The Lego Movie is awesome

The Lego Movie, like its theme song, is awesome, writes Boris Zelkin on PJ Media.  It’s “a paean to individual liberty” and creativity — and to “the value of collective effort.”

Emmet, our everyman mini-fig,  lives in a world where Everything is Awesome, even drinking overpriced coffee. Yet he discovers an underground resistance.

In this seeming utopia, people’s individuality exists within a very narrow framework; namely the instruction book. This book, a Lego instruction manual, clearly and vividly, through the use of simple pictograms, lays out out the required steps necessary to live a good and productive life as a citizen.  Deviation from the instruction booklet is illegal.

The society is presided over by President Business, a charismatic politician and owner of the only business in the Lego world. In our LegoTopia, it turns out that the corporation and the government are, in fact, one in the same.

The creative but quarrelsome “master builders” need to unite to fight for freedom. 

Remembering Shirley Temple

Shirley Temple, a Hollywood star at the age of six, has died at 85. She had a second career as an ambassador and White House chief of protocol.

Remembering ‘The Professor’

Russell Johnson, who died this week at 89, played the Professor on Gilligan’s Island. The_Professor_(Gilligan's_Island) The Professor could build anything from coconut and bamboo, except a patch for the boat, writes the Los Angeles Times.”He used bamboo, the ship’s horn and radio batteries to create a lie detector; he made a battery recharger from a coconut shell and a helium balloon made from raincoats sealed with tree sap.”

The Professor was a high school science teacher with a PhD, not a university professor, writes Jon Marcus on the Hechinger Report. Long before a chemistry teacher became TV’s finest meth cook, a science teacher showed the power of knowledge,

“At a time when science became mistrusted for having brought not better lives, but pollution and the fear of nuclear annihilation, he was a rock of reason, patience, and precision, level-headed and respected,” writes Marcus.

Also he was good looking.

In recent years, TV has rediscovered smart people, writes Marcus.

There has been a television series called Eureka, about a town populated by geniuses, where the whiz kids pick on the jocks. Smart people also star or have starred in Fringe, The Mentalist, Alphas, Bones, Touch, Breaking Bad, The Big-Bang Theory, and other hits. They’re newly hot (and very, very rich) in real life, too: Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg.

These people, real or imaginary, represent the promise of science and the constancy of truth.

Does popular culture value science, truth and intelligence?

Looking at ‘Girl Before a Mirror’

Young people can appreciate Pablo Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror at different levels, says a MoMA art educator.

Schools prepare for transgender rights

California schools are preparing for a transgender students’ rights law by “reviewing locker room layouts” and ” scheduling sensitivity training for coaches,” reports AP.  Above all, does the school have a private restroom for transgender students or will a biological boy be allowed in the girls’ room?

However the law, which lets public school children use the sex-segregated facilities of their choice, could be suspended within days of its Jan. 1 launch if a referendum to repeal it qualifies for the ballot.

Ashton Lee, 16, a junior at Manteca High School in the San Joaquin Valley, was born female but wants to be treated as male. Last year, he asked to be transferred from an all-girls aerobics class to a team sports class for boys. School officials said no. They reconsidered in the fall.

He now is allowed to use the boy’s restrooms and locker rooms and to wear the junior ROTC uniform for male cadets.

Similar adjustments have been made for five transgender classmates.

Manteca High, located in a conservative rural area, has 1,648 students of which six have declared themselves to be transgender. That seems like a very high number to me. Why has transgender status gone from incredibly rare to . . . not very unusual?

Grads outnumber available positions

The front headline on everyone’s second-favourite education website,

“Law School Grads Still Struggling, Outnumber Available Positions”

This is hardly a surprise. Unemployed attorneys outnumber available positions, too.

Instapundit calls this a symptom of the Higher Education Bubble – Legal Education Edition.

For my part, I wonder if maybe the headline shouldn’t be “High School Grads still struggling, outnumber available positions no matter how much additional education they get.”

THAT would be an interesting article, and that discussion would probably get us closer to solving the problem.

Digital badges, techne, episteme, and the purpose of college.

Julie Steiny has many admirable qualities — chief of which is (for my purposes) that she’s always a reliable source for starting a blog post. Most recently, it seems, she’s written something about digital badges. What’s a digital badge? Steiny gives a vivid description:

Well, they’re basically a high-tech version of Boy Scout badges, certifying that the young man sporting one of the iconic patches on his sash actually knows something about knot-tying, canoeing or cooking over a campfire. The Scout manual explains what skills that badge certifies and the criteria for getting one.

Okay, but a “digital” badge?

Ewens takes his diploma, a Masters from Stanford University, opens the leather-like cover and starts swiping and touch-screening it the way you would an iPad. “Stanford gives you accreditation. But what you’ve got is a static piece of paper.” With his fingers failing to get more information out of the diploma’s image, he says, “My daughters wouldn’t understand a static diploma.” They’d be looking for the “About” or “Who we are” buttons to find out what the thing is.

While few would question the value of an M.Ed. from Stanford, in math no less, really, what does it mean? Exactly? Can he manage a classroom? Teach algebra through computer coding? Map lessons to the Common Core Standards? We don’t know. A digital badge might tell us. We take the famous credential on faith, but badges give detailed backup to credentials with less name brand.

This makes me think three things:

First, it’s not at all clear that “less name brand” is a feature instead of a bug. The value of diplomas lives and dies based on the reputation of the grantor. I’ve had a few conversations over the last year or so with people about digital badges, and most of the people with whom I’ve spoken seem to have forgotten that. But it’s not at all clear that digital badges really will have “less name brand.” If you follow the link in Steiny’s article to the FAQ set up by one of Mozilla’s developers, you’ll find the following:

Some Open Badges will be frivolous and playful. Others will be rigorous and pedagogically sound. All of them will be technically valid badges. The value of a badge comes through a mixture of the reputation of the issuer and the rigour of the criteria for obtaining the badge.

This is really just common sense. After all, it matters that I linked to a FAQ written by one of Mozilla’s developers, and not the FAQ written by my 6-year old nephew.

There are some diplomas and certifications out there that I would completely ignore if I were making employment decisions or looking to hire out a job. They are not, in my opinion, worth the paper upon which they are printed. This will almost certainly happen with badges. It’s easy to *say* that you’ve assessed someone’s facility with, say, basic SQL functions. But the “criteria” for obtaining the badge are going to have to be generally described at some level. There will be deceit and “fudging”. It is inevitable that people are going to want to know something about the reputation of the person granting the badge. Some badge grantors will develop stronger reputations. That’s why an MCSE certificate is worth more than a piece of paper from Michael E. Lopez attesting that someone has met the identical criteria. No one has any reason to trust my word when it comes to MCSE-related things.

Steiny holds out hope that digital badges can allow education to “bust out of its rigid 4 walls and 6-hour day as the only source of learning.” But it’s not the badges that do that: there is nothing in a high school diploma that requires seat time. That’s not a structural part of the learning process: that’s a way to keep kids out of people’s hair while adults do work. Ultimately, what badges represent is not the replacement of the traditional diploma, but its fracturing. A diploma is, to use modern computer parlance, a “bundled” product. It signals a LOT of things all at once. Badges pick it apart into smaller, narrower pieces.

That brings me to my second point: not everything is really amenable to “badges”. Badges are well-suited to indicating a mastery of techne — that is, knowledge and craftmanship aimed at fabrication and production. (I’m using these terms in an unbearably superficial, Platonic sense.) Can you build a bridge? There’s a badge for that. Can you perform logical transformations and perform valid deductions? There’s a badge for that. Can you proofread a manuscript for elementary grammar errors? There’s a badge for that. Can you perform a heart transplant? There’s a badge for that. Badges are good at signifying mastery of performance tasks.

But one of the things bundled with the various techne of diplomas is a healthy does of episteme. And that’s harder to quantify with a badge. A doctor doesn’t just have a collection of several thousand badges signifying technical proficiency in various tasks. A doctor has (we hope) episteme – a practiced understanding of the function of the human body from which the doctor can form intuitions about health and sickness.

There’s no badge for that. That’s something that comes organically from pursuing a course of study, from interacting with others who have that understanding, and from reflection. When I am evaluating Philosophy students, I’m not just looking to see if they can recite the major arguments from the Republic and identify major logical flaws. There’s a certain amount of that sort of thing that goes on — especially early in the course. But that’s not the ultimate goal. The goal is, inter alia, to help the students develop the ability to “inhabit” the discourse of Philosophy.

That’s a very nebulous thing for a “badge”. Hell, it’s a nebulous thing for a diploma.

That brings me to my third and final point, which is that a liberal arts diploma (supposedly) signifies a similar, albeit more generalized sort of episteme. That is, I think, the point of a typical college diploma.

To the extent that people are inclined to think of a diploma as a sort of “labor force” certification — and for reasons I don’t entirely understand, that seems to be the growing consensus — it’s understandable that one might think that the diploma can be replaced by badges. Just break down the tasks you want a graduate to be able to perform, and assign a badge to each one, right?

But it’s not clear to me that we can use badges to eliminate diplomas entirely. There’s no way to join the great conversation of the liberal arts without getting out of your own head and joining the conversation. You need to get out (either physically or electronically) and talk to professors and other students.

College (co-legere) is about choosing to come together with others, about joining a community. A college education is about joining a discourse. Steiny is correct that it need not be a four-walled room filled for six hours a day. It can be a digital community. It can be an amphitheatre in the woods.

But I don’t think that a college diploma is going to be replaced with badges. Or if it is in great degree replaced with badges, then what the people who would have been otherwise pursuing college degrees are after is not really what the colleges were selling in the first place. Large chunks of a high school diploma might, someday, be badge-ifiable. But even there, there’s a sort of preparation for a liberal arts education (call it “college prep” if you like) that is not reducible to quantified proficiencies.

Batkid saves San Francisco

Frank Minna / The Chronicle

Thousands cheered as Batkid saved San Francisco from crime — and cynicism. Five-year-old Miles Scott has battled leukemia since he was 20 months old. He’s now in remission. Friday, the kindergartner lived out his wish to be a caped crusader. San Francisco gleefully stood in as Gotham City.

People cheered as Miles buzzed by in a Lamborghini Batmobile. News crews gave chase as the boy rescued a damsel tied to cable-car tracks. Social media lit up with cheers.

With Batman’s help, Batkid stopped The Riddler from robbing a bank and rescued the San Francisco Giant’s mascot, Lou Seal, from The Penguin.

It as the most elaborate gift ever arranged by the Bay Area’s Make-A-Wish Foundation. When the little boy’s superhero wish went viral, some 12,000 people volunteered to help. Gotham’s streets were lined with people holding signs, wearing Batkid T-shirts and cheering their hero.

Thank you, Batkid.

‘Weird Al’ for the ‘Al’ Award

Weird Al Yankovic is up for the Al Copeland Award on Jay P. Greene’s Blog. The “Al” honors “an entrepreneur or activist who has significantly improved the human condition but has not been fully recognized for their contribution.”

“Weird Al” was a childhood nickname given to him by school bullies, writes Patrick Wolf.  His parody hits include “Like a Surgeon,” “Eat It,” “I’m Fat”, and “Smells Like Nirvana.”

“Yoda,” a takeoff on “Lola,” is my favorite Weird Al song:

Why all kids should watch South Park

South Park kicked off its 17th season with Cartman’s discovery he’s being monitored by the National Security Agency.

All Kids Should be FORCED to Watch South Park!, argue Reason’s Nick Gillespie and Jim Epstein.

Virtually every episode points out the difference between legitimate authority and the abuse of power and scare-mongering. Whether it’s the show’s Jew-baiting jerk Eric Cartman going nuts as a traffic cop or former Vice President Al Gore trying to scare the boys into hysteria over ManBearPig, South Park always emphasizes thinking for yourself rather than blindly following what leaders say.

In addition, South Park respects real diversity.

Today’s kids are constantly force-fed hosannas to tolerance and diversity that ring hollow and false. But even when it’s brutally satirizing something like Mormonism, South Park actually fosters a true live-and-let-live ethos that’s sadly lacking in most K-12 curricula.

Finally, one of “South Park’s core values is taking responsibility for one’s actions,” write Gillespie and Epstein. “In the episode where Stan’s father develops a drinking problem and seeks supernatural intervention for a cure, it’s the child who lays out the case for self-control and accountability.”