Saturday, 14 January 2012


Science Faction and Education

Back in the ‘70s, when i was an impressionable child, there was a vogue for what a school friend of mine called “Science Faction”, or, as he put it, “science fiction written as if it was true”.  An example of this might be a mock-up of a newspaper front page covering current affairs in the Galactic Empire.  There were various books written in this form, varying from the mushy soft (implausible) to the fairly hard (scientifically plausible), without a strong narrative element.  The most well-known survivors of this genre from that time include the Terran Trade Federation series.  Similar books are still sometimes published today, such as the Haynes Manual for the Millenium Falcon (though of course Star Wars is not SF).
One of my favourite books of this time is the ‘Handbook For Space Pioneers’ by L. Stephen Wolfe and Roy L Wysack, published in 1978.  This is a description of the eight planets colonised by humans in the year 2376, going into considerable detail about their statistics, life forms and, most interestingly for the purposes of this blog entry, the societies on these planets, notably for the purposes of this blog, education.  Other content of this book has been reviewed unwittingly elsewhere on the web, but is hard to find.
The book was written at a time when the post-war consensus had yet to break down, though being American it is more committed to the principles of free enterprise than the UK economy was at the time.  Nevertheless, it implies clear assumptions about how the education of children would develop which is reflected in other science fiction, for instance to some extent Asimov’s ‘The Fun They Had’, which can be found here:
(I may refer to this in a future blog).
Anyway, the eight planets, discovered and colonised in order, are as follows:
Wyzdom:  in the Alpha Centauri system and considered a lucky find, by the date the book is set it has been inhabited for about three centuries and is a mature society whose standards of living are like Earth’s in the 24th century.  The model of education on Wyzdom is therefore not influenced by material necessity such as the lack of resources or poor communications and transport:  remoteness or inaccessibility are, for example, not factors.
Education on Wyzdom is lifelong and referred to as “common”.  There is no state education and children learn by a combination of non-profit cooperatives, private tuition and computer-aided learning.  Autonomous education begins at below what we would think of as school age and continues throughout life.
Poseidous:  A planet whose land surface consists entirely of small islands and consequently has a wide variety of political systems and independent states.  Two contrasting islands are Troon, a hedonistic society basically inhabited by hippies who have few material needs due to the good climate and abundant resources, and who pass on their culture efficiently nevertheless without any formal education system at all.  This is contrasted with Moamba, a totalitarian state where government policy is to minimise family life.  Childbearing on Moamba is seen as a grim duty to the state, everyone wears overalls and children are raised in publically-funded childcare centres and then compulsory state boarding schools.  A small minority of parents look after their own children.  The general depiction of Moamban society is negative and the reader is clearly expected to disapprove of this system.
Brobdingnag:  This is the newest of the older colonies, and there was a gap between the arrival of humans on this planet and the following due to First Contact taking place.  Hence it is, like Wyzdom and unlike Poseidous, neither underdeveloped nor geographically fragmented.  The continent which is most densely populated and on which the planetary capital is situated, i.e. the most developed one, where like Wyzdom there is basically an Earth-like level of technology, has a law requiring parents to purchase education for their children up to the age of nineteen.  However, there and elsewhere, education is not state-funded and local schools are organised and funded by the community as opposed to local or planetary government.
Genesis:  This planet lacks any complex life and is therefore considered to be a predictable and controllable environment which can be easily developed to human needs, even lacking infectious diseases.  This gives the planet a level of predictability which means that a command economy is appropriate for the colony.  Little is said about children’s education here, but since it is a state socialist, though democratic, society, it can probably be presumed that schooling is both state-funded and compulsory on Genesis, though this is not explicit.
Mammon:  High in rare earths and on the lower edge of habitability, a corporation led the colonisation of this planet but it has now become a fully-fledged society.  The autobiographical section describes the education of the writer as a child, which is materially under-resourced and led by ordinary people volunteering as teachers and maximising their use of physical materials such as drawing on the ground with sticks.  There is also computer-aided education.
Yom:  Children’s education is not mentioned on this planet but it may be too primitive and new for it to have become an issue.  However, the autobiographical section describes the foundation of the planet’s first university.
Romulus:  Since this planet, which is double and settled under special conditions because the other planet contains a technologically primitive but intelligent humanoid species, is governed under socialist principles, it may have compulsory schooling.  Laissez-faire activity is inappropriate here due to the non-interference policy.
Athena:  So far unsettled.

What interests me about all this is that, in spite of the fact that this book is in no way focussed on education, the assumption was that children’s education in the future would be substantially autonomous, not funded by the state and substantially aided by ICT, whether or not the society in which it existed was technologically advanced.  The point is that this is an assumption:  the idea that schools as they then stood would still exist in the future was completely rejected almost without conscious thought.  Moreover, this assumption is typical of science fiction of the time:  it was assumed that because of communications and information technology, state schooling would either vanish or become more autonomous. 
Which leads us to ask the question:  Why is the developed world not in fact like this today?  Why have we gone in the opposite direction with education policy?  These works generally underestimate the rate of progress in IT, and yet for some reason we still have schools.  So what’s that about?