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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

compulsory science fiction — like something out of science fiction

The Handmaid's Tale Margaret Atwood

Oh, the American South. From the Guardian:

A bill calling for science fiction to be made compulsory reading in schools has been proposed by a politician in West Virginia in order to “stimulate interest in the fields of math and science”.

Ray Canterbury, a Republican delegate, is appealing to the West Virginia board of education to include science fiction novels on the middle school and high school curriculums. “The Legislature finds that promoting interest in and appreciation for the study of math and science among students is critical to preparing students to compete in the workforce and to assure the economic well being of the state and the nation,” he writes in the pending bill.

“To stimulate interest in math and science among students in the public schools of this state, the State Board of Education shall prescribe minimum standards by which samples of grade-appropriate science fiction literature are integrated into the curriculum of existing reading, literature or other required courses for middle school and high school students.”

“I’m not interested in fantasy novels about dragons,” Canterbury told Blastr in a recent interview. “I’m primarily interested in things where advanced technology is a key component of the storyline, both in terms of the problems that it presents and the solutions that it offers.”

What a great idea! Until someone wants to teach The Handmaid’s Tale or The Left Hand of Darkness. Then watch everyone freak out when they suddenly realize how radical science fiction can be. It ain’t all the adventures of starship engineers.



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  • RogerBW

    Well, judging by the reactions of most schoolchildren to being “taught” books, that’s a sure way of making sure most of those kids will never open an SF book again.

  • b.lynch black

    a lot of mathematicians and scientists don’t *like* science fiction… it’s like a busman’s holiday for them. as a matter of fact, i know a mathematician who likes *fantasy*… that will not inspire rocket ship building.

  • “Compulsory volunteerism” already sounds like something out of science fiction, and I think just about every school system has it these days.

  • Bob

    Wouldn’t it make more sense to try and ensure that maths and science subjects were taught better in schools in the first place-and then students would be so interested in them that they wouldn’t have to be force-fed ”Starship Troopers”, or whatever else Mr. Canterbury has in mind.

  • Given this is a Republican, what do you want to bet Heinlein and Rand will be the sum total of the curriculum?

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    I’m… really not seeing a problem here. In fact, every year I kick around making my 9th or 10th graders read Homer Hickum’s Rocket Boys, and I’m a science teacher. And if we can get the English teachers to expand their horizons beyond Ender’s Game (which is both a middling work of sci-fi and carries more than a little political baggage itself due to it authorship), then great!

    Science and math teachers are always being asked to support language arts. Seems fair to ask the language arts teachers to introduce some hard sci-fi into the literature curriculum.

    About the only flag I’m seeing is the the bill requires sci-fi lit be incorporated into the curriculum. On the other hand, I know enough English teachers to know that a recommendation would likely go unheeded due to a bias that sci-fi isn’t serious literature.

    And if your goal is to use sci-fi lit to encourage interest in STEM, why would you teach The Handmaid’s Tale?

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Thanks, Bob, I’ll take that into consideration. Also, what makes you think this is an either-or scenario?

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Follow that logic all the way through and we (my fellow teachers and I) should never “teach” anything, as doing so is a surefire way to totally disuade any interest in the subject.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Why is it that “Starship Troopers” makes Heinlein a fascist, but “Stranger” doesn’t make him a hippie, nor does “Mistress” make him an anarchist?

  • RogerBW

    Any system under as much restriction as education at the moment gets forced into shutting down anything that uses exploration or imagination in favour of box-ticking: has this subject been taught, yes/no. The end result is people who have lost interest in anything even vaguely academic.

  • I never said that. I was referring more to the individualistic themes and retrograde “free love” themes that make Heinlein so popular amongst the libertarian wing of the modern Republican party. Might have been transgressive for the day, much less so now.

    As to “Starship Troopers” itself, I wouldn’t say that makes Heinlein himself a fascist, but it certainly could fit right in with a Republican-approved curriculum with a pro-miliatary bent.

  • I actually took Mythology and SF/fantasy as my English classes back in High School. The “post secondary” track students were expected to do more critical analysis of literature, and as such, had an option of choosing which flavour of literature we would study. Other options included poetry and children’s literature. Only real difference was the type of books we would read, and which of Shakespeare’s plays we would read.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    And yet college enrollments continue to rise. (Yes I know there was a small dip in 2011 in the UK, but that can be explained by drops in demographics and financial aid opportunities, rather than academic disinterest.)
    Roger, do you work in education? And if so, what subjects and at what level? I ask because I have an inside baseball way of discussing education, and a different way for talking to people outside the field.

  • RogerBW

    College/university is a ticket you have to get if you ever want to get a job. Of course enrollment is up. So’s cheating.
    I don’t teach but I do partly work in supporting students.

  • teenygozer

    I took a couple of “SF as Literature” English courses in high school (1972/73). We did a compare & contrast of “1984” and “Brave New World” and also did a section on Harlan Ellison’s “I have no Mouth and I must Scream” and his story written from the POV of a creature being kept in the basement. The teacher pointed out that the most viscerally terrifying monsters are the ones that exaggerate or distort the human form in some way. I think of that every time I see that distorted face you use for the “oldies” link on your front page. In fact, that image disturbed a friend of mine so deeply that she refused to look at the rest of your site when I tried to show it to her, so it seems my English teacher might have been right!

    We read the first book in the Foundation trilogy and The Martian Chronicles, both of which have spacecraft in it, but with everything we read, the point of none of it was technology or science or math. Everything we read was about humanity with its associated social questions. Probably not what a Republican politician had in mind!

    With regard to Heinlein (as discussed in the comments) I always thought that “Have Spacesuit, Will Travel” would be a good story to teach in class. I’m not a Heinlein fan at all but I loved that book.

    (edited for typo)

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    College/university is a ticket you have to get if you ever want to get a job.

    Fair enough though there do continue to be other options.

    So’s cheating.

    I’m gonna need a citation on that. Preferably one that connects such cheating to disinterest in academics. My experience is that students who don’t care or are just going through the motions don’t bother cheating. It’s the high performing kids you have to watch.

    Education is a lot more complicated than “checking boxes” (largely because we never know just which boxes need to be checked) and inquiry and creativity are not a magic bullets (and I say that as an advocate and practitioner of inquiry based instruction). I invite anyone who thinks education is that stifling and that broken to come sit in my class for a while. But no one ever does, which makes me think they don’t really want to know what goes on. I think it would interfere with a self-reinforcing defeatist attitude that tells them that if “teachers would just do X, they could fix everything.” I suspect that if they came in, they’d see that X is either uselessly vague (“do it better”, “allow creativity”), impractical (“let students decide what they learn”), or already being done in the classrooms.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Thumbs up for “Have Spacesuit…”. It starts out as very hard Sci-fi, but turns into an adventure story.

    But you’re right, soft sci-fi is already in the curriculum. Pushing some well written hard sci-fi seems like the point of this bill. Kim Stanley Robinson or Ben Bova would be a good place to start.

  • Hmmm, a diet of which authors would lead to what kind of United States?

  • Paul

    There was an article in the Guardian by Polly Toynbee recounting her experience spending one day in a school. She was full of admiration for the staff she encountered. But inevitably (for Britain) the article was immediately followed by a “bash the teachers” comment about short hours and long holidays, by someone who had obviously paid no attention to what she had written, and who was repeatedly challenged to spend the day in a school just as Toynbee had. Britain, unfortunately has a very powerful anti-education current running through its culture, that’s difficult to slough off.

    I completely concur about your “inquiry and creativity are not a magic bullets (and I say that as an advocate and practitioner of inquiry based instruction),” since I’ve done some research and publishing on the cult of “critical thinking” and the backlash of the likes of Hirsch.

    But having said all this, I think Roger has a point (at least for the UK — my experience with my colleagues suggests that it also applies to the US) that school inevitably carries with it a cultural flag as “boring”. This doesn’t preclude predominantly positive experiences. It just means that the kneejerk reaction to school is “Ugh!”

    Moreover, reading something to study it and reading something for pleasure do bring different reactions. How often do we hear people say they hated Shakespeare/Dickens/whatever when they studied it at school, but suddenly discovered a love of it reading/watching for pleasure as an adult? There are exceptions (I had an awful teacher for Dickens, so the above applies to me for him, but as it happens the teacher I had for Shakespeare was inspirational, so I loved it even then), but I think the trend Roger is pointing to is there.

    Later on you question whether there is an either/or situation. Exactly! This politician apparently thinks that the secret to “improving” math/science teaching is to hijack literature education. Seems to me like he has a rather warped either/or scenario in his head.

  • RogerBW

    Just so. I count myself lucky that of the five books I “did” for exams I continued to enjoy one of them; that was one more than most of my contemporaries managed.
    And that was in an era when teachers were mostly allowed to teach, rather than having to worry endlessly about getting the highest possible exam marks for every single pupil.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    school inevitably carries with it a cultural flag as “boring”.

    I’m not sure how one expects to fight that cultural perception by simply agreeing with it.

    reading something to study it and reading something for pleasure do bring different reactions.

    Yes, and this is actually a feature, not a bug. There’s more than one way to read, because every type of reading has a purpose. And if you engage in the wrong type of reading for your purpose, you’re going to have a bad time. And what’s more, no one just knows how to read. Every kind of reading must be taught. Even reading for pleasure.

    How often do we hear people say they hated Shakespeare/Dickens/whatever when they studied it at school, but suddenly discovered a love of it reading/watching for pleasure as an adult? There are exceptions (I had an awful teacher for Dickens, so the above applies to me for him, but as it happens the teacher I had for Shakespeare was inspirational, so I loved it even then)

    Some many problematic conclusions being drawn here. How many people never learn to enjoy certain writers or genres. And how do you know that the teacher is the only, or even the primary, cause for this? Maybe adolescent you was never going to have any interest in Dickens, even if adult you does.* People change over time. They are the sum of their experiences, not the result of them.

    This politician apparently thinks that the secret to “improving” math/science teaching is to hijack literature education.

    Where are you getting this? There’s no indication that anything be removed from the curriculum. I am wondering how the W Virginia school system works that curriculum standards are set in the state code, rather than by a school board. But even still, are you suggesting that using sci-fi literature is going to harm language arts education in that state?

  • Paul

    I’m not sure how one expects to fight that cultural perception by simply agreeing with it.

    Er, who said I’m “simply” agreeing with it. I fight that particular cultural perception by, y’know, teaching. Though I’m in a country where the cultural perception is considerably less negative (even though the actual education is frequently more boring).

    There’s more than one way to read, because every type of reading has a purpose. And if you engage in the wrong type of reading for your purpose, you’re going to have a bad time. And what’s more, no one just knows how to read. Every kind of reading must be taught. Even reading for pleasure.

    Right. But whose “purpose” are we talking about here? The student’s? Or the Republican delegate’s?

    Some many problematic conclusions being drawn here.

    Very few conclusions, so it’s hard to see how there can be “many” problematic ones. In the case of Dickens and Shakespeare, I have some basis for judgment because of how things changed when the teacher changed. Initially I had the same teacher for the latter as for the former. I hated Shakespeare. Then the teacher changed, and he completely transformed my views.

    But even still, are you suggesting that using sci-fi literature is going to harm language arts education in that state?

    No, I’m not. Nor am I against studying SF in school. What I am against is the phrasing employed above: the compulsory nature of the promotion and what it is described as being intended for.

  • Bob

    It would be great to have both-and no disrespect intended to the teaching profession. Both my parents were teachers! No disrespect to Heinlein either. I loved ”Starship Troopers” when I read it, when I was about ten or eleven. Heinlein intended it as an adventure story for children, or young adults at least, and it’s always best to bear this i mind when judging its merits, or otherwise. I don’t think that Heinlein was a fascist, just a mischievous libertarian.

  • Paul

    I read the book at about the same age you did, and I also liked it. The idea of earning your citizenship through service stuck with me (a sort of longer version of JFK’s “Ask not…” speech). Though I subsequently came to the conclusion that service to militarism was not what I believed in, I still have some sympathy for the idea of expecting people to contribute to the society they live in (oddly enough, this means I’m one of the few people I know who believes in taxes).

    But like you, I don’t think force-feeding people Starship Troopers is a particularly good way to improve maths or science… or even, come to that, engendering the sort of civic-mindedness I was on about above.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    I don’t think force-feeding people Starship Troopersis a particularly good way to improve maths or science

    You’re right it would not fit the stated goals of the bill, any more that The Handmaid’s Tale would. Has any sort of recommended list been produced, or are well all just riding hobby horses here?

  • Tonio Kruger

    Why exactly is being a Republican the equivalent of being a fascist?

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Er, who said I’m “simply” agreeing with it.

    Well, I think you’re strongly implying that this i just the way it is. And you exceptions aren’t really exceptions.

    But whose “purpose” are we talking about here?

    We, the teachers, set the purpose. That’s, you know, our job.

    What I amagainst is the phrasing employed above: the compulsory nature of the promotion and what it is described as being intended for.

    Well, the phrasing is coming from the Guardian, it’s not in the language of the bill nor the legislator. I kind of suspect the Guardian is trying to evoke an emotional response based on the negative connotations of the word “compulsory”. The word actually used is “require”. W. Virginia probably also requires Shakespeare and algebra. Most curriculum in public schools is in some way “required”. If you’re opposed to the idea of required curriculum, I invite you to go through the content standards of whatever state you like and make some recommendations as to what there isn’t actually an essential part of education.

    I think the intended purpose is to use language arts to help promote interest in math and science. This is the flip side of asking science and math teachers to promote language skills. What is controversial about that? If your problem is that some language arts teachers don’t want to have to incorporate promoting math an science into their lesson, well, tough shit. I don’t want to have to write language development objectives into my goddamn lesson on Newton’s Laws, but I do it. Partly because it’s muy job, and partly because cross-curriculum support hels everyone. And as I mentioned elsewhere, without a list of recommended titles, any suggestion that the goal is anything other than what is stated is masturbatory bullshit.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Because being Democrat is equivalent to being a socialist, duh.

    Also, I seldom hear anyone attempt to link Heinlein to Republicans via any other book than “Starship Troopers”, nor do I often hear criticism of “Starship Troopers” focus on anything besides its supposed support of fascism. So, connect the dots, dude.

  • My high-school chemistry teacher “made” us do science fiction book reports… he introduced me to my lifelong love of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

  • Paul

    We, the teachers, set the purpose. That’s, you know, our job.

    I envy you. I grew up in a country, and now live in another country, where the educational agenda is generally being wrestled over by others. Hence, in this case, I assumed that was what was going on.

    … any suggestion that the goal is anything other than what is stated is masturbatory bullshit.

    It is? Blimey that’s harsh. And is this a principle you apply more generally?

  • Paul

    are well all just riding hobby horses here?

    Last time I looked, this was the Internet, so you figure it out.

  • Paul

    I don’t want to tilt at you while you’re on your hobby-horse, but you might note that both Bob and I are reasonably positive about Starship Troopers, so our point is not some easily-caricatured idea that ST = Fascism = Republicanism. I can’t speak for Bob, but I suspect it was more the ‘force-fed’ part that was the problem. You’re now telling us that this is all a Guardian fabrication in which case, well, OK.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Even where you are, isn’t there a difference between setting the academic agenda (which in the US is done largely by elected school boards and writing and implementing lessons. Even so-called scripted curricula (which are both rare and generally more effective than you’d think) leave room for the teacher to adapt to the needs of a particular class, and don’t come with a government official standing nearby to ensure compliance.

    Blimey that’s harsh. And is this a principle you apply more generally?

    You’re right that was harsh. It’s just that this thread contains a lot of insistence on some hidden, nefarious agenda, when there is a clearly stated, and perfectly reasonable, agenda right there. As for your question, I don’t think I understand your meaning.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    I don’t want to tilt at you while you’re on your hobby-horse

    I see what you did there. Let me lay out my biases in this thread. When I hear claims that the education system in the west is utterly broken, and the implication (when it’s not just being stated outright) that the cause of the breakdown is teacher’s doin’ it wrong, I take that shit personally – probably too personally.

    I read Bob’s walking back on Starship Troopers as a case of damning with faint praise.

    And what I said was that the word “compulsory” comes from the Guardian and not from the bill or its authors, and that that word is significantly more inflammatory than the one actually used.

  • Paul

    OK, I see where the confusion comes from. There has been much discussion in Britain recently about whether or not certain historical figures should be part of the National Curriculum (the instance I recall being Mary Seacole, who had previously “disappeared” from history on account of her being black and Florence Nightingale being white).

    In Japan there has been much discussion over the official textbooks (these being the books that the Ministry of Education specify for courses of study), many of which whitewash wartime activities.

    These interventions into the specific content of education are very clearly political in nature.

    So if I was quick to suspect a nefarious agenda (hardly “hidden”), then that’s why.

    My final question was whether you always believe that it is masturbatory bullshit to wonder whether a professed goal is necessarily the true or only goal. Or is that in this case only?

  • Paul

    claims that the education system in the west is utterly broken,

    Where did you hear them?

    Bob seemed to me pretty sympathetic to teachers (his parents being teachers and all) and I, well, I am one (as is my sister). And I would certainly not hold the view that the education system in the West is broken compared to that of Japan. I’m enmeshed in the fallout of the “Yutori Education” disaster.

    I didn’t see anyone here bashing teachers. I saw a number of people (rightly or wrongly) bashing the people who give teachers orders.

  • singlestick

    I appreciate some of the legislator’s motives, the idea that reading science fiction might be an antidote toward a limited, reductionist way of thinking:

    “In Southern West Virginia, there’s a bit of a Calvinistic attitude
    toward life – this is how things are and they’ll never be any
    different,” he said. “[Science fiction] serves as a kind of antidote to
    that fatalistic kind of thinking.”

    But I don’t think that the best science fiction necessarily “gives you this perspective that as long as you have an imagination and
    it’s grounded in some sort of practical knowledge, you can do anything
    you wanted to”.

    An emphasis on hard Sci Fi would probably eliminate as wonderful and graceful a writer as Ray Bradbury. And good writers have created worlds in which dragons are advanced technology. An overly utilitarian perspective, pushing hard sci fi to encourage science education, is about as goofy as saying that you want to include episodes of CSI in schools in order to encourage students to get into medicine or law enforcement.

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