Science-fiction and Education Fact

Following on from my irregular series of holiday reading (read my last and only post here), I read Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed a science-fiction novel from the 1970’s (download a pdf here). The novel is set straddling political systems on Anarres a dirt poor but anarchist-syndicalist system and A-Lo which is basically a future version of America. There’s some great lines, quotes, thoughts in it. For example, Shevek describes the difference between A-Lo and Anarres,

No. It is not wonderful. It is an ugly world. Not like this one. Anarres is all dusty and dry hills. All meager, all dry. And the people aren’t beautiful. They have big hands and feet, like me and the waiter there. But not big bellies. They get very dirty, and take baths together, nobody here does that. The towns are very small and dull, they are dreary. No palaces. Life is dull, and hard work. You can’t always have what you want, or even what you need, because there isn’t enough. You Urrasti have enough. Enough air, enough rain, grass, oceans, food, music, buildings, factories, machines, books, clothes, history. You are rich, you own. We are poor, we lack. You have, we do not have. Everything is beautiful here. Only not the faces. On Anarres nothing is beautiful, nothing but the faces. The other faces, the men and women. We have nothing but that, nothing but each other. Here you see the jewels, there you see the eyes. And in the eyes you see the splendor, the splendor of the human spirit. Because our men and women are free—possessing nothing, they are free. And you the possessors are possessed. You are all in jail. Each alone, solitary, with a heap of what he owns. You live in prison, die in prison. It is all I can see in your eyes—the wall, the wall!

The novel explores the social, institutional and economic dynamics that develop, underpin and sustain collective or competitive societies. The education system is presented as part of the explanation, centered around the challenges the brilliant physicist lead-character Shevek experiences between being brilliant and having to fit in, for example, this happened to him at school,

The orchestra needed all the benches that morning for rehearsal, and the dance group was thumping around in the big room of the learning center, so the kids who were working on Speaking-and-Listening sat in a circle on the foamstone floor of the workshop. The first volunteer, a lanky eight-year-old with long hands and feet, stood up. He stood very erect, as healthy children do; his slightly fuzzy face was pale at first, then turned red as he waited for the other children to listen. “Go on, Shevek,” the group director said.

“Well, I had an idea.”

“Louder,” said the director, a heavy-set man in his early twenties.

The boy smiled with embarrassment. “Well, see, I was thinking, let’s say you throw a rock at something. At a tree. You throw it, and it goes through the air and hits the tree. Right? But it can’t. Because — can I have the slate? Look, here’s you throwing the rock, and here’s the tree,” he scribbled on the slate, “that’s supposed to be a tree, and here’s the rock. see, halfway in between.” The children giggled at his portrayal of a holum tree, and he smiled. “To get from you to the tree, the rock has to be halfway in between you and the tree, doesn’t it. And then it has to be halfway between halfway and the tree. And then it has to be halfway between that and the tree. It doesn’t matter how far it’s gone, there’s always a place, only it’s a time really, that’s halfway between the last place it was and the tree —”

“Do you think this is interesting?” the director interrupted, speaking to the other children.

“Why can’t it reach the tree?” said a girl of ten.

“Because it always has to go half of the way that’s left to go,” said Shevek, “and there’s always half of the way left to go — seer’

“Shall we just say you aimed the rock badly?” the director said with a tight smile.

“It doesn’t matter how you aim it It can’t reach the tree.”

“Who told you this idea?”

“Nobody. I sort of saw it. I think I see how the rock actually does —”

“That’s enough.”

Some of the other children had been talking, but they stopped as if struck dumb. The little boy with the slate stood there in the silence. He looked frightened, and scowled.

“Speech is sharing — a cooperative art. You’re not sharing, merely egoizing.”

The thin, vigorous harmonies of the orchestra sounded down the hall.

“You didn’t see that for yourself, it wasn’t spontaneous. I’ve read something very like it in a book.”

Shevek stared at the director. “What book? Is there one here?”

The director stood up. He was about twice as tall and three times as heavy as his opponent, and it was clear in his face that he disliked the child intensely; but there was no threat of physical violence in his stance, only an assertion of authority, a little weakened by his irritable response to the child’s odd question. “No! And stop egoizing!” Then he resumed his melodious pedantic tone:

“This kind of thing is really directly contrary to what we’re after in a Speaking-and-Listening group. Speech is a two-way function. Shevek isnt ready to understand that yet, as most of you are, and so his presence is disruptive to the group. You feel that yourself, dont you, Shevek? I’d suggest that you find another group working on your level.”

What I’m interested in is how science-fiction describes educational systems and then relates them to society, making them integral to re-producing the many and weird, bizarre worlds in focus. There are lots of examples of this such as Brave New World, the Dispossessed, Ender’s Game and so on. Maybe it’s something to do with human imagination or the necessity of providing a coherent formative context for the story, but it I think it’s an interesting way to reflect on how an author would write about the educational system that explains a society in which one individual earns more in 2.5 days what others earn in a year and then rich people live 25 years longer than poorer ones… and that’s normal not some far-fetched scenario on a distant moon. Would it need to look radically different to the one we have?

James Duggan

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