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LEARNING/ Neo vs. the Karate Kid

The Matrix and The Karate Kid offer two competing views of the relationship between how we learn and how we understand human nature. On the wake of Francis Bacon and Aristotle respectively

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“Ten hours straight. He’s a machine.” So says a character in The Matrix about Neo, the newest protector against the evil forces trying to destroy humans. Though film viewers may be awed by Neo’s dizzying display of martial art skills and paramilitary expertise, what is even more remarkable is the method of his learning. Rather than devote long hours to practice and gradual improvement, Neo is literally hooked up to a machine through which everything he needs to know is uploaded to his brain. We see just how effective this instant education is during the iconic fight scene in which Neo, now a martial arts maestro, spars with his mentor Morpheus.

Consider for a moment how alluring this vision of learning might appear to a group of college students nearing the end of the semester. Final test in organic chemistry approaching? It’s nothing to fear—you can upload an entire semester’s worth of material to your brain in less than a minute. Need to memorize a truckload of cases for your constitutional civil liberties course? There’s an upload program for that, too. Scheduled for a final job or internship interview and want to ensure that you remember all the details about that prestigious law firm or non-profit? There’s an “app” for that.

Of course, this sort of technology is typical of science fiction literature, not reality (though a quick Google search for “brain computer interface” may surprise you). But suppose it were possible (which it may one day be). What if we could order up knowledge and “learn” in a matter of minutes and hours what used to require months and years of hard discipline and study? Is there any reason why we should not take advantage of this technology? Would doing so be clearly wrong? Or would it be not only licit but morally obligatory, perhaps required, to fulfill one’s potential? Or would it be merely optional, neither morally forbidden nor required? Having pondered those questions, consider a more critical one: what do one’s first thoughts about this near-futuristic scenario reveal about one’s conception of human nature?
Hold on to those thoughts as we move to another film, one that champions a more familiar method of learning.

The Karate Kid features Daniel Larusso, an Italian-American teenager who moves from New Jersey to a new high school in California. The cool kids at this school don’t play football or drive fast cars; they do karate. Unfortunately, Daniel manages to provoke the entire karate clique and soon has the bruises to show for it.

Enter Mr. Miyagi, the handy-man karate guru who takes Daniel under his wing and agrees to teach him. In a classic 1980s montage, Daniel arrives at Mr. Miyagi’s house only to find that his “training” is a series of menial and repetitive tasks: sanding floors, waxing cars, painting boards, and painting the house. Daniel eventually loses his temper, angrily accusing Mr. Miyagi of exploiting rather than teaching him. As the scene closes, Daniel reluctantly goes through the motions of each chore, but while he does so, Mr. Miyagi attacks him with various punches and kicks. Daniel is surprised to learn that each of the chores required him to internalize various movements that, when employed, blocked each successive attack. Daniel had unknowingly learned the basic tactics of defensive karate.