West Virginia Republican legislator Ryan Canterbury’s bill to make sci-fi a mandatory part of public school required reading just landed him on our Awesome People list.
The idea behind the bill is that making at least some sci-fi required reading would spur interest in math and science, so it’s not like Canterbury’s just a big ol’ sci-fi geek who wants other people to read the things he likes. Reads the bill:
“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.
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.”
Canterbury, himself a fan of Isaac Asimov and Jules Verne, is “not interested in fantasy novels about dragons,” (I’ll let that slide because his bill is awesome) preferring instead “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.”
“One of the things about science fiction,” he explains:
“is that it gives you this perspective that as long as you have an imagination and it’s grounded in some sort of practical knowledge, you can do anything you wanted to… In Southern West Virginia, there’s a bit of a Calvinistic attitude toward life—this is how things are and they’ll never be any different. [Science fiction] serves as a kind of antidote to that fatalistic kind of thinking.”
One of Canterbury’s supporters is scientist/award-winning sci-fi author David Brin, who’s long been a proponent of sci-fi in schools. Among the authors he suggests are Robert A Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Greg Bear, and Octavia Butler.
“Some of the best science fiction deals with gloomy or dire topics, and often without happy endings. But always implicit in the best tales is the possibility that human beings might do better. That is why Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 … qualify as ‘self-preventing prophecies’, having girded millions to help make their dark scenarios never happen…
But it is science fiction that offers hope for a better world that does the most good, in the long run. Star Trek did this, while confronting one after another potential pitfall or roadblock that might confront us along the way.”
I think requiring sci-fi in schools is a great idea. Because it would encourage interest in science and technology and give students the message that they can change their world for the better, yes. But also because students should be exposed to a wide variety of genres. Some Shakespeare, of course, plus poetry, a contemporary novel or two or three or four, some writings of non-Western authors. A little bit of mystery in my life, a little bit of sci-fi by my side, a coupla short stories are all I need, a little bit of fantasy, let me see.*
Outside of a few (excellent) standbys like 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, sci-fi is often perceived as not “serious” enough to teach in schools. If you’re reading this I don’t think I need to tell you that that’s just not true. Speaking as someone who was every bit the geek in high school that I am now, I got a little thrill every time sci-fi popped up in the required reading, not because I don’t like non-genre stuff too, but because it aligned with an interest I already had. Reading Margaret Atwood‘s The Handmaid’s Tale and Butler’s Kindred (that one wasn’t required, but rather recommended by an awesomely geeky English teacher) felt more like fun than schoolwork, and I feel like I got more out of them than slogging through Albert Camus‘ The Stranger.
And now let me open it up to you: What sci-fi books would you suggest as required school reading? I’m going to stick with Fahrenheit 451, Kindred, and The Handmaid’s Tale and add 2001: A Space Odyssey and some Philip K. Dick as well. Oh, and World War Z and Connie Willis‘ Doomsday Book. For the younger kids, some Madeleine L’Engle. Seeing as it’s Friday, that’s where my brain stops. What say you?
*It’s Friday, and that means I get to write a parody of Mambo No. Five about required public school reading. Just go with it.