the bus driver that couldn’t drive a bus; the forest fire that was just a line of fire; the cop at the nuclear plant accident evacuation that knew his name.

Those to whom the provided conditions were suitable managed to learn. Others got on the best they could. Responsibility for selecting objective conditions carries with it, then, the responsibility for understanding the needs and capacities of the individuals who are learning at a given time.

Truman was the sole person for whom conditions were provided for. Everything on The Truman Show (the show that American tuned in to) was created so that Truman believe he was living a normal, daily live. When he encountered Lauren in the school (played by Sylvia, who called into the show later), that was not part of the script. The plot called for Truman to meet Meryl (played by Hannah, the real-life actress Laura Linney), so the encounter between Truman and Lauren was intercepted, and Lauren was removed from the show.

“Usually, a group of youngsters change the rules by which they play only when the adult group to which they look for models have themselves made a change in the rules, which the change made by the elders is at least supposed to conduce making the game more skillful or more interesting to spectators.”

The youngsters in this case were the actors that made up Truman’s world. They had ear pieces and listened to cues and changes called for by the adult group known as the production staff and control room staff. This was first seen when Truman was in the car and heard the production team talking on the car radio. They told all actors (youngsters) to switch to an alternate channel… to change the rules… to make the game (Truman’s life) more skillful for the spectators, the viewers watching The Truman Show on their television.

Stated the other way around, those who take part do not feel they are bossed by an individual person or are being subjected to the will of some outside superior person.

However, Truman’s world was not like this. His community was filled with actors who were bossed around, and Christof, the producer, was the outside superior person.

It may seem to be putting too heavy a load upon a single case to argue that this instance illustrates the general principle of social control of individuals without the violation of freedom.

Was Truman Free?

The conclusion is that in what are called the new schools, the primary source of social control resides in the very nature of the work done as a social enterprise in which all individuals have an opportunity to contribute and to which all feel a responsibility.

The social enterprise and social control in Truman’s world is the work done by the cast, crew, and script provided by Christof. Their responsibility is to contribute to produce a world in which Truman feels naturally a part of yet is unaware of a reality created just for him. Since Truman became a part of this world at birth, he is oblivious to its meaning to him. Sylvia’s role as Lauren is the first glitch in Truman’s world that gives him a hint that something may be different. “Fiji” becomes a keyword later in the film.

A genuine community life has its ground in the natural sociability. But community life does not organize itself in an enduring way purely spontaneously. It requires thought and planning ahead. The educator is responsible for a knowledge of individuals and for a knowledge of subject-matter that will enable activities to be select which will lend themselves to social organization, an organization in which all individuals have an opportunity to contribute something, and in which the activities in which all participate are the chief carrier of control.

The producer and creator of The Truman Show (the internal show that the world tuned into on their televisions) created a world even before Truman was born. Truman was chosen, in fact, because of the time of his birth. From that point on, every minute of every day of his life was televised, and everyone and everything that happened occurred under the dome that made up his world. This structure, that largest sound stage ever created, was Truman’s universe, and everything that happened within it was organized according to Christof’s wishes.

There are likely to be some who, when they come to school, are already victims of injurious conditions outside of school and who have become so passive and unduly docile that they fail to contribute. There will be others who, because of previous experience, are bumptious and unruly and perhaps downright rebellious.

Lauren, played by Sylvia, was removed by the show, when she broke from the plans for Truman, and told him of the grand scheme going on about him. They went to the beach, and her “father” appeared to take her off to Fiji. Truman, then, was destined to meet and marry Meryl (aka Hannah, played by Laura Linney). Truman forever longed for Lauren; he kept her red sweater in the basement, and even once tried to book a trip to Fiji when he was going “insane.”

The planning must be flexible enough to permit free play for individuality of experience and yet firm enough to give direction towards continuous development of power.

Truman must feel like he is free to live his life and experience what he believes to be a real life always throughout his growth and development. However, the producer of the show must maintain control over the course of the broadcast, so the show’s purpose and plot do not go off course towards the longer-term goal of what he had planned: an on-air conception of a child between Truman and Meryl.

The Nature of Freedom

The commonest mistake made about freedom is, I think, to identify it with freedom of movement, or with the external or physical side of activity. Now, this external and physical side of activity cannot be separated from the internal side of activity; from freedom of thought, desire, and purpose.

Truman never stopped thinking about Lauren. Her red sweater was kept stored secretly away in a trunk in the basement. He dreamed of Fiji, where “Lauren’s father” whisked her away to from the beach. Truman continually tries to create an image of Lauren with magazine cutouts. Eventually this internal activity catches up and he goes “insane” and his physical activity breaks free. He recognizes a cycle in the activity passing by his driveway as he sits in the car. He recognizes the traffic. He and Meryl go for an unexpected drive and break free across the bridge over the water.

It is easy to jump out of the frying-pan into the fire. It is easy, in other words, to escape one form of external control only to find oneself in another and more dangerous form of external control.

Truman overcomes his fear of water, a fear created when he “lost” his father to sea as a young child in a boating “accident.” When he sails out into the water, Christof utilizes the weather control system to stage a drastic storm in an attempt to scare Truman back to shore. This dangerous form of external control on the part of the producer fails, and Truman sails on until his boat rams into the “end of the world” as we know it. And Truman feels fine.

Chapter 6: The Meaning of Purpose

Plato once defined a slave as the person who executes the purposes of another, and as has just been said, a person is also a slave who is enslaved to his own blind desires.

The actors in The Truman Show television show, including Hannah Gill who plays Truman’s wife Meryl, have one purpose: to create a reality for Truman. When Truman is going “insane”, Hannah breaks character and exclaims, “How can someone work under these conditions!” Truman finds that awkward. Hannah is a slave. When Truman goes to find Meryl (Hannah) at work, he’s told she’s in surgery. He breaks through to the operating room to find a series of actors pretending to be in surgery. They are slaves. Christof, the producer, is also a slave to his own desires. He wants The Truman Show television show to be a blockbuster hit that continues to live up to his dreams and desires, and breaks down boundaries of what can be done on television.

A genuine purpose always starts with an impulse. Obstruction of the immediate execution of an impulse converts it into a desire. Nevertheless neither impulse nor desire is itself a purpose. A purpose is an end-view. That is, it involves foresight of the consequences which will result from acting up impose.

Truman does not find his purpose until the very end of The Truman Show movie, just before The Truman Show television show is cut off the air. The first impulse Truman has is with Lauren (Sylvia) in the library at school. She writes “Now” on the paper, and they go to the beach. Lauren (Sylvia) is whisked away, and Sylvia is removed from the show. Truman develops a desire for Lauren, and creates a magazine cutout picture trying to recreate Lauren’s image. He wants to visit Fiji (the impulse) but that is obstructed when the travel agent can’t book the immediate trip, turning it into a desire. When Truman goes “insane” and crashes his boat into the sky on the far side of the sea, he discovers a door. He knows he’s on a show. He understands he can leave the show and seek out his desire, Sylvia. At the same time, Sylvia is watching this on live television. “Good morning, and in case I don’t see ya, good afternoon, good evening, and good night!” With the end-view of finding Sylvia in sight, Truman walks through the door into a world he’s never known, and he’s found his purpose.

Chapter 7: Progressive Organization of Subject-Matter

The way out of scholastic systems that made the past an end in itself is to make acquaintance with the past a means of understanding the present. Until this problem is worked out, the present clash of educational ideas and practices will continue.

If Truman’s world on The Truman Show television show was a scholastic system, his father’s “death” on the boating accident in the past was an end that became a means to understanding his present. First, his father meandered back onto the set as a homeless man in broad daylight but was shoved onto a bus and whisked away before Truman’s eyes. But then, Christof reunited Truman with his father and described the condition as amnesia. This was an attempt to resolve the clash between Truman’s past and present ideas and practices in his world.

We are told almost daily and from many sources that it is impossible for human beings to direct their common life intelligently. We are told, on one hand, that the complexity of human relations, domestic and international, and on the other hand, the fact that human beings are so largely creatures of emotion and habit, make impossible large-scale social planning and direction by intelligence.

Truman was not directing his life, that is true, but Christof, the producer, was. He was staging Truman’s personal life (setting Truman up with Meryl), Truman’s job, and Truman’s commute to work (the twins Truman discussed the life insurance policy with). Everyone in Truman’s world was an actor, making it possible for Christof to have intelligent control over Truman’s life. Even the sky and the weather were under Christof’s intelligent control.

It is hardly necessary to say that one of the most fundamental principles of the scientific organization of knowledge is the principle of cause-and-effect. The way in which this principle is grasped and formulated by the scientific specialist is certainly very different from the way in which it can be approached in the experience of the young. But neither the relation nor grasp of its meaning is foreign to the experience of even the young child.

A lighting fixture falls from the sky onto the street in front of Truman, then the radio announces parts falling from an overhead plane. Truman sees backstage instead of an elevator, then Meryl talks about a horrible elevator accident at the hospital. The radio glitches and plays the control room chatter, then all the actors touch their ears as feedback tells them to change channel. The police officer at the nuclear plant leak calls Truman by his first name, and Truman runs off, only to be captured by men in silver suits. Slowly he is decrypting the created world surrounding him, grasping that reality is not what it seems.

Activity that is not checked by observation of what follows from it may be temporarily enjoyed. But intellectually it leads nowhere. It does not provide knowledge about the situations in which action occurs nor does it lead to clarification and expansion of ideas.

Truman falls asleep in the basement; he is heard snoring in the control room. Christof find this concerning, so he sends Truman’s best friend Marlon over to check in on him. Marlon discovers Truman is not there. The snoring is a recording. The sleeping Truman is a dummy. Truman has escaped his never-ending fate of the camera view. For the first time in his life, a crisis on set is observed by the cast, crew, and producer. An all-out man hunt is called to find Truman. Truman has outsmarted the greater intelligence that has ruled his world all his life. Up until this point, his activity has been intellectually meaningless. Now, he’s on a quest to find his purpose: to find Sylvia.

Chapter 8: Experience—The Means and Goal of Education

The basic question concerns the nature of education with no qualifying adjectives prefixed. What we want and need is education pure and simple, and we shall make surer and faster progress when we devote ourselves to find out just what education is and what conditions have to be satisfied in order that education may be a reality and not a name or a slogan.

“Truman Burbank.” “You’re the star.” [holding up a jar of cocoa, slipping into advertising mode] “Why don’t you let me fix you some of this Mococoa drink? All natural cocoa beans from the upper slopes of Mount Nicaragua. No artificial sweeteners. I’ve tasted other cocoas. This is the best.” When your wife’s life is a commercial, are you living in reality? With Truman born on a sound stage built for a 24/7 live television broadcast created just for his life, I can’t say he’s ever had a real experience or a real education.