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Vain Repetition?

Micah Watson's Neo Vs. The Karate Kid, “Public Discourse: Ethics, Law and the Public Good”
Vain Repetition?

The relationship between knowledge and the human dominates much of the discussion of education today. Living in times of great and rapid transition between modes of communication that are static and those that are electric has generated a lot of questions to be answered, and this article lays out nicely one of the most important ones: How do we learn—really learn—in an age of digital transfer and neuroscience in such a way that we retain our humanity and learn best, not simply fastest and most?

Micah Watson, director of the Center for Religion and Politics at Union University, sets the question as being one of “the relationship between how we learn and how we understand human nature.” As a framing device, he pits against each other the main characters of two of the most popular movies of the late twentieth century: Neo of The Matrix and Daniel Larusso of The Karate Kid. Neo on the one hand learns what he needs to know about the new world he inhabits and how to survive in it by having huge amounts of information downloaded into his brain, making him not simply a fact machine but a fighter of extraordinary power and agility. All this happens in a few hours after his brain has been hooked up to a machine. In this vision, man is a machine with inputs and functions that can be determined by commanding nature in such a way as to alter the very manipulators themselves.

On the other side, Daniel is taught by performing what seem to him a series of meaningless, repetitious exercises, assigned by the mysterious Mr. Miyagi. The famous “wax on, wax off” command by which Miyagi teaches Daniel a swiping motion to defend himself against straight punches illustrates the method of learning perfectly. Daniel thinks Miyagi is only using him as slave labor to get his car waxed; Miyagi later shows him how the repetitive motion has a higher application. Here there is greater mystery in the link between the learner and the knowledge learned. Daniel does not need to perceive the purpose of the exercises, he only needs to trust that their purpose will be revealed at the proper time.

Watson pits Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis against Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics as historical discussions using the same paradigms, but getting at the nub of the problem: authority. Bacon assumes a “nature” that has no restrictions on mankind’s use of it, “even if it means transforming the very human nature that defines what ‘we’ are”. Aristotle describes an edification that requires faith on the part of the student, since they cannot know how or even whether this learning will accomplish anything. That can only be known by experience.

Micah Watson’s deft comparison of the two frameworks and the implications of them for both theological anthropology and education theory is a model of the brief essay as stimulus to deep discussion. It is perfect for a discussion of learning in any context.

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