Missed lessons of Monsters U

A prequel to the popular Monsters Inc., Pixar/Disney’s new Monsters University is a Revenge of the Nerds ripoff featuring young Mike and Scully learning to be “scarers.” Pixar’s team “missed the chance to say something more interesting,” writes Rick Hess.

The Incredibles famously tugged on our fascination with insisting that everyone is special. In that flick, when Dash is told by his mom that “everyone is special,” he dejectedly mumbles, “then no one is,” while Mr. Incredible laments that a fourth-grade “graduation” is just a case of rewarding the mediocre and the mundane. In Monsters University . . .  it’s not clear that either aptitude or hard work has much relationship to how the cast fares at good ol’ MU.

The movie “seems to make a case that knowledge and learned expertise are fairly pointless,” writes Hess. “At a pivotal moment, Sully tries to teach Mike that all his book-learning is irrelevant to really excelling at his craft.”

Helen Mirren voices the no-nonsense Dean Hardscrabble, and Alfred Molina the “scaring” professor. With that kind of talent, you’d seem to have a terrific opportunity for the screenwriters to have some fun looking at the teaching relationship. After all, Pixar writers have dabbled in this kind of thing (in Cars or with Willem DaFoe’s wise old hand in Finding Nemo), but they’ve never really had much cause to depict what it looks like for a teacher to inspire, mentor, and instruct. I’d have loved to see them play with a teacher helping an entitled, gifted student cultivate responsibility and discipline — or a bookish, insecure student develop a sense of teamwork and self-efficacy. While Mike and Sully do mature in the movie, it happens with the faculty operating pretty much as bystanders or foils.

I like the Monsters University web site. The admissions page calls MU “a place for self-discovery, curiosity, and scholarship,” but warns only a fraction of applicants are admitted.  In addition to scaring, MU offers “academically rigorous” programs in scream energy, door technology and business, as well as “holistic training for the mind, body, and spirit.”

The message from the dean stresses MU’s diversity, which does indeed seem to be a strength.

Too much knowledge?

There is nothing like knowing it all to kill the imagination,” write Eric Liu and Scott Noppe-Brandon, authors of Imagination First, on the Education Nation web site:

“When we become expert, or think we have, we get the benefits of intellectual shortcuts and far greater processing efficiency-but we suffer the cost of closed-mindedness. Having seen it all, we stop looking. Having been there, we stop going. Having done that, we stop doing.”

“Seriously?” asks Robert Pondiscio in Idiot’s Delight on Core Knowledge Blog.

As an alternative to mind-numbing knowledge, Liu and Noppe-Brandon praise GeoDome, an “experience of pure wonder.”

Using Google Earth, real-time NASA data, state-of-the-art animation designed by a Pixar veteran, a single laptop, a projector, and an Xbox joystick, McConville takes the guests on a journey to . . .  anywhere they want in the known universe.

“We did not dream our way to Google Earth, NASA, Pixar or the Xbox,” Pondiscio points out.

A deep knowledge base, years of training and expertise enable us to create the things that inspire awe in others. And I can’t help but wonder if physicists, engineers, and scientists of every stripe would be surprised to learn that their hard-earned expertise has resulted in “closed-mindedness.”

My husband knows a great deal about electrical engineering, a field in which he earned a PhD. Knowing a lot has enabled him to come up with new ideas, for which he holds several dozen patents. Ignorance is not the mother, father or brother-in-law of invention.

If I were to make a list of the problems afflicting American education, excess knowledge would be very low on the list.