Monday, October 17, 2005

Let's Ride That Hobby Horse: Charles Sheffield and Jerry Pournelle, Higher Education (New York: Tor: 1996)

A Jupiter Novel.

We know the drill by now (although this is the first of the series, and was first published as an adult serial in Asimov). Rick Luban gets kicked out of school and recruited by Vanguard Mining Corps who teach him what school is really like. At the end of the book he is taught some real skills and sent on up into the company.

But there are a couple of differences that make this book stand out, the first of which is due to it's early life as an adult serial: the kids in this book have sex. And what I really liked about it is that they have sex because they feel horny, not because they are in lurve. At the same time, a nice little lecture is dealt out about sexual harrassment and it's origin in arrogance. Sheffield (like Heinlein before him) solves the problem by giving women more self-defense teaching than is given to the boys. What's amusing about this is that feminists have been recommending this as an approach for decades, but men on the left prefer to argue that they've changed. Sheffield and Pournell prefer to ask "why wait?". Sometimes the "look after yourself" arguments of the right make much more sense to me.

The other issue is that in this book we, too, get to learn what the protagonist learns. This is what is absent from so many modern YA sf novels. Reading this book reminded me of the joys of reading the Chalet school books by Eilinor M. Brent Dyer in which it was just assumed that you'd pick up the French and German, just like the girls in the school. Here it's the science and engineering.

Higher Education is a polemical book, and here it's target is the education system. This is dear to my heart: on Saturday I had to listen to a presentation in which the transfer of knowledge from the knowledgeable to the ignorant was labelled "Deficit teaching". Not exactly inspiring is it? But then we weren't supposed to be inspired because sometime in the 1970s UK University Arts teaching (in its broadest sense) became infatuated with the notion that "Students know more than they think, and we can encourage them to share that knowledge and teach each other". People who I otherwise like and respect float this argument. It's a load of tosh. Yes, students do learn best from exploration and experiment, but they do so when the said exploration and experiment is of new and exciting information. If you don't offer that, if you leave them to "learn from each other" instead of Standing on the Shoulders of Giants, each generation would have to develop the lessons of the past from scratch. Science would recreate itself in each age. This clearly doesn't happen: what does happen is that children who experience "deficit teaching" do much better when encouraged to experiment with what they know, to develop critical faculties than do children who experience "peer sharing". After all, it's so much easier to think when you have something to think about.

I find myself wondering to what extent sf novelists for children have abdicated this duty to teach knowledge as well as critical faculties.

I'll end it there. Don't get me started on Sheffield's other target, "self-esteem" teaching. There are times when I can sound so right of centre that I'm meeting myself coming back.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, yes ... because it's better to teach self-esteem than to help one's students learn to overcome a hurdle and get the real thing ...

3:37 PM  

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