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Worlds Without End Blog

West Virginia Republicans Pushing for Compulsory Reading… Posted at 2:18 PM by Jonathan McDonald


…of science fiction (You thought I was going to say creationist textbooks, didn’t you? Admit it…):

A bill calling for science fiction to be made compulsory reading in schools has been proposed by a politician in West Virginia in order to “stimulate interest in the fields of math and science”.

Ray Canterbury, a Republican delegate, is appealing to the West Virginia board of education to include science fiction novels on the middle school and high school curriculums. “The Legislature finds that promoting 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,” he writes in the pending bill.

On a personal note, I can’t say that my own interest in the sciences had anything to do with science fiction. I much preferred reading popular science books to science fiction.

“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.”

How much science fiction even deals directly with math and the various sciences, except for using a popular (and often wrong) understanding of scientific discoveries as a structure for a plot? But maybe I should avoid starting a debate about hard-vs-soft scifi. Instead, I’ll incite one about scifi-vs-fantasy:

“I’m not interested in fantasy novels about dragons,” Canterbury told Blastr in a recent interview. “I’m primarily interested in 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.”

Nobody tell this guy about Dragonflight.

This seems like a very neat idea, but there are certainly some valid concerns about potential indoctrination, here. Science fiction authors almost always have a political or philosophical axe to grind, and public schools aren’t known for teaching students how to read a book–especially a compulsory book–with a critical eye. Who decides which scifi books children should be compelled to read? The news article quotes David Brin expressing his approval of the plan, but his disapproval of reading “either gloomy dystopias or else fantasy tales wallowing in dreamy yearnings for a beastly way of life called feudalism.”

What do you think? Is this a great way to force children to expand their mental horizons, or just another opportunity for indoctrination by lobbyists?


icowrich   |   24 Apr 2013 @ 14:45

Dystopias represent some of the best the genre has to offer. Huxley, Orwell and St. Thomas More are just a few who have proven those types of books to have vitally relevent themes. I’m not sure why Brin is down on them.

Trey   |   24 Apr 2013 @ 14:47

From the article above, “Science fiction authors almost always have a political or philosophical axe to grind”. Do not quite agree with this. Some, yes, but not “almost always”. Many are just trying to entertain. And, does not most “literature” in school represent a political or philosophical viewpoint? I, often, disagreed with the writer as I critically read works assigned in my school years. Luckily, I had teachers that encouraged thinking for oneself. Hopefully, that is still the case, because how can you reached an informed opinion without real debate.

icowrich   |   24 Apr 2013 @ 17:23

I wouldn’t even mind a curriculum with politically outspoken books, so long as those political views were diverse. What you want is to spur debate.

Mattastrophic   |   24 Apr 2013 @ 22:46

I think that science fiction, however little some of it can teach about the actual nuts and bolts of science, can be a great teaching tool for talking about the ethical and moral questions brought on by advancing technologies. For example, I read Huxley in a high school Bio. class and we used Brave New World as a foil for talking about genetics, inherited traits, and the ethics of genetic engineering. One of my students was writing about the ethics of genetic engineering this term and I referred her to the movie Gattaca, which does a great job of exploring the promises and pitfalls of widespread eugenics. Last year I even read an article on medical ethics that cited an example from one of Iain Banks’ Culture novels. This sounds like it is following a more general trend of using popular, accessible readings to get students interested in the nuts and bolts of science. I have no doubt that it will do that for some readers, but I think it can more easily be used to get students interested in the kinds of questions they should be thinking about as informed citizens.

J.R. McGinnity   |   15 May 2013 @ 15:06

I like the idea of bringing sci-fi into school, whatever the justification. I think they should bring in fantasy too, but that is because of my own predeliction for the genre (it’s primarily what I write after all).

However, to be completely honest, if you want something fictional to help students get interested in math and science the students should watch movies like Iron Man (seriously, who watched that and DIDN’T want to be that smart and tech-savvy?).

Awesome idea though. Fiction is often so much more engaging than fact.

Scott D   |   15 May 2013 @ 15:38

It will depending the novels chosen, essentially. However, having SF in English class may keep more of the students interested in the work,a huge plus.

Mind, in the 80s in Ontario, Huxley’s Brave New World was part of the curriculum, as was Bradbury A Sound of Thunder. The idea isn’t new, just not wide spread.

Martha Bridegam   |   15 May 2013 @ 23:11

Would worry that requiring students to read a thing will inoculate them against liking it.

Jeff Xilon   |   15 May 2013 @ 23:20

Personally, I can’t see a downside to this unless you want to argue that there should be no readling lists or literature taught to students. Any argument that can be raised about how the science fiction books might be taught badly, selected poorly or fail to instill in the students the desired effect can be raised against any other kind of book used by the schools as well. It seems to me that, at worst, adding science fiction titles to a school curriculum will simply diversify the kind of books being taught, and that I think can’t be bad.

M L Brennan   |   16 May 2013 @ 01:12

I admit to knee-jerk leeriness solely because the idea is being pushed by West Virginia Republicans, but, hey, even a blind hog can find the occasional truffle, right?

I don’t think that sci-fi books would necessary stimulate more students into going into STEM studies, but on the other hand, I think it would be great on a few levels. Firstly, while I love a lot of the classics, I’m sad to say that they don’t always instill a love of reading for most students — so maybe this would help encourage more people to read. Secondly, as an educator, really good sci-fi can be *FUN* to teach because a lot of the best sci-fi is more about human behavior and ethics rather than how the ship’s engines function.

There are a lot worse ideas out there about education. At least this one would keep people reading and actually be something that both students and teachers might enjoy.

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