I was skeptical when my husband picked Monsters University for our family to watch on New Year’s Eve. But since my husband is an avid movie watcher, we’d seen everything else that was remotely interesting. It was that or Planes, which had gotten panned on Rotten Tomatoes, so Monsters University it was.
So like I said, I had my doubts about yet another transparent Disney milk-the-cash-cow attempt. But if someone had just told me that the movie was about gifted education, I would have been all in.
What’s that you say? You didn’t know Monsters University was about gifted education? It wasn’t in the trailer? Well, no, MU wasn’t explicitly a tale of why we need gifted education in this country, but it’s about as close as we can expect mainstream Hollywood to get.
For those who haven’t seen it yet, Monsters University features Mike Wazowski rather than Sully as the main character. Turns out, Mike has wanted to be a scarer ever since going on a field trip to Monsters Inc. when he was a socially isolated but charming elementary school monster. Right away, I was intrigued with how the film was going to pull this off. Anyone who has seen the original movie knows that Mike does not turn out to be a scarer: Sully’s the main scarer, Mike is just his clueless assistant. How could they make a movie for little kids where we know from the beginning that the main character is going to utterly fail? Or, at least, how could they make such a movie without being heartless jerks?
The film skips to Mike’s first day at Monsters University, where in his first day of scare class, he is informed by the highly creepy, dragon-centipede-hybrid dean of the department that there will be an exam at the end of the semester to determine who will qualify to continue in the program. As she says, “I’m here to make good scarers great, not make mediocre scarers less mediocre.” Hmm, interesting educational philosophy there . . . .
Enter Sully. He waltzes into class late, without so much as a pencil, and impresses everyone with his lineage of great scarers. A rivalry ensues between Mike and Sully, with Sully floating by on pure talent and Mike studying his butt off on technique, history, and theory. At first the cut scenes show Sully trouncing Mike in class—after all, he’s a 6–7 foot hairy blue nightmare and Sully’s a green adorable beachball. But soon, the professor notices Sully’s stagnation and Mike’s marked improvement from practice.
This experience exactly mirrors what happens to many talented students when they hit college. So many truly gifted kids breeze through high school, never lifting a finger to study even though they are in the “honors” or “challenge” sections, or even in an AP or IB program. Nothing they do in school requires them to push themselves past what comes easily and naturally. Then eventually, they finally hit the ceiling—in late high school or early college these students reach a class where the answers don’t just come to them. And they have no skills to cope with it. At 17 or 18, they are faced with a challenge for the first time in their lives, and because they don’t know how to overcome, they feel like imposters, failures, idiots. They give up on what they were born to do and do something easy.
Alright, being truly honest, this happened to me. Up through high school, I never met a class that I had to study for. Oh sure, I had to memorize lists (like world capitals) when they came up, but other than that, no studying was ever required for me to both comprehend the class material and pass the class with flying colors. When I got to college, it was pretty much the same story, until I took organic chemistry in my sophomore year. Here I ran up against concepts that didn’t make intuitive sense, that I couldn’t read once and then completely understand. I had no method for dealing with this and ended up flailing to get a C in the class. I re-took it the next year and did better, but it only got worse as I took biochemistry and physical chemistry until eventually I quit my chemistry major to pursue something that didn’t require much effort on my part.
This ability to push through challenges and overcome is called “grit” and it’s the big trend in education theory right now. Many books I’ve read on education—I’m thinking particularly of How Children Succeed—focus on the idea that it’s not about how high a child’s IQ is that matters; it’s how hard they work to overcome challenges that matters. And this is often true—in many cases, a high-achieving but average child will outperform an unmotivated, under-performing high IQ child. So these theorists say that we should focus on building this quality in children in school, rather than focusing so much on academic progress.
There are two problems with this theory. And both of them are addressed in this movie.
First is that high academic achievement and gaining grit are hardly opposing processes, where we have to choose one or the other. In fact, in the case of gifted children, high academic standards are a necessity in order for them to develop grit. After all, how do you develop grit except by facing challenges? And to challenge a gifted child, you must set academic standards that challenge them, at their level, regardless of whether that level is one level above grade or five.
We can see this in Sully’s character. He’s always been the most terrifying thing around, so he had nothing to reach for. His ability was assumed and never challenged. Not only has this prevented him from developing grit, but it has also been psychologically scarring. In a critical moment near the end of the movie, Sully tells Mike, “I act scary, Mike. But most of the time, I’m terrified.” He’s terrified of not being good enough to live up to his (and his family’s) reputation. Many gifted kids have this affliction: they know they can’t go on never messing up forever, so they spend their whole (educational) lives waiting for the other shoe to drop—for things to get hard for them—and they are terrified of what will happen to them when it does. Their whole self-image is built on being able to do everything easily, and so is very fragile to challenges. We are doing these kids no favors by saying they are “fine” because they are performing above grade level and letting them “relax and be a kid.” What we are doing is the opposite of letting them relax—we’re winding them up more and more as they wait for the inevitable moment when challenge might kick in.
The second problem with the grit theory is that, while grit and perseverance are important, talent actually does matter. Comparing high achieving average students to under-acheiving gifted ones is a total set-up. When you compare apples to apples (hard-working kids of different IQ levels), you can see that IQ absolutely does matter in final achievement. A high IQ child allowed to push themselves through acceleration and compacting of curriculum could make the next big discovery in quantum mechanics or sustainable fuel. And no matter how hard an average student pushes, they just won’t have the mind to make those leaps.
In Monsters University, high-jinks ensue at the final exam and both characters end up getting kicked out of the program, then joining the ridiculous Scare Games in an attempt to get back in. Their team of misfits comes within one event of winning the competition when the dean confronts Sully about his team’s chances being ruined by Mike’s presence. Sully sticks up for his new friend, talking about how much he knows. Dean Hardscrabble comes right out and asks him, “But do you think he’s scary?” And Sully has no response. Of course Mike isn’t scary. No matter how hard he stretches and works, he just lacks the natural ability, and that can’t be changed. As she says at the final exam, “Mr Wazowsky, what you lack simply cannot be taught. You’re just not scary.”
This idea makes most Americans very uncomfortable. Our country is founded on freedom, and we see this as placing an unfair limitation on people. We are willing to accept the idea of talent in sports and artistic endeavors, but claiming that some people have a talent for academics is just too much. This egalitarian urge is one of the reasons so many districts fight having a gifted program, insisting that all students are gifted. This is, of course, ridiculous and a lie—if there are some students on the special education side of the curve, there ought to be an equal population on the other end of the normal curve. But this lie makes us feel comfortable about ourselves, and about depriving a generation of geniuses of their fair education.