Saturday, August 30, 2008

Wall-E, survivor generalist

Recalling a tutorial I had a couple of days ago with x17. They don't much like the emphasis the industry is putting on their all-roundedness. It's too much pressure, they say, meeting their expectations in academics, plus other areas like sports, community involvement, leadership initiative, and the million and forty-seven other items they have to juggle per 24-hour cycle. If only they could specialize, they say, then they'd become the best athletes, or artists, or scientists, or whatever [and then we wouldn't have to import FT to help us win silver medals... mutter... grumble...].

Silly children. Knowledge is an interconnected web of the same basic ideas chain-linking in a myriad different combinations. Areas of specialism arise from certain configurations of knowledge that don't exist in isolation of one another. An athlete trains his muscles, but to succeed he must also be able to coordinate his muscles in concert to deal with the ever-changing competitive environment he will constantly be tested in. That movement is at the same time aesthetic, scientific and mathematical; and when we consider teamwork and crowd support there's an element of the social as well. Likewise, any other area of specialism might emphasise a particular type of knowledge, but all other areas will also come into play at some point or another.

Our mistake was to draw the boundaries between the different "knowledges" so squarely that studying five subjects now takes five hours because each one has to be studied separately from the others. Sadly, that's the strategy firmly subscribed to by most parents and educators, and so it becomes the strategy that most kids are harnessed to too. I believe the top students are the few who know how to use only one hour to study five subjects, then they have the time to excel at all the other stuff outside of curriculum time as well.

I bring this up because I watched Wall-E today. How does a little trash-compactor robot become the last survivor on the planet? It isn't that he abandons his programming -- his specialism, if you will -- in fact, his "directive" the only reason that gives him the drive to keep on going when all his fellow Wall-Es have finally succumbed to the elements and now rust by the wayside.

What makes Wall-E a survivor is that he has learned how to learn. While he is a highly competent trash-compactor, he's also become accomplished in repair and maintenance tasks, and has developed a sense of the aesthetic, hence his attempts at interior decoration. He's constantly assessing the utility or beauty of the odd things that he finds in the garbage, bringing them home with him when they pass muster. He doesn't always get things "right", but perhaps his learning is mainly facilitated by the fact that that there isn't any around to tell him that he's "wrong" either.

It's a little disturbing to see him cannibalizing his inert fellows for spare parts, but he can't be faulted. They're not going to need their parts any more, anyway. After all, they never learned anything more than their programming and so they lived and died doing the one thing they were meant to do: compact trash. And that's the way many people live their lives today too.

Trust me, the above is no spoiler for the movie. That's merely the preamble, which we should sort of have already grasped from the trailers. So you can still go watch what's probably the cutest (without being saccharine-sweet) movie of the year.

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