Should Science Fiction Be Mandatory for Students?
A Republican politician from West Virginia wants to make works of science fiction compulsory reading in his state’s middle and high school curricula. The reason is, according to the pending bill, to “promote 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.”
West Virginia State delegate Ray Canterbury believes the former. He has proposed the bill to the West Virginia Board of Education out of the specific wish “stimulate interest in math and science among students.” (Such educational issues seem to be one of his concerns; another bill proposed by Canterbury calls for prohibiting the use of “calculators for teaching purposes” for K-8 students).
Noting that he is himself a fan of the works of Isaac Asimov and Jules Verne, Canterbury emphasizes that he is not referring to “fantasy novels about dragons” but “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.”
Asserting their support for Canterbury’s bill are writer David Brin and James Gunn, the founder of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at Kansas University, who points out that
Because science fiction incorporates the one thing that is undeniably true in today’s fiction — that the world is changing — it has the capability of shaping that change as well as adjusting to it. As I say in my signature motto, “Let’s save the world through science fiction.”
Science fiction has the capability, at its best, of exercising the rational portions of the brain.
Brin also underscores the value of reading science fiction in a world full of change. Noting how works like George Orwell’s “1984” and Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” can be seen as “self-fulfilling prophecies,” Brin emphasizes how science fiction can give us a sense of what — given predictions and trends about global warming, the melting of arctic sea ice, rising sea levels, habitat loss and more — could befall us. Like Canterbury, he is wary of some works of science fiction, especially many recently published that are “either gloomy dystopias or else fantasy tales wallowing in dreamy yearnings for a beastly way of life called feudalism.”
The latter could be a (rather cynical) reference to “The Hunger Games” or even be extended to works like Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” which shows the power plus the potential misuses of science, with a message warning us of our limits. Brin offers suggestions for a number of science fiction books that “wrestle with concepts at the very cutting edge” and ways to encourage the writing of “new and better” science fiction works for kids.
Brin and Gunn focus rather on science fiction’s capacity to inspire an interest in science and its use in solving the problems of the world. Canterbury, too, seems to see science and science fiction performing such a role. In his own state of West Virginia, a “bit of a Calvinistic attitude toward life” exists, he says. Science fiction imagines alternate scenarios rather than suggesting we are destined to be stuck in the same old circumstances.
Science fiction works including Orwell’s “1984” have long been on school reading curricula. Given repeated reports and statistics of the U.S.’s lack of STEM professionals, could newer science fiction titles make a real difference not only in an English class curriculum, but in math and science classes?
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