A New Education for a New Civilization?

As the time for this week's seminar approaches, Eider and Nellie are seated cross-legged on the lawn outside the MUSHEAT Science building. They have the text open to this chapter and have been discussing its contents for some time.

Nellie: When I read this book I can't help but feel that we're eavesdropping on ourselves.

Eider: It's a strange feeling to be reading our own conversations before we even hold them (She points to a large Canada goose that is approaching them). Speaking of eavesdroppers...

Nellie: (just glancing in the indicated direction) What do you think of the author's use of the term "education"?

Eider: The way it's confined to the transmission of ideas and the word "training" is used for the learning of skills seems a little narrow to me, at least by comparison to what I think is normal English usage. But then, English is such a strange language. You say "drink it up" and "drink it down" and mean the same thing by both. But, I thought "up" and "down" were opposites.

Nellie: (Addressing the goose, who is now stretching her neck to look at the text) What do you think, Mother Goose?

Mother Goose: Presumption, that's what I think.

Nellie: What do you mean by that?

Mother Goose: How do you know I'm a mother?

Nellie: I've read the book.

Mother Goose: Perhaps so, but if events turn out differently, won't the book have to be changed? You haven't taken editors into consideration.

Eider: Am I presumptuous too, Mother Goose?

Mother Goose: Why yes, I distinctly heard you doubt the author. That might be all very well for real students, but we fictitious characters depend on the author rather more. You don't want to get written out of the script, you know.

Nellie: But, you haven't answered my question yet.

Mother Goose: Inscrutability, that's what I say.

Eider: Because of the vocabulary of this book? So, you're a critic too.

Mother Goose: The author obviously takes the view that my famous son did--that is, before his untimely demise.

Eider: That when he uses a word, it means exactly what he wants it to mean, nothing more and nothing less?

Mother Goose: Yes, that's it exactly. I see that children read good books where you come from, young lady. Really, I don't know what they teach in the schools around here.

Nellie: Impenetrability, that's what I say.

Mother Goose: And, by that you mean "that we've had quite enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you would mention what you mean to do next, as I don't suppose you mean to stop here all the rest of your life."

Nellie: Actually, it does seem to be time for our class. It's been nice talking to you, Mother Goose.

Mother Goose: (wandering off) Ineducability, that's what I say.

Eider: You go along, Nellie. I won't be in the class today.

Nellie: Why not?

Eider: The Professor gave me an extra research assignment on the history of my Earth, the Builders' World. It has something to do with a book he's writing. Have you seen anything of it?

Nellie: Oh, yes. In fact, I've typed most of the manuscript for it.

Eider: (brightening) What about what Mother Goose said? Are we in it?

Nellie: You are, and so is Lucas, Johanna, Ellen, and the Professor, but I just get a couple of mentions. The Professor says I'll be in the next one more.

Eider: Tell me about this Lucas. He's never around when I am.

Nellie: That would be giving away the plot. You'll bump into him in an early chapter though.

Eider: I see. Well, you had better run. They'll be starting without you. I'll head for the library. See you later.

Nellie: 'Bye, Eider. (shouting across the lawn) 'Bye Mother Goose.

Loud honking is heard as Nellie gathers her books together and rushes into the building. She is in such a hurry she does not notice Lucas coming down a cross hallway, and nearly knocks him over.

Lucas: We have to stop meeting this way, Nellie. Say, was that Mother Goose and Eider you were talking to out on the lawn? I haven't met either of them yet.

Nellie: I'll see if I can arrange an introduction.

The two enter the seminar room to find the Professor, Dorcas, Johanna, and Ellen waiting. Ellen is tapping nervously on her watch.

Nellie: Sorry I'm late. I was talking to Mother Goose about Lewis Carroll.

Johanna: So, who reads fairy tales?

Lucas: That's some of the best satire ever written. (Then, a little acidly) But, if you go through the school system in this province, you would be lucky to learn to read at all, much less to be handed a book of any importance.

Dorcas: In my time, books were not so available, so most of the teachers sought to engage their pupils' minds by asking questions.

Nellie: There are probably too many ideas around today to do things that way. We need books in order to encounter thinkers first hand and deal with their ideas efficiently.

Professor: What books are important?

Dorcas: The scriptures, the rabbis, the apostles, and the philosophers.

Nellie: Yes, and Tolkien, Carroll, Stott, Lewis, Bruce,...

Johanna: I've never heard of the last three.

Ellen: Probably religious writers. I'll put in for Marx, Lenin, Mao, and some of my sisters who exploded the male myths--Sayers, Overall, and Daly.

Nellie: Predictable.

Johanna: The sayings of Confucius and Buddha, as well as the Tao. There are a lot of good new-age writers.

Nellie : Shirley Maclean?

Johanna: Populist rather than profound, but yes, MacLean.

Lucas: Pournelle, Niven, Asimov...

Ellen: The first two I've never heard of. The third is a popularizer, not an original thinker. He doesn't count.

Lucas: They're science fiction writers, and they are original thinkers.

Ellen: Name some originality.

Lucas: Robert Heinlein--the most original of them all. Many robotic and space technologies were first suggested in his books and those of some of the others, and later came to be built.

Ellen: It figures. I bet you go to spaghetti westerns, too.

Nellie: Aren't we testy today? You can hardly criticize someone else for a lack of originality. After all, your own view of what constitutes worthwhile ideas is pretty narrow.

Ellen: Science fiction is nothing but fantasy for children like Lucas. The ancient philosophers are just that--ancient. Irrelevant too. As for the religious writers, they're better not mentioned at all because they write about what doesn't exist. More fantasy, but they believe it's true.

Professor: What does constitute an education, then?

Dorcas: To learn how to relate to God and to other people.

Nellie: Also to acquire knowledge about the world He has made, so as to serve him better.

Ellen: That sounds more like Eider than Nellie Hacker. She making you even more religious? A bad influence, if you ask me.

Johanna: It's never good enough just to obtain knowledge. If we don't also learn how to use it responsibly, we are better off not knowing it at all.

Lucas: Most teachers' idea of knowledge is a couple of hundred multiple choice questions every few weeks. Memorize all the obscure facts along with some testing psychology and you've got it made.

Professor: You are taking university courses partly because the standard fare at the high school is not enough for you, isn't that right, Lucas?

Ellen: It's elitist to treat one person differently from the rest. Everybody is the same; they should have exactly the same education, nothing more. Why should he be here, and not the rest of his class?

Lucas: You're as bad as the teachers' union leaders. You talk a nonsensical educational philosophy out of political motivation, but couldn't care less about real live students. I've got people in my class at the high school who can hardly read. What's it to them that we're studying Canadian history for the fifth time? They'll never get anything out of it if they do it ten times, but there's been nothing new for me all year.

Ellen: The proper purpose of the school is to socialize students, to level the classes, and to teach them that there ought to be no elites, and no special treatment for anyone.

Lucas: You mean, you want to make good, obedient, brainwashed socialists out of all of us. If you had your way, none of us would be able to think for ourselves, or allowed to if we were able. You don't want education; you want a robot factory with you at the controls. Count me out.

Dorcas: It's a lot more important what kind of person the tutor models than what the exact subject matter is. That's largely what kind of person the pupil will become.

Ellen: The state has the overriding concern...

Johanna: Bother the state. I'm with Lucas on this one. The books they give kids these days are sanitized of any intellectual content, controversy, or interest. Most schools don't even teach drama or art. It's no wonder the dropout rate is going up.

Nellie: They are religiously censored too.

Ellen: As well they should be.

Nellie: Ah, but it's very selective. A unit on North American Indian religions, transcendental meditation, or the beliefs of African tribes is allowed, but let there be one mention of Christianity and the lawsuits fly thick and fast.

Ellen: Why reinforce the majority culture?

Nellie: Why teach anything?

Ellen: Come again?

Nellie: Wouldn't you have a lot more obedient little socialists if you never taught anyone how to read and write? After all, they might read some ideas you didn't approve of, and even spread them around.

Ellen: Basic skills and literacy are essential. (picking up the text) Read the book. People have to work smarter all the time.

Lucas: (who has been waiting impatiently to break back in) I thought you socialists didn't believe in censorship.

Ellen: All ideas should be allowed equal time in the schools except for Christianity and capitalism. They should both be rigidly suppressed.

Lucas: But, the information age implies freedom to know anything at all with no limitations whatever. There's no way totalitarianism can survive in an atmosphere like that.

Ellen: The state should control all transmission of ideas.

Lucas: So people can only have the ideas you tell them to?

Ellen: Ideas are too dangerous to be left uncontrolled. The good ones should be permitted, the rest obliterated.

Nellie: Ellen's ideas are all dinosaurs. She keeps answering questions nobody asks any more.

Professor: Time for the referee. (hands around an assignment sheet) I anticipated your positions today to some extent and have written your names in beside the topics accordingly. Remember--only two more classes to the end of the semester, then it's final exam time.

There is a collective groan at this pronouncement, and these are prolonged as each realizes that once again the assignments require them to argue against the positions they have taken in class. At this point, the Professor leaves them to their troubles.

Johanna: Why does the Professor do things this way?

Nellie: Supposedly, it's good training.

Lucas: I don't mind. At least it makes you think.

Ellen: A rare commodity.

Lucas and Nellie together: Speak for yourself!

The Fourth Civilization Table of Contents
Copyright © 1988-2002 by Rick Sutcliffe
Published by Arjay Books division of Arjay Enterprises