If one politician has his way, sci-fi's gonna be mandatory in school

For decades, walking around with a paperback sci-fi novel in your back pocket at school was the quickest way to find yourself permanently excluded from the cool-kid clique.

But what if it wasn’t just the geeks who read Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke? What if science fiction was mandatory reading for all students?

That’s exactly what a Republican legislator in West Virginia is proposing this session with a bill that would require the State Board of Education to integrate “grade-appropriate science fiction literature” into middle-school and high-school reading curricula. Delegate Ray Canterbury, who represents Greenbrier County in southern West Virginia, originally introduced the legislation last year. It received next to no attention, but this session he’s bringing back the bill, recruiting co-sponsors and preparing editorials with the hope that even if it doesn’t pass it will pressure the Board of Education to adopt science fiction on its own.

“I’m not interested in fantasy novels about dragons,” Canterbury said in an interview with Blastr. “I’m primarily interested in 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.”

Canterbury cites Isaac Asimov and Jules Verne as early influences in his own youth that lead him to earn a degree in mathematics. He’s nostalgic for the 1960s and 1970s, when the space program combined with popular science fiction (such as Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek) helped inspire a generation of technologists.

These days, West Virginia students are falling behind in math and science. Although students are fascinated by emerging technology like tablets and smartphones, he says very few want to become the scientists and engineers who develop  new technologies. He believes that science fiction, particularly hard science fiction such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, may be the key to encouraging students.

“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,” Canterbury says. “One of the things about science fiction 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. So it serves as a kind of antidote to that fatalistic kind of thinking.”

Canterbury’s bill may be unique in the country, but it’s a concept that’s been raised before in the science fiction community.  Patrick Murphy presented a lecture on sci-fi in the classroom  at last year’s Comic-Con.  An education journal published an extensive study on the power of sci-fi on pupils. Hugo Award winner David Brin has written passionately and extensively on the issue, arguing that science fiction may also be key to turning kids on to reading, period. He’s even come up with a long list of suggestions for teachers, including lesson plans and mini-conventions in school libraries:

[S]ome of the kids in our classrooms are wrestling with concepts at the very cutting edge — embedded in tales they devour between colorful paper covers. Books that explore the edges of tolerance, like those of Octavia Butler and Alice Sheldon (James Tiptree, Jr.). Books that ponder biological destiny, penned by Greg Bear and Joan Slonczewski, or the physical sciences, by Robert Forward and Gregory Benford. Books designed by Julie Czerneda and Hal Clement to revolve around teaching themes. And those by Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ray Bradbury that instruct almost invisibly, because the authors were teachers at heart.

Shouldn't you be aware of this? Moreover, if high-end science fiction provokes wonder, thought, and a sense of vigorous involvement with the world, can it be worth adding to your arsenal of tricks and tools, ready to offer that hard-to-reach kid? Especially as an alternative to the violent fare in video games and the vast wasteland of TV? What can be more relevant to bright teens, in their rapid-pulsed flux, than a literature that explores ideas and the possible consequences of change?

We couldn’t agree more. What do you think? Would you be willing to lobby for this kind of legislation?