provocations from literature...

...some visions of learning from fiction literature

There are many useful examples from within literature of authors' views of how learning might be, or might become, from the bio-mechanical memory implant of William Gibson through the allegory of Lewis Carrol to the "delivery" model of Asimov. All are interesting, some alarmingly eugenic, most dismal in terms of the lack of ambition their authors reveal for learners in the future. These are not seductive, engaging, delightful, challenging learning futures, by and large. None are complex - input ---> output pretty much covers all the sci fi ones; of course, this represents but the tiny tip of a vast iceberg of prognostications and reflections on learning. probably Louis Armstrong (!) is closest to my view... but the Alice example represents pretty much where we currently are....

These set of quotations are not the future of learning, but they serve as a provocation to us all. In a world where technology has very much challenged us by saying "you can have learning in any form you like, but what form would you like?" these visions help us to imagine and explore what indeed we would like, and what we certainly wouldn't... It is sad that so much creativity can produce so many barren visions. But then, that good practice is to ask the learners too...

Careful not to disturb her, he worked his arm from behind her neck and slid two fingers into the waist pocket of his pants. Came up with Conroy’s little black nylon envelope on its neck cord. He undid the velcro and shock the swollen asymmetrical grey biosoft out onto his open palm. Machine dreams. Roller coaster. Too fast, too alien to grasp, but if you wanted something, something specific, you should be able to pull it out....

He dig his thumbnail under the socket’s dust cover, pried it out, and put it down on the plastic seat beside him. The train was nearly empty, and none of the other passengers seemed to be paying any attention to him. He took a deep breath, set his teeth, and inserted the biosoft....

Twenty seconds later, he had it, the thing he’d gone for. The strangeness hadn’t touched him this time, and he decided that that was because he’d gone after this one specific thing, this fact, exactly the sort of data you would expect to find in the dossier of a top research man: his daughters IQ as reflected by annual batteries of tests.

William Gibson. Count Zero, 1986

The swiftest crawlers were already at their goal. Small hands reached out uncertainly, touched, grasped, unpetalling the transfigured roses, crumbling the illuminated pages of the books. The Director waited until all were happily busy. Then, ‘watch carefully’ he said. And, lifting his hand, he gave the signal.

The Head Nurse, who was standing by a switchboard at the other end of the room, pressed down a little lever

There was a violent explosion. Shriller and even shriller, a siren shrieked. Alarm bells maddeningly sounded.

The children started, screamed; their faces were distorted with terror.

‘And now,’ the Director shouted (for the noise was deafening), ‘Now we proceed to rub in the lesson with a mild electric shock.’

Aldous Huxley. Brave New World. 1932.

I see babies crying, I watch them grow.
They'll learn much more than I'll ever know.
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.
Yeah, I think to myself, what a wonderful world.

Louis Armstrong, ABC Records, producer Bob Thiele. 1968.

Thou hast most traitorously
corrupted the youth of the realm in erecting a
grammar school; and whereas, before, our forefathers
had no other books but the score and the tally, thou
hast caused printing to be used, and, contrary to
the king, his crown and dignity, thou hast built a
paper-mill. It will be proved to thy face that thou
hast men about thee that usually talk of a noun and
a verb, and such abominable words as no Christian
ear can endure to hear. Thou hast appointed
justices of peace, to call poor men before them
about matters they were not able to answer.
Moreover, thou hast put them in prison; and because
they could not read, thou hast hanged them; when,
indeed, only for that cause they have been most
worthy to live.

Shakespeare, Henry VI part 2 1855

"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"
"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.
" I don't much care where --" said Alice.
" Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Cat.
" -- so long as I get SOMEWHERE," Alice added as an explanation.
" Oh, you're sure to do that," said the Cat, "if you only walk long enough."

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll, 1865

S'pose you didn't have nobody. S'pose you couldn't go into the bunk house and play rummy 'cause you was black. How'd you like that? S'pose you had to sit out here an' read books. Sure you could play horseshoes till it got dark, but then you got to read books. Books ain't no good. A guy needs somebody-to be near him. A guy goes nuts if he ain't got nobody. Don't make no difference who the guy is, long's he's with you. I tell ya, I tell ya a guy gets too lonely an' he gets sick"

Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck, 1937

The treatment of psychological problems - as well as the investigation of misconduct of all kinds was facilitated by an ingenious mind-reading device known as a mind prober machine, and mental retardation had all but ceased to be a problem thanks to the pioneering work of scientist Lon Gorg, whose supra-psyche treatments successfully transformed morons into geniuses.

Kryptonia, Action Comics, 1933

Margie was disappointed. She had been hoping they would take the teacher away altogether. They had once taken Tommy's teacher away for nearly a month because the history sector had blanked out completely.

So she said to Tommy, "Why would anyone write about school?"

Tommy looked at her with very superior eyes. "Because it's not our kind of school, stupid. This is the old kind of school that they had hundreds and hundreds of years ago." He added loftily, pronouncing the word carefully, "Centuries ago."

Margie was hurt. "Well, I don't know what kind of school they had all that time ago." She read the book over his shoulder for a while, then said, "Anyway, they had a teacher."

"Sure they had a teacher, but it wasn't a regular teacher. It was a man."
"A man? How could a man be a teacher?"
"Well, he just told the boys and girls things and gave them homework and asked them questions."
"A man isn't smart enough."
"Sure he is. My father knows as much as my teacher."
"He can't. A man can't know as much as a teacher."
"He knows almost as much, I betcha."

Margie wasn't prepared to dispute that. She said, "I wouldn't want a strange man in my house to teach me."

Tommy screamed with laughter. "You don't know much, Margie. The teachers didn't live in the house. They had a special building and all the kids went there."
"And all the kids learned the same thing?"
"Sure, if they were the same age."
"But my mother says a teacher has to be adjusted to fit the mind of each boy and girl it teaches and that each kid has to be taught differently."

"The Fun They Had" by Isaac Asimov, 1951

"By these days it was a demerit to be muscular. Each infant was examined at birth, and all who promised undue strength were destroyed. Humanitarians may protest, but it would have been no true kindness to let an athlete live; he would never have been happy in that state of life to which the Machine had called him; he would have yearned for trees to climb, rivers to bathe in, meadows and hills against which he might measure his body. Man must be adapted to his surroundings, must he not?

In the dawn of the world our weakly must be exposed on Mount Taygetus, in its twilight our strong will suffer euthanasia, that the Machine may progress, that the Machine may progress, that the Machine may progress eternally."

The Machine Stops,  E.M. Forster 1909

started January 2002, last updated Tuesday, September 13, 2005 9:19 AM