Education, Education, Education

BIS Space

Serious problems in education. This edition published by New English Library 1977. Cover art by Tim White.

Our future in space, or anywhere else for that matter, depends critically on the education given to young people.  If any civilization is to develop and expand, it is vital to provide a complete scope for the learning of coming generations.  Ignorance, in this respect at least, is most certainly not bliss.

Many great authors have emphasised this in their works of fiction, perhaps most famously Charles Dickens in his 1843 novella A Christmas Carol when Scrooge asks the Ghost of Christmas Present about the two wretched, miserable children who cling to the spirit’s garments.  The Ghost clarifies: “This boy is Ignorance.  This girl is Want.  Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.”

What exactly should be taught may be more debatable.  The novelist Marie Corelli was immensely popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and tackled the subject in her 1896 novel The Mighty Atom (sadly, not her best).  Being appalled by those who sought to educate children without religion, which she saw as “the true foundation of noble living”, her story tells of a child brought up on what she perceives as entirely atheistic teaching (the “mighty atom” being her concept of what science substitutes for a deity).  The focus of the tale is, needless to say, on how he manages to gain some understanding of religion from sources other than formal teaching.

The underlying idea is that a child’s mind is something of a blank slate on which teachers can write whatever they want – expressed so well in the supposed Jesuit maxim, often attributed to Ignatius of Loyola, “give me the child for the first seven years and I will give you the man.”  In effect, you can indoctrinate a person with anything you want if you get them young enough.  Which may be true to a certain extent, though in his 2002 book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, the psychologist Steven Pinker persuasively argues that behaviour is largely dictated by evolutionary adaptations.  Indeed, the “blank slate” may be heavily modified by the effects of human nature.

Even so, what to teach a person who has no prior knowledge or understanding whatsoever would be highly challenging.  This was considered in Charles Eric Maine’s finest science fiction novel, The Mind of Mr Soames from 1961.  John Soames has been unconscious since birth and is now thirty years old, having grown and achieved maturity under prolonged clinical supervision; “his brain seemed to be utterly disassociated from the rest of his nervous system so that he perceived nothing and was incapable of responding to external stimuli”.  The fact that he was still alive was extraordinary.

Now his body is showing signs of deterioration, so a specialized operation is carried out to restore power to his brain.  The successful outcome results in “a baby with a blank mind in an adult body, starting with a clean sheet in terms of education and environment.”  But he doesn’t have the flexibility of a real baby, nor any of the previous experiences that would allow him to be treated as a case of total amnesia.  And, once basic control of body and behaviour has been sorted out, there is the problem of “what to put into this completely empty brain, and in what order”.

Things don’t turn out as expected.  Mr Soames proves to be highly intelligent, and the instinctive reactions of human nature are critical to the way he develops, not least the desire to be free, to explore – and to escape.  The 1970 film of the same name, based on the book, emphasises these ideas.  In a poignant scene, he looks out of his window and grasps a butterfly, accidentally killing it but inspiring him with a passion to go outside.  And when he gets there, the world is amazing, but also frightening.  And therein lies the message for educating for the future – our innate desire to explore, and to experience what the universe has to offer, needs to be fostered to the full.


Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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