Dress rehearsal for the future

Why science fiction should be part of the curriculum

Martin Griffiths 1 February 2009

Infinite horizons: speculative fiction can prepare students for what's to come

How can anyone participate in the public decision-making process if they are so ignorant of the scientific, technological, aesthetic, historical and philosophical components involved in such debates?

Editor's note: Although does not normally deal with science fiction, we are interested in how SF influences society's perceptions of science in culture. In this essay, the author wonders how SF could be used as an educational tool to greatest effect.

Science fiction (SF) has many definitions, but one of the greatest from the perspective of educators is that of Joanna Russ, who defined SF as “a literature that attempts to assimilate imaginatively, scientific knowledge about reality and the scientific method, as distinct from the merely practical changes science has made in our lives” (Russ 1995:7). It is this imaginative approach that characterizes SF's appeal as a widening genre that affects all who come in contact with it. The phenomenal success of the highest grossing films such as Star Wars, Independence Day, Jurassic Park, ET, Close Encounters, The Matrix and many more attest to the success of not only its value as entertainment, but its ability to excite, fascinate and encompass human values.

SF as a literary text carries an impact on human consciousness equal to, if not greater than, that of their blockbuster film incarnations. Perceived as initially being a “Western” phenomenon, the rise of SF within the industrialized world is a reflection of the cultural modes linking society, science and technology together, growing with these forces, expressing and evaluating them, relating them meaningfully to human existence (Franklin 1966:1). As the world moves towards increasing dependency on industry and commerce, globalized human society finds an outlet for its anxiety, uncertainties and angst via the social criticism and “what if?” premise of SF. The dawn of the 21st century has heralded the implementation of many scientific techniques and ideals discussed in the best SF novels, leading to a unique insight that is often misread as prophetic. SF is not prophetic. Rather it is creative and innovative, addressing complex human questions about our role in the cosmos which is both cross-curricular and invigorating, demanding a widening knowledge of various disciplines, drawing together the disparate strands of science and the humanities, and generating application to our modern world and its broadening horizons.

Science fiction and education – breaking the barriers

The late SF writer Jack Williamson expressed the appeal of SF and its utility in education in his book Education for the Future – Teaching Science Fiction (1980). SF, he claims, has a timely sense of realism that is lacking from so called “realistic” fiction (e.g. the novels of Harold Robbins) and establishes the thought that, however unreal or weird its machines or alien motifs may appear, it drives the acknowledgement that technology and imagination are changing our world. SF also allows us to think the unthinkable, to explore a scenario from different viewpoints without having to experience the horrors of the reality of such schemes (apocalyptic SF for example). Additionally, SF offers us freedom to think, and to say what we think without inhibitions.

In society today, pressures to conform are stifling and are especially felt at school levels where peer pressure can have distinct disadvantages. SF becomes a leveller where common themes and complex attitudes can be appropriately investigated via a selected text and openly discussed in a class environment without stigma, possibly leading to extracurricular reading and further personal research. Literature and film texts can be enjoyed in an educational setting, injecting a diversion from traditional texts widely considered by youth as “boring” or outdated, and possibly opening the genre, its ideologies and its “scientific content” to wider application. Lastly, SF is “international in appeal, revealing that we are inhabitants of one planet in an infinite cosmos. It clarifies our jealousies, our class distinctions, divisions of race, religion and nation and throws a harsh and critical light upon our human attitudes toward ourselves and our role in the universe” (Williamson 1980:10).

Thus the value of SF and its inclusion in the curriculum can be interpreted as an essential part of our education, especially one in which schooling promotes discriminating faculties that are later applied in life. Some of the greatest scientists in 20th century research were propelled into their respective disciplines by the vigorous speculation found in SF. This in turn has resulted in many influential scientists reflecting upon and popularising their fields via accessible science texts and common journals, increasing the public understanding of science. When they do this, they occasionally draw on the common motifs and examples of SF, filling a public thirst for accurate knowledge that otherwise would become occupied with pseudo-scientific ideologies, to the detriment of educational desires. The astronomer and SETI advocate Carl Sagan addresses these concerns in his book The Demon Haunted World – Science as a Candle in the Dark. Sagan not only stresses the importance of science education in our technological society, but also illustrates the capacity of SF to draw ingenious parallels and connections to modern science. He admits himself as fortunate to have been influenced by SF when a child. He ponders that “the greatest human significance of SF may be as experiments on the future, as explorations of alternative destinies, as attempts to minimize future shock. The fact that some SF is not of the highest quality is irrelevant […] ten year olds do not read the scientific journals” (Sagan 1997:23).

This is a good point. It is essential that the ideas prevalent in SF rather than the stories themselves are used in such a fashion as to produce insight into the world around us. One contemporary author, Thomas Disch, argues that to enable a reconciliation and analogy between the imaginary world and the real one, SF must be both thought-provoking and bewitching. Discussing the contribution to popular culture of the TV show Star Trek as an example, he draws on the venom of Peter Nicholls who slates the show as “unimaginative SF pandering to the Anglo-Saxon Protestant, middle class manner” (Nicholls1979:278). Star Trek is often assumed by critics to be SF at its most unassuming and least challenging. Disch however ponders this problem from an alternate standpoint, and says: “a challenge is traditionally the prelude to a duel, not to a half hour of light entertainment. The first order of business is not to challenge but to entice” (Disch 1998:98). Generating an attraction for, and enjoyment of a subject is one of the first hurdles any teacher faces. The use of SF may entice students to reconsider their first impressions of a topic.

More difficult concepts with subjective overtones can be illuminated with the spotlight of science fiction. Sectors of our civilization are concerned with the effects of industry, politics, economics and technology on the environment, whilst one of the most chilling possibilities of scientific research, human cloning and genetic manipulation, are a constant feature of news items. Science fiction has addressed these concerns, reflecting and evaluating our environmental impact, clarifying issues, warning of the consequences of misuse, questioning the validity of technological progress and penetrating the “tunnel vision” approach that allows the public a blind faith in scientific progress to the detriment of the world we inhabit (Disch 1973:14). It is perhaps understandable in this light that many ordinary people are fearful of the power of science and its so-called advances. Pamela Sargent has questioned the imagined “progress” of science in her anthology Bio-futures, reflecting that we live in an age of scientific horrors which are out of the common control, and which devolve upon our elected representatives to cope with on our behalf – representatives who for the most part have as little understanding of science and its consequences as the average man in the street. She claims that our “apprehensions may be better directed towards what governments and various agencies might do with their knowledge, rather than worry about the developments themselves” (Sargent 1976:xvii), a claim which introduces a political dynamic into the classroom, allowing the voters of the future an informed angle on the ethical, moral, philosophical and political consequences of the actions of the establishment.

Supplementary evidence of the educational value of SF can be examined in the light of alternate histories or counterfactuals; stories which turn the accepted models of history on their heads by investigating different perspectives, such as the Nazis winning World War II or the Confederacy winning the American Civil War. What could such altered histories teach us? Gardner Dozois and Stanley Schmidt argue “alternate histories in SF can spark lively political debate, and by examining how things did not happen, may shed light on the reasons things did happen the way they are portrayed in commonly accepted history. SF becomes a valuable teaching tool, a great way to incite curiosity in students and historians alike” (Dozois and Schmidt 1998:xiv). The SF writer John Brunner alludes to the penetrative future themes of SF and its value in society by quoting a speech by the Member of Parliament Raymond Fletcher to the 1970 SF convention in London. Fletcher noted that the social criticism of quality SF may “dramatize for government planners the social implications of new town plans, population projections, and the rest of the dry statistical matter involved in long-term forecasting, in the hope that decisions would be reached with a keener understanding of the drawbacks for the individual” (Brunner 1976:6).

It can be appreciated from the foregoing arguments that SF is utilitarian, a tool for achieving certain educative purposes which are not solely related to SF. Generating enthusiasm for a subject via the lessons implicit in SF ensures participation, communication of ideas, pleasure of research, correlation and application of data, lateral thinking ability, critical analysis and social interaction along with many other key life skills such as comprehension, reading ability and increased vocabulary.

It can be argued that scientific, or even seemingly scientific, conceptions, when encountered in youth, can influence adult behaviour. The youth of today are the adults of tomorrow. What sort of world will they inhabit? Will they shape the destiny of mankind by utilizing the visions of SF? The values of our society change from generation to generation, evolving and re-evaluating what is moral, ethical and acceptable in conjunction with emerging philosophies and technologies. “In the course of our natural evolution we may or may not achieve a higher, more harmonious state in keeping with our 'civilized' concepts, but our race cannot depend on that, and the individual cannot wait for it; we must remake ourselves, and SF is a signpost directing the way” (Ettinger 1972:21). Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein both claimed that SF is the literature of change, and it is the ability to cope with such changes that will enable mankind to enter the technological future with faith in his adaptability to new challenges.

To some extent we already live in a world modeled by these motifs. Sargent claims that SF has already warned us of the dangers of change, whilst at the same time legitimizing the concept (Sargent 1976:xx). What revelation does contemporary SF hold for our future; what novelties can be found within the genre that apply to our culture? People educated with these patterns can face the future with confidence. They may not be astounded if we were to receive a message from an extraterrestrial civilization; Artifical Intelligence may become commonplace, man may overcome the environmental problems we currently face, our children may live in a globalised Utopian society; many of the hundreds of “prognostications” of SF may come to pass – the point being that they have already been accommodated to these possibilities by their implementation of the lessons inherent in SF. Such people are conscious of the outward urge of man's endeavours, clearly informed of the possibilities and drawbacks of scientific, technological, ecological, humanitarian or political progress, adapting to and comprehending a society in which they can play a dynamic, purposeful role.

Science and SF in the Curriculum

As a theme of study, science is a giant within the academic world. It has acquired a generic status through representing not only its constituent and pure knowledge areas – such as mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology – but also because of a methodological paradigm associated with the pursuit of truth through systematic attempts to publicly refute or verify hypotheses and theories.

Science also extends beyond the laboratory, the academic community, and associated scientific professions: it positions itself within popular culture. Scientific discoveries, problems and methods fascinate the general public. Museums, interactive science centres, television documentaries, toys and books have become artefacts for popular understanding of scientific facts. Interpretations and explanations of scientific phenomena may not be consistent, rigorous or accurate within such texts or institutions, yet nevertheless, many people within a wide range of communities believe themselves to be scientific in their arguments and competent in their grasp of key issues and principles due to such popularization. At the most extreme levels these beliefs constitute a communal sense: one in which scientific “truths” are promulgated, leading to a public assumption that such truths are verified by an expert scientific community. In reality, the methods and reasoning directing these assumptions are contradictory or non-existent on many occasions. Critical analysis and lateral thinking are required to place these assumptions in their correct context.

Many traditions and perspectives within social science question the positioning of scientific knowledge within society, and within popular culture. A common dialectic is used: science against art, and the continual comparison of paradigms associated with what at first seem to be such different traditions within academia. An effective technique for exploring this kind of academic debate involves a critical exploration of the boundaries and barriers, which define what at first glance appear to be discrete subject areas and methodologies. We lament this kind of “Intellectual Ghettoizing”, to coin a phrase of Robin Wilson of Ohio State University, wherein the results are displayed as a lack of vision, understanding, cohesion and appreciation of the endeavours and accomplishments of disparate fields of learning. How can anyone participate in the public decision-making process if they are so ignorant of the scientific, technological, aesthetic, historical and philosophical components involved in such debates? It is essential that education takes a cross-curricular approach that addresses these areas.


The lessons inherent in SF can be utilized to illuminate the tensions and fears that new developments can bring. This does not suggest that SF is prophetic and will warn us in advance of the maturation of such devices or industries, merely that the rationalizations realized in current or past SF are a means to inculcate the next generation with a critical faculty and insight that may slow the headlong rush, the ideology that “if it's possible, let's do it” without weighing the consequences. The historical and political motifs of this literature enable the student to compare and contrast the current sociological and political ideals and draw educated conclusions, perhaps even provide a personal guide for the selection of representatives similarly imbued with a sensitivity to our responsibilities. This may be a naive realization, but the possibilities nevertheless are there.

The segregation of subjects at school and university level has led to a lack of appreciation of the values of each subject. Our world does not run on mere knowledge alone; human beings are not machines who pack their minds with a specialized form of accepted wisdom and merely work ad infinitum at one method. We are gregarious creatures who require a wide variety of disciplines to make sense of our world and bring a measure of personal control to it. The ability to derive and apply a cross-disciplinary education is being lost at the expense of academic overspecialization and increasing public isolation. In evolution, the lesson is clear – overspecialization leads to disaster in a climate of rapid change. What could have had more impact upon our political, environmental and sociological climate than the advances of science and technology throughout the 20th century?

This “brave new world” can be addressed by the thoughtful and innovative application of the lessons of SF. Opening our minds to the possibilities of the future is not only the remit of SF authors – it is the duty of educators of all disciplines to live up to the challenge.


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