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Education: The final frontier?

This weekend I learned that Virgin Airlines has officially announced its new commercial space flight program, Virgin Galactic, and launched its ticket sales division. For a mere $200 thousand, you or I could buy a seat on a rocket ship. This is the stuff of fantasy becoming reality before our eyes. The futures portrayed in fantasy and science fiction seem closer than they have ever been. Perhaps we need to look to these genres of literature to consider what the benefits--and consequences--might be. 

As a teacher of teenagers, I have become fairly well read in the genres of dystopian and science fiction. Thankfully, I have always been a fan of these genres and find that young adult versions are often much more digestible than the adult variety, especially during the school year when I have to balance reading for fun with reading for class.

This year I had the pleasure of combining my reading for fun and for class in a unit devoted to dystopian fiction. As we explored the possible future created by George Orwell, Margaret Atwood, Ray Bradbury and Aldous Huxley, we were able to look at how the classic tomes of the genre have had influence over the YA versions that we all love to read as well.

Using these genres as a basis for historical study is not only engaging for the students, but an eerie reminder of the potential problems our society faces moving into the future.

In all of my reading, I don’t think I have ever encountered a dystopian novel or piece of science fiction that shows a new or innovative educational system. Education is either absent completely or looks very similarly to what it does today. Even Stephen King’s recent book shows a man returning to the 1960s and realizing that the he can continue working as a high school English teacher because the systems are so similar in the future.

This is concerning.

The main message that most dystopian or science fiction novels convey is a need for change to prevent complete destruction of society. Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 warned society about dependence on technology and the loss of authentic learning. Orwell’s 1984 cautioned society about knowing how to identify what is true in this world. Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale discusses the consequences of inequality. Huxley’s Brave New World asks readers to consider the true nature of happiness and whether or not it could be manufactured.

All of these books show what limited access to information can do to a society. They demonstrate that an inquisitive mind is essential to ensuring humanity’s success in the future.

Ironically, these texts are not treated with more credence in our modern world. If schools are the primary protection against an ignorant society, where are our classrooms of the 21st century? If we can create a rocket ship to fly regular (albeit wealthy) customers into space, why are we still working with limited resources and 20th century mindsets in our schools?

If we don’t want to live in the dystopian worlds presented in these novels, we must heed the warnings they provide. Ignorance is dangerous and our greatest hope to prevent it is to take better care of our education system while working hard to promote thinking and learning worthy of our 21st century students.

I will continue to do my part as a high school English teacher by exposing my students to the warnings of the past. My hope is that other stakeholders will do a little summer reading and be inspired to devote some time and energy towards looking at ways to push education into the future.  

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