Despite not being an avid fan of Science Fiction when I was younger (unless you count random viewings of Star Trek reruns), I engaged in a thorough study of scientific literature in the course of pursuing a degree in the Natural Sciences. Instead of Nineteen Eighty-Four, I read books about the discovery of the cell and of cloning; instead of Jules Verne’s literary journeys, I followed the real-life treks of Albert Schweitzer. I studied Biology and was proud of it! I was smart and cool (as much as a high school student can be) for although I loved Science, I never would have identified as a Sci-Fi nerd.
But, looking back, I begin to wonder.
For those who have never had the distinct pleasure of studying Biology (or who have pushed the memory far into the recesses of their minds), let me offer a brief taste via this diagram of the Krebs Cycle:
Admittedly, not overly complicated (but certainly a lot for my high school mind to understand), I found myself making up a story of sorts in order to remember the steps. The details are fuzzy, but I seem to recall some sort of bus with passengers getting on and off as the vehicle made a circuit and ended up back at a station. I will be the first to admit that this particular tale wasn’t overly sophisticated or spectacular, but, when you think about it, wasn’t it a form of science fiction? So my story didn’t feature futuristic cars, robots, aliens, or rockets—but, at its core, it represented a narrative that helped me to make sense of my world, reconciling the language of science with my everyday vernacular. At the very least, it was a fiction about science fact.
And, ultimately, isn’t this what Science Fiction is all about (at least in part)? We can have discussions about hard vs. soft or realistic vs. imaginary, but, for me, the genre has always been about people’s connection to concepts in science and their resulting relationships with each other. Narrative allows us to explore ethical, moral, and technological issues in science that scientists themselves might not even think about. We respond to innovations with a mixture of anxiety, hope, and curiosity and the stories that we tell often reveal that we are capable of experiencing all three emotional states simultaneously! For those of us who do not know jargon, Science Fiction allows us to respond to the field on our terms as we simply try to make sense of it all. Moreover, because of its status as genre, Science Fiction also affords us the ability to touch upon deeply ingrained issues in a non-threatening manner: as was mentioned in our first class with respect to humor, our attention is so focused on tech that we “forget” that we are actually talking about things of serious import. From Frankenstein to Dr. Moreau, the Golem, Faust, Francis Bacon, Battlestar Galactica and Caprica (among many others), we have continued to struggle with our relationship to Nature and God (and, for that matter, what are Noah and Babel about if not technology!) all while using Science Fiction as a conduit. Through Sci-Fi we not only concern ourselves with issues of technology but also juggle concepts of creation/eschatology, autonomy, agency, free will, family, and society.
It would make sense, then, that modern science fiction seemed to rise concurrent with post-Industrial Revolution advancements as the public was presented with a whole host of new opportunities and challenges. Taken this way, Science Fiction has always been about the people—call it low culture if you must—and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
“This implies, does it not, that in order to raise a generation of children who can reach their full potential, we must find a way to make their lives interesting. And the question I have for you, Mr. Hackworth, is this: Do you think that schools accomplish that? Or are they like the schools Wordsworth complained of?”
–Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age
Fifteen years after these words are written, we are still struggling to answer the question posed by Science Fiction author Neal Stephenson. Increasingly, we are finding that our American educational system does not raise a generation of children to reach their full potential; arguments about mental acuity aside, we seem to suffer from a generation of college applicants that is, well, rather uninteresting. This is not to say that there aren’t amazing students out there–there definitely are some–but they are more the exception than the rule.
To combat this, we have seen a rise in adult-driven initiatives that aim to cultivate interesting children. Although I don’t disagree with the sentiment, I do disagree with the practice. Fantastic trips and summer camps are not, in and of themselves, the problem. (Certainly, I think we have come adopt a rather distorted view of what’s important and, on some level, we’ve all heard these arguments before. Bigger is better, theater audiences want to see their money on stage, news headlines scream at us, spectacle is rampant, etc.) Rather, I take issue with the idea that many applicants try to substitute someone else’s story for their own: time and time again, I have come across students who traveled to poor villages, or did research, or spent the summer living in European hostels and they typically tell me the same story. These students tell me the central narrative of what they were supposed to have learned or experienced on these adventures and, sometimes, force themselves to have those experiences whether they are genuine or not. Without realizing it, many of subscribed to the notion that there is a typical experience one is supposed to have in the Costa Rican jungles and they recount this like it was the most magical awakening. And, to be fair, it might have been, but I would argue that the shift in perspective is only part of it–everyone goes through an awakening at some point in his or her life–what I want from students is to understand what this change wrought in them. How did you learn something that forever changed the way that you saw the world, such that you couldn’t ever go back?
Or we extol the virtues of Boredom as a provider of quiet spaces free from stimulation, forgetting that, with the incredible, restless youth have also managed to enact incredible amounts of destruction. The practices of contemplation, introspection, and awareness can result from boredom but we are mistaken if we consider boredom to be a prerequisite.
Ultimately, I think that teaching kids to cultivate a passion is not the same as demanding mastery–sure, passion may lead to mastery and I’m not trying to stifle that process–but all I really want is for a student to want to be smarter, to be braver, to be more inquisitive. Simply put, all I really want is for a student to want to be more. If this is our goal, the trips and the flashy photos and the houses built all melt away for we see that we can have–that we do have–meaningful experiences every day. We don’t need to “discover” hidden truths but we do need to reconsider what’s happening around, to, and in us. I think we need to train kids how to understand the import of their “normal” lives and, perhaps more importantly, how to translate these lessons learned into purposeful action.