A West Virginia State Delegate has proposed a bill to make reading Science Fiction in schools mandatory. A refreshing idea from a surprising source (the delegate is…wait for it… a Republican). Unlike his conservative colleagues who apparently can’t wrap their heads around science in any coherent way, Ray Canterbury (no, not Bradbury but close) has a goal of promoting science and technology in the classroom as a way to encourage young minds towards thinking about science as a tool of progress.
Canterbury explains the goal of the 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 love it, and it may help students get out of the scientific rut they’ve been in for the past few decades, as we’ve seen many countries pass our dominance of scientific thinking and research. I’ll let the great Neil DeGrasse Tyson show you how bad it’s gotten for America lately:
The kids aren’t really at fault, it’s adults doing adult things like going to war and cutting taxes that make doing science so hard to fund in this country, but the kids are the key because, to borrow a cliche, they are the future. Some of them will grow up to be senators, congressman, and – a few of them – will be Presidents. They need to be better than what we’ve got now (see the links above for some facepalm examples). They need to understand the world around them better than what we’ve got now.
It’s been 60 years since the heart of the Space race era. In those heady days, it was not just a nice thought but a compulsion to look at big dreams and try to find ways to tackle them. Of course, in the middle of all that high mindedness, there was the lurking, dangerous seed of nuclear warfare and global annihilation due to stupidity and competition (referred to as the “Cold War”). But surrounding that folly was a national feeling that there was nothing too big or too challenging that technology and spirit couldn’t solve. Young boys (unfortunately, it was mostly boys) flocked to careers in science and math.
The science fiction of the era reflected that sentiment as well. Science as progress was everywhere. Arthur C. Clark and Isaac Asimov were literary giants, writing down the future in fictive form. It wasn’t a matter of if we would colonize our solar system within a century, but when. Here we are, 12 years passed 2001 and that movie still feels futuristic. I’ve read a great deal of their books in high school and college (No, I wasn’t really the life of a party), and their visions of human ingenuity and technological utopias were always motivating me to learn more about science. I desperately wanted to be a member of a bold and intelligent space crew, tackling an impending threat to mankind through science, using futuristic robotics and computers to save the day (Trust me, I REALLY was not the life of a party).
Those kinds of stories seem quaint and naive now. Slowly, as the 60s moved into the 70s and the Space Age that culminated in the moon landing receded from memory, science and technology were viewed with a growing wariness. Soon, the artificial intelligence in movies was more likely to be terminators than bicentennial men. Eventually, as science began more and more to conflict with conservative worldviews, science itself was cast into suspicion and accused of threatening profits with inconvenient truths. The current trend in science fiction literature and movies is to portray dystopian visions of societies destroyed by their own hubris. Technology will betray us, these stories say. Be careful. It’s an appealing and scary idea because more and more technology is everywhere. We are a creature divided: enjoying the technologies we fear.
That’s why a concerted push to reintroduce positive science fiction back into the classroom and onto the radar of our children could be so important. It could be the game changer we need. It could start to repair the damage that decades of scorn and defunding have done to our national opinion of science. If you look at the greatest achievements that mankind has ever done, all of them have been from improving or embracing emerging technology (from the wheel all the way to the Internet). I want to live in a country that builds stuff, like really cool stuff. I’d rather we have less Stealth Bombers and more Space Shuttles. I want to see us reach for the stars literally. Science Fiction at its best is a reflection of who we are and what we can be. It explores the human condition just as much as it explores alien worlds. Kids who read about floating in space, might someday want to know how it really feels. Kids who read about a problem solved with pragmatic innovation, might someday want to innovate. What perhaps is the most thrilling development in a new enthusiasm for science and science fiction is that it is no longer a males only domain. We have the opportunity to inspire ALL of our children. In the end, maybe we don’t need to wait until 2030 to go to mars, we would just need to walk to the library.