15 November 2004

Teaching Science Fiction in High School

The latest issue of English Journal (full text available only to subscribers, alas) has an article titled "Science Fiction: Serious Reading, Critical Reading" by Diane Zigo and Michael T. Moore. The entire issue explores the theme of "Subversive English", with many of the articles revisiting the popular 1960s book Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner. The authors of the article think SF is a perfect type of literature for the subversive teacher:
In Teaching as a Subversive Activity, Postman and Weingartner argue that "schools must serve as the principle medium for developing in youth the attitudes and skills of social, political, and cultural criticism" (2). Their thesis, that "change -- constant, accelerating, ubiquitous -- is the most striking characteristic of the world we live in" (xiii), has become more relevant to us at the beginning of the new millennium.
You can guess where the argument is going -- it's one made frequently on behalf of science fiction, the literature that supposedly conditions its readers to accept change and think about the future. This idea may be true, but it also promotes the idea of SF as little more than a disguised thought-experiment in sociology, an idea that may interest some people, but that doesn't hold much interest for me.

The article is a good, basic introduction -- the sort of thing those of us who know SF and its history could argue with for days ("What, no mention of Delany?!") -- and it's useful, as it was intended to be, for high school teachers with no knowledge of this particular type of literature. The first paragraph lays out feelings that are, I expect, widely shared, at least among public school teachers:
As high school English teachers we didn't know what to do about science fiction. We were passionate about reading it. We knew we could passionately teach it, but aside from Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World, we dared not risk teaching anything else. We would have loved to have tried Frank Herbert's Dune with its themes of repatriation and genocide. Readers of Roger Zelazny's Amber series knew long before the Matrix films about alternate universes and the one reality. In fact, alternate-reality travel was much easier by playing card than by ringing pay phone. We could have had our most reluctant readers hooked on Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, where we could have had a field day exploring the nature of leadership and whether the ends justify the means. We think of the discussions we could have had, were we more daring, and suspect that we speak for a number of English teachers. Science fiction holds virtually untapped potential as a means for teaching students to read and think critically. Unfortunately, the modernist tradition has relegated science fiction to murky genre depths that imply it as a taste we should either leave at home or outgrow.

...We also know that there have been few detailed considerations of science fiction in English Journal in the past fifteen years, which suggests that English teachers are not discussing it.
There are lots of reasons to use various literatures of the fantastic in English classes, and lots of reasons specific discussions of it have not appeared in English Journal, despite it being the prevalent mode for much of the literature kids are raised on and much of the literature studied in English classes (from Greek myths to Hawthorne, Gulliver's Travels to The Life of Pi).

Science fiction as a specific genre unto itself poses numerous difficulties for readers not accustomed to it, and I learned recently, somewhat to my surprise, that any literature involving fantasy may be nearly incomprehensible to certain types of readers. But that's a subject for a post later this week...

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