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Today in Awesome

Politician Gets On Our Good Side, Introduces Bill to Make Science Fiction Required Public School Reading

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.

Says Brin:

“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 CamusThe 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 WillisDoomsday 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.

(via: The Guardian; image by Daily Collegian)

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  • Elizabeth Rae Coody

    While I love having sci-fi in schools, I completely and vehemently resist the idea of a bill to mandate it. Sci-fi has taught me that when politicians start to regulate our reading in schools, bad things happen. Encourage teachers; don’t legislate them!

  • Jen Roberts

    SO glad you mentioned The Handmaid’s Tale. Fahrenheit 451, definitely. I second Phillip K. Dick as well as Doomsday Book. I’m not sure if The Handmaid’s Tale and Doomsday Book meet the sort of requirements Rep. Canterbury is thinking of, but I’d love to see them taught regardless.

    I’d like to see sci-fi taught in classrooms alongside other, more “standard” works because so much of sci-fi is societal commentary. The Left Hand of Darkness, while not fitting that “ooo math and science” requirement, would open up some interesting conversations, certainly. Also Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age and/or Snow Crash. I haven’t read the entire series, but I did read Uglies by Scott Westerfeld and ended up getting it for my teenage nieces that Christmas.

  • Words Have Meanings

    I read ‘I, Robot’, ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ and ‘The Martian Chronicles’ for school as I recall. Also, some suggestions: ‘The Lathe of Heaven’, Ursula K. Le Guin, and ‘The Diamond Age’, Neal Stephenson.

  • John Wao

    I took a class in my senior year in High School called “Science Fiction Reading”.

    There was no homework, no tests, just reading.

    My Teacher, Mr Sullivan, brought in a large refrigerator sized box full of paperbacks and instructed us to walk up and grab a book and start reading.

    Now up to that point the only genre fiction I had read was mostly Poe and comic books.

    When it was my turn I looked in the box and saw a book with a cool cover. The book was a collection of HP Lovecraft stories. “The Dunwich Horror and other tales of horror” I think it was called. Needless to say I became an instant fan of HP Lovecraft. From there I read a couple of stories by Asimov (The Billiard Ball), Harlan Ellsion (I Have No Mouth and I must Scream) and several others. I have been a lifelong fan of Sci Fi, Fantasy, and Horror ever since.

    So I applaud this bill.

  • Anonymous

    Hitchhiker was part of school curriculum? Well that wins, hands down.

  • Anonymous

    I was going to recommend the Left Hand of Darkness, but it’s pretty challenging to read (even before you get to those gender conversations) so I don’t know.

    Instead I’ll suggest “Oryx & Crake” by Margaret Atwood. Handmaid is fantastic, but it’s already on a lot of reading lists. Oryx handles a lot of urgently real-world issues, like genetic modification of food.

  • Jessy Southard Strohmeyer

    There are already regulations in place requiring certain readings in schools. It’s not coincidence that nearly every high school freshman has Romeo & Juliet as required reading. I think this bill is great because it adds an underappreciated genre into the classroom as “legitimate” literature. With so many companies and universities researching AI these days, I think some Asimov would be excellent to get kids thinking about the topic. Bradbury was required reading in my high school English class, and it was awesome. Douglas Addams would make a good addition with his sci-fi satire of some aspects of modern culture. There are so many great possibilities when this genre is seen as having real educational value in a way it has rarely been before.

  • Anonymous

    I absolutely love this, what a great idea. I was predisposed to science fiction from a young age thanks to some choice selections available through the Scholastic Book Club (I couldn’t wait for the days when those flyers came round), and was lucky again to read some of the all-time best scifi in my English courses throughout the rest of my, public no less, education. 1984, A Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and a few other classics that I’m forgetting, were all part of our standard curriculum. I also think it’s no accident that an inordinate number of my school friends, probably a good third, are scientists in various fields today. This is a smart move.

  • Anonymous

    I absolutely love this, what a great idea. I was predisposed to science fiction from a young age thanks to some choice selections available through the Scholastic Book Club (I couldn’t wait for the days when those flyers came round), and was lucky again to read some of the all-time best scifi in my English courses throughout the rest of my, public no less, education. 1984, A Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and a few other classics that I’m forgetting, were all part of our standard curriculum. I also think it’s no accident that an inordinate number of my school friends, probably a good third, are scientists in various fields today. This is a smart move.

  • Anonymous

    That class sounds like a dream. It seems that some people just get it.

  • Anonymous

    That class sounds like a dream. It seems that some people just get it.

  • Rebecca Pahle

    Reading in schools is already regulated. That’s what required reading IS.

  • Rebecca Pahle

    Reading in schools is already regulated. That’s what required reading IS.

  • Anonymous

    I feel so blessed that my elementary school teacher read to us several fantasy/sci fi books: “The Giver”, “Z for Zachariah”, “The Hobbit”, “The White Mountains” and the rest of the Tripods Trilogy….Unfortunately, I always loathed “required reading” for homework because it was rarely what I wanted to read on my own time. For example, “Brave New World” may be hailed as a great utopian/dystopian novel…but because we were MADE to read it, I dragged through it and only read enough to complete the homework questions about it. I fear making sci-fi required reading and having kids feel the same annoyance as I did. Required reading only works if kids get a choice in what they read. Give them three sci-fi books to choose from, that way they at least get to read what they WANT instead of what they’re FORCED to read. Also, do away with book reports or reading journals. Those suck, only make kids hate reading, and are the reason I failed freshman English despite acing all of my tests and being the top reader in class. :)

  • Anonymous

    Not a big fan of introducing high schoolers to Heinlein, but some Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke would be a good idea (although the latter has a gift for being creepy as hell and therefore is probably best reserved for the grade 12 level. I’m in my mid-20s and Childhood’s End creeped me out). Some of Iain M. Banks’ Culture stuff could be good material, though I personally am not a fan of the Culture’s liberal-imperialist philosophy. Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash is a good one though I’m not sure if it’s entirely age-appropriate.

    The Handmaid’s Tale is a fine book, but more dystopia than sci-fi as such, and I think students get a little much of dystopia and that some more positive science fiction would be an antidote.

    I don’t know that mandating it across the board is the correct solution, though. I think there’s some kind of list that schools and teachers draw from when choosing which texts will be assigned; expanding the amount of science fiction books on that list would be a good idea. If it is the case that specific books are always the required reading, then yes, replacing some of the current ones with more science fiction is good.

  • Elizabeth Rae Coody

    Yep, you’re right! However, local school boards usually regulate the reading, not the state legislature.

  • Elizabeth Rae Coody

    That’s a great idea! The lists need an update, for sure– and I can’t think of a better genre to add!

  • Peter H Hoffman

    Titles that I would suggest for young readers include “Rusty’s Spaceship” (Evelyn Sibley Lampman), the Mushroom Planet series ( Eleanor Cameron), and “Have Spacesuit, Will Travel” (Robert A Heinlein).

    Later, I would recommend the Foundation series (Isaac Asimov), “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”, and “Starship Troopers” (both Heinlein).

    “Snow Crash” (Neal Stephenson), “True Names” (Vernor Vinge), and the Cities in Flight series (James Blish) are good too.

    I was reading Heinlein’s juvenile fiction by the time I was six and his adult fiction by the time I was twelve. I think it is a good thing to present adult themes at an early age through books as kids only “get” the depth they are prepared to understand. Later readings reveal deeper depths they missed the first time but they are already thinking by then.

  • Rebecca Pahle

    Forgot to mention this in the article, but Canterbury’s bill was actually submitted to his local school board. So I think we’re mostly in agreement then…?

  • Heather Louise Jenkins

    Hitchhiker’s Guide would definitely be a good antidote to Calvinism – it’s all about how unimportant we all are relative to the universe. Besides which, kids would just love it because it’s hilarious. The Bicentennial Man is also a lovely little parable about prejudice, discrimination and dehumanisation that people can take something powerful from.

  • Rebecca Pahle

    I loved the Mushroom Planet series when I was little!

  • Drew J. Ross It’s Delegate Ray Canterbury… the bill died in committee as session ended last Saturday.

  • Joel Finkle

    You’d never get Stranger in a Strange Land past the book-burners, but there’s plenty of thoughtful, non-boring SF to be read (oh well, I guess no Arthur C Clarke).

    I’d recommend Sterlings “Islands in the Net” or possibly his more recent “Caryatids” for their political implications.

    C.J. Cherry’s “Cyteen” might be longish for classroom reading, but “40,000 in Gehenna” or “Serpent’s Reach” or “Foreigner” is a nice counterpoint to the alien-encounter lit such as “Shogun” or “Lord Jim”.

    My all-time favorite book is Tim Powers’ “Declare” but again a bit longish, and no technology to inspire minds to create… but the writing is amazing. Pair it with Kipling’s “Kim”

    Cory Doctorow’s “Little Brother” or “Makers” (perhaps a bit much sex in the latter for a high school class) make for good near-term extrapolation of science, so does Charles Stross’ “Halting State”

  • Peter H Hoffman

    I saw a copy of one of the books on the shelf at a used bookstore this past year and I immediately bought it, despite the fact I am now 55. :-) It’s as good as a I remember….

  • Gwen Ellen Stephen

    My dad (awesomely) read a ton of sci-fi books to me when I was a kid. Two that really stuck with me and made an impression were ‘Hellspark’ by Janet Kagan and Anne McCaffrey’s ‘The Ship Who Sang.’ Both books left me with a sense of awe and anticipation for the science that was presented in the stories.

  • Anonymous

    Well, required reading is meant to give you a well-rounded background of ideas. That should include science as well as philosophy, history, politics, etc.

    Besides, Slaughterhouse Five is my favourite book of all time.

  • Carly Hunter

    for really young readers(~mid elementary school) I think I would suggest the series my teacher is an alien by bruce corville
    It has alien hijinks and is pretty entertaining but its main theme is looking at humanity as it is now and what that means for the future. I remember reading this when i was younger and it just made me think about the world as a whole away from my little niche.

  • CJ Bee

    I’m in the middle of teaching a sci fi unit right now! We read “The Performance Artist” by Lettie Prell (from apex magazine) and “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut, as well as studied Janelle Monae, MF Doom, David Bowie, and the Talking Heads’ space/sci fi songs to talk about how the genre reflects real concerns. Now they are about to start writing their own sci fi stories. It’s awesome, and I’ve been able to blend curriculum with their biology teacher, too.

  • Anonymous

    I would definitely second the recommendation for Asimov’s robot stories. I was always fascinated by them when I was younger – because his Three Laws are perfectly logical for robots to have, and yet he still manages to create a lot of drama with them.

    Also, Susan Calvin.

  • Laura Truxillo

    I guess I’m a little surprised to hear that it isn’t already? We read A Wrinkle In Time, Ender’s Game, and Canticle for Leibowitz, just off the top of my head. And Frankenstein. Maybe just got lucky?

  • Alistair Lonsdale

    That sound like the best class ever!!!!

  • Nelly Dreadful

    I got some rather excellent skiffy in my early school diet due to a middle school teacher putting Monica Hughes on the curriculum. I actually didn’t much care for the particular book she chose, The Crystal Drop (chosen I think because it was set in Southern Alberta, where we lived, and mentioned all kinds of places we knew and had visited), but all her other books were in the school library and I ADORED Invitation To The Game.

    Hmm. The intended purpose of the bill is getting kids thinking about the future on the one hand and excited about science and technology on the other… For elementary and middle school readers, I’d put in Monica Hughes and the Heinlein juveniles. Hughes wrote a lot of dystopias, but stories about clever kids learning to be self reliant and teach themselves new/old skills in order to function in a world that was profoundly screwed up by people and governments who had used technology unwisely. And Heinlein, WELL. I have big issues with most of his adult works, but writing for kids forced him to tone down on the massive creepy. Again, usually stories about smart self-reliant kids learning to do amazing things for themselves, but without the cautionary dystopian backdrop, so a lot more “SCIENCE WOOHOO”.

    Move them on to some good old Bradbury and Asimov, I suppose… then in high school, you’re pretty much ready to read almost any book adults can read. (ALMOST. I had a teacher who absolutely insisted on assigning Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel to every class he had. Every class he had utterly despised it.) Maybe throw in some Neal Stephenson, I could see a lot of teenagers digging the hell out of Snow Crash. Space Opera gives you that soaring expansive feeling that the universe is a huge place full of potential, even if it doesn’t always directly give you the Sciencey fuzzy feels… Maybe Falling Free? That’s a really good standalone book in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan universe. Hmm… Honestly, in high school, sky’s the limit. So long as you don’t throw anything in there that has nothing they can connect with (bloody Stone Angel…) they’ll be fine.

  • NW Raven

    Required reading is the best way to kill the love of reading. I know adults who never read books because 12 years of compulsory reading took all the joy out of it. I work at a school where kids are free to read whatever they want, whenever and as long as they want (The Clearwater School near Seattle). Diverse sci-fi and fantasy books (and other genres) are avidly read by children of all ages because they choose to read them. They talk enthusiastically with each other and with staff about what they’ve read, and then often go on to create and role-play and/or write their own stories inspired by books they’ve read. Reading is a rich experience because it belongs to them, not someone else’s curriculum requirements. Kids seek out the books that speak to them based on what they’re experiencing and what they see in the surrounding culture. It should not be the job of teachers, school boards or state legislatures to prescribe what anyone should read.

  • Canisa

    That’s a good list, but Foundation doesn’t hold up very well by modern standards. Technology and society have both moved on so much so that when I recently tried to read the first book the whole thing just seemed horrendously silly to me. I mean, basically what they’re doing is trying to write wikipedia on paper.

  • Tamsyn Michael

    I remember (and loved) schoolastic books as well. Mum and Dad must have spent a fortune on books for us. <3

    I would recommend 'Galax-Arena' by Gillian Rubinstien. A good intro, young relatable protagonists. And an interesting look at society, and even traditional gender roles if you keep an eye out. Highly recommended.

    'The Trouble with Lichen' – for older readers, and an interesting, positive, look into scientific ethics (and a great jumping off platform for discussion of real world science ethics perhaps.

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, no. My teachers did that whole “choose which questions to answer” and it wasn’t effective, at least not for me. I still loathed having to read the book that THEY chose, and never did the journals or essays. I’d read the book in one evening, and then go back to reading what I wanted to read. I could still be active in class discussion because I read the book, but no way was I going to waste my time writing an essay about a book that I hated. Maybe the key is to recognize which students (like me) are obviously comprehending the reading and normally enjoy reading, and let us go off on our own to choose our own book to make some sort of creative project about. Then, let the slow students slog through the pointless journals and tedious questions.

  • Kate

    Wow, do you realize how patronizing that is? “Let the SLOW, STUPID students do busywork while SPECIAL SNOWFLAKES like ME get to do whatever we want because we’re SO SPECIAL.”

    The point of a lot of reading classes post-elementary school is to expose you to a lot of literature that A) is outside of your current experience and B) will help you become culturally literate. I have always loved reading and my preferred reading is fantasy and sci-fi; I don’t think choosing my own books would have given me the same benefits as the required reading.

    Yes, I had to read some books for class that I intensely disliked (Tess of the d’Urbervilles and The Stranger leap to mind), but overall, doing required reading was still a valuable experience. I would never have guessed that I would really enjoy Shakespeare. I absolutely LOVED Brave New World. Crime and Punishment was a much more action-packed story than I would have ever expected and Pride and Prejudice (read in 7th grade) has become one of my old favorites. I learned a lot about history, differing philosophies, and other cultures from those books, even when I didn’t enjoy them (again, The Stranger was my first real introduction to Nihilism).

    Basically: Forcing kids to read outside of their comfort zone is a good thing. You can learn a lot that way, especially if you look at it as an opportunity to have a new experience instead of crying and moaning about the AUDACITY someone would have to make you read a book you didn’t choose.

  • Anonymous

    You’re right, my comment sounded very patronizing. I was in a bad mood this morning. My bad, and I apologize. I guess my overall point was that I find that required reading more often than not turns many kids off from literature that they’d otherwise enjoy if they had come to it on their own terms. I also find the busy work completely pointless unless a kid is actually struggling with a subject (like, if a student gets long division, what’s the point of sending them home to waste an hour or two of their limited family time doing fifty long division problems?). It seems like these days school is all about making sure that kids give the right answers on a test and less about making sure the kids are excited about learning.

  • Kate

    I was pretty cranky, too, and I apologize if I said anything that hurt you. Sometimes it’s just too easy to respond in the heat of the moment.

    I understand your point on busywork (believe me, I was railing against it just a few weeks ago and I’m in grad school). I just think that there are peripheral benefits to doing it that we might not immediately recognize. Sometimes, during what I call “grad school busywork,” I actually come up with a fairly interesting research idea just because I was forced to sit down and engage a little more critically with the materials I had to read. I think the same might be true for high school students. Being forced to think critically about what, for example, The Great Gatsby is saying about the “party today, for tomorrow we die” mentality of the roaring twenties may prompt them to think a bit more deeply about their own behaviors and values.

    Just my 2 cents. Thanks for being such a good sport; it’s always nice to meet people who are willing to engage in a discussion. <3

  • Savannah Nicole Logsdon-Breaks

    I think we tend to underestimate sometimes how much sci-fi we did get, because our teachers end up being elitist about it and act like there’s some vast gap between sci fi as a genre and “literature” with sci fi elements. Which we know is BS, but… yeah. I know a lot of schools where (AP track at least) Frankenstein was required, and I haven’t run into a school where F 451 wasn’t part of the curriculum. I know there were other books, short stories, and excerpts that we read as well… but I’m having a hard time recalling which ones.

    Edit: Well, I mean, I guess if we are going broad you could include some of Kafka…

  • Savannah Nicole Logsdon-Breaks

    I let a kid I’ve been mentoring read some of my copy of Left Hand of Darkness in traffic, and he was hooked really quickly. I let him borrow it and still haven’t gotten it back. So maybe for AP students?

  • Savannah Nicole Logsdon-Breaks

    That’s one of the Authors we did that I was blanking on! Vonnegut! Slaughterhouse V in our case though.

    You are an awesome teacher.