Why Science Fiction is an important genre in English education

posted in: Books, Dave, SFWA, Writing | 0

A student got on Reddit recently and said his teacher, who he named Mrs. Logsdon, despised Sci Fi.  The student wanted to hear reactions.  This is what I posted.  I kind of hope he gives it to her.

That a teacher, an English teacher especially, would discourage any student from reading shows she’s got her head up her ass. I wouldn’t put it like that to her unless she was rude during the debate; but I would point out to her that reading anything is a start. People don’t pick something up unless they enjoy it; so forcing students to read academic crap (yes, crap would be the world I’d use, first time and early on in the discussion) is part of the reason reading has become less and less popular.

By the time students get out of high school, they’ve been forced to read titles that they’re less and less connected to. It teaches them that reading is an onerous and tedious activity, one that is not enjoyable or interesting. Students should be encouraged to read, and assisted in finding things they will want to read.

Stephen King is probably the greatest living American author; not because of sales, but because millions and millions of people respect his body of work. Not simply “like” it; respect it. King is a master storyteller and a brilliant writer. He names JK Rowling as the next author to go on the literary shelf of classics.

“I think Harry will take his place with Alice, Huck, Frodo, and Dorthy and this series is not just for the decade, but the ages.”

 

And he’s right. Harry Potter is taught academically in some universities as a multi-part course, and not simply as a ‘gimmie’ class either. The craft and skill Rowling put into building the entire tale is worthy of study. High school English classes that put Harry Potter on the requiring reading list would be boggled at how many students came out the other end of the curriculum willing to keep reading; and how much more they would have learned about English and writing, which is the point of requiring reading in English class.

But King’s Horror and Thrillers, and Rowling is Fantasy. This teacher specifically hates SF. So …

You could point out to her that of the following titles, two are on the USMC’s and US Naval Academy’s reading list, and as many as a dozen others are on the reading lists of most high schools and (definitely) universities in America. She very probably was required to read at least six of these getting her BA in English. If she’s got a Masters or Doctorate, she’s probably studied more than six. Not just read, studied.

  • 1984 (Orwell)
  • Animal Farm (Orwell)
  • Brave New World (Huxley)
  • The War of the Worlds (Wells)
  • The Time Machine (Wells)
  • Stranger in a Strange Land (Heinlein)
  • Starship Troopers (Heinlein)
  • Ender’s Game (Card)
  • Fahrenheit 451 (Bradbury)
  • Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (Verne)
  • The Foundation Trilogy (Asimov)
  • I, Robot (Asimov)
  • Neuromancer (Gibson)
  • Snow Crash (Stephenson)
  • Ringworld (Niven)
  • Contact (Sagan)
  • The Forever War (Haldeman)
  • Jurassic Park (Crichton)
  • The Mote in God’s Eye (Niven, Pournelle)
  • I Am Legend (Matheson)
  • The Time Traveler’s Wife (Niffenegger)
  • Rendezvous With Rama (Clarke)
  • The Mars Trilogy (Robinson)
  • Lucifer’s Hammer (Niven, Pournelle)
  • Alas, Babylon (Frank)
  • Frankenstein (Shelley)
  • Millennium (Varley)
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz (Miller)
  • The Martian (Weir)
  • The War Against the Chtorr (Gerrold)
  • Dune (Herbert)

Science Fiction is the genre of what if and what would and let’s see. It’s the genre that explores the future, extrapolates from the present and predicts into tomorrow, and that offers visions of what might come.

Today’s surveillance society was explored by 1984 decades before computers were small enough to not fill an entire room, and when satellites were barely even a concept. Censorship was given a convenient label and explanation with Fahrenheit 451. How humanity could (or should) treat with non-human sentient life has been dealt with in so many SF titles it would be tiresome to even try to name a fraction of them, but Contact will do for just one.

Politicians started arguing about cloning, genetic manipulation, and similar medical advances only in the past ten or fifteen years. SF authors were asking those questions as much as a century ago.

Computer driven cars are provoking conversations about “how should the car be programmed to deal with sudden accident circumstances; such as, should it be forced to crash itself if a child runs out into the road.” SF authors have been hashing out scenarios of robotic conscious and pre-programmed artificial morality for decades.

Hell, even the very concept of robots, the name they’re given, comes from Science Fiction. In 1921; before computers had even been invented. Before the industrial revolution had started to move much (if at all) past leather belts on flywheels and steam powered factories. And I’m only just now, in the past couple of years, beginning to see mainstream society poise questions about robots and how they fit into humanity; the same questions Asimov spent so much of his catalog exploring.

Science Fiction is the genre that combines fact with imagination, and offers logic and reason to take it that next step. Some titles in the field are more ‘serious’ than others, but all start from that nugget of spinning something that is into something that might be. And then they dwell on it to extract narrative, which always (to some degree, be it large or small) holds a focus on that inquisitive starting point.

A huge majority of engineers and scientists cite Science Fiction as a strong motivator in what attracted or encouraged them to their fields of study. SF is the field of dreams.

I’ll say it again. That an English Teacher would be so dismissive of a genre that drives the technical imagination so hard and fruitfully, that has provided the framework for not only past issues and questions, or even current ones, but for the problems and advances of tomorrow, shows she’s the worst sort of academic. Someone unfit to call herself a teacher.

Teachers are supposed to inspire. Facilitate. Advocate. They’re supposed to be the bridge and guide from ignorance to enlightenment.

She has failed.

But the easier way to say all of this is, again, that she’s got her head up her ass.

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