Evolving Our Definition of Discrimination: An Exploration of “Weightism”

Although we like to think that discrimination based on prejudice is something we only do unintentionally, when we’re on autopilot, I think we should be cautious lest we think that conscious discrimination has been eliminated from mainstream culture.

What do I mean by that?

For example, thankfully, it is no longer socially acceptable for someone to (openly) question my ability to be an engineer because I am female.

However, let’s consider another physical attribute:  body weight.  The way I see it, maintaining a healthy BMI is a lot like the diversity buckets we talked about in class — everyone starts in a different place.  For example, metabolism depends on things like age, gender, and genetics.  Social and economic factors also play a huge role here, as we saw in this article about the availability of healthful food options in Ramona Gardens.  That being said, the perception exists that anyone can reach a healthy weight with enough determination and self-discipline, leading to attitudes of weightism, or weight bias.

As a high-profile example, does anyone remember back in 2009 when President Obama named Regina Benjamin as Surgeon General?  Despite her superb medical qualifications, many cited her weight as evidence that she was not a good choice to lead the nation in the battle against obesity (ABC News; Telegraph).  Some believed she should release her BMI to the public to show that she was “healthy” despite the fact that she “appeared overweight.”

Personally, I find this a little scary.  How would you feel if your BMI was used as a job qualification, like your GPA or GRE score?  I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on this issue.

Literacy, Letteracy, and Google

When reading the chapter “Yearners and Schoolers” from Papert‘s The Children’s Machine, I was fascinated by his discussion of how digital media has transformed how we define literacy.  After reading his description of “literacy” versus “letteracy,” or the ability “to decode black marks on white paper,” I was interested to see how literacy is “officially” defined today.  I started simply, with Merriam-Webster, where “literate” was defined as

(a) educated, cultured;
(b) able to read and write.

These two definitions did not satisfy me — they are two very different things — which is it?  So I checked with Wikipedia, which sent me to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organizatoin (UNESCO). In one publication, UNESCO proposes an operational definition of literacy, which encompasses much more than just “letteracy”:

Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy
involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop
their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider

Papert goes on to describe a hypothetical “Knowledge Machine” that revolutionizes the way (pre-letterate) children learn — by interaction with a database of knowledge through “speech, touch, or gestures.”  According to the book, this will allow children to

become highly literate independent of their progress toward letteracy.

Pause and reflect on that.  Whoa.

Since the publication of this book in 1993, substantial progress has been made toward creating an actual “Knowledge Machine.”  When first reading the concept, I was reminded of a recent ad from Google (particularly at 0:39):

The girl in the ad is showing some serious “development of knowledge and potential,” as well as understanding, interpreting, creating, etc.  Literacy without letteracy?

We have a Galaxy Note II at our house, so, inspired by the girl from the ad and Jennifer from the book, we asked it:  “Google, how do giraffes sleep?”  On the front page of results, we saw some of the same images of curled up giraffes that we showed in class . . .

Have you also thought about how these new technologies can change the definition of literacy?  I would love to hear your thoughts.

Too Much Education? Or, How MOOCs Change Everything.

The recent blog post “Attack of the MOOC!” really got me thinking about the MOOC revolution and what it means.  The dendrology example Brandon gives is really exciting to me as a scientist/engineer — the idea of leveraging the power of a global classroom community for science and design is pretty awesome.  However, why stop here?  In a blog post back in December, I talked about my experiences as a student in a small rural high school and how online classes are dramatically increasing access to education for students in those areas.  Today, I want to go even further — how can MOOCs change our attitudes, as a society, toward education?

Too Much Education?  In Digital Media: New Learners of the 21st CenturyDr. James Gee ends the video by discussing his ideal vision of education in the 21st century, which will prepare all people to produce knowledge and collaborate to make a better society.  He said we would then have the “nice problem” of everyone being “too smart” for some jobs.  On the other hand, there is a growing sentiment in higher education that we may already have “Too Many PhDs and Professionals” for our economy to support.  How can we reconcile these two ideas telling us that we need both more and less education?

I propose that what our society suffers from is not overeducation, but something more like “overcertification.”  We have come to value the piece of paper more than the education it symbolizes, and we often treat higher education primarily as a financial investment.  BUT — I think MOOCs have the potential to change this.  How?   One interesting thing to consider is that most MOOCs are non-credit bearing.  Millions of people SIGN UP ANYWAY.  Why?  To learn something new.  Or maybe . . . to produce knowledge and collaborate to make a better society.

You’ve heard what I think — what about you?  Do we have too much education, or too little?  Would you sign up to take a class for a class for no credit?  Why or why not?

New Header Image!

Just finished my new header image, so I thought I’d take a moment to acknowledge the photos I used to create it.  All images were located using creativecommons.org and are licensed under a CCL.

Test tube photo:
photo by Horia Varian on Flickr

Tarantula photo:
photo by mikebaird on Flickr