Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Charles Sheffield and Jerry Pournelle, Higher Education (1996)

Since I myself happen to work in Higher Education I was curious as to what Sheffield and Pournelle have to say on the subject. It’s been a revelation, let me tell you. The protagonist of this preachy, authorial-thumb-in-the-balance novel is Rick Luban, 16 years old and bored by his incompetent, rubbish Earthly school. He takes the chance to go work in the asteroid belt as a miner, but first he and his fellow teens (alternately befriending, trying to get off with, gossiping and fighting amongst themselves as is the way with teens) have to go to a new kind of school. ‘Higher’, you see. Because it’s in space. Anyway, at this school they are treated without indulgence or slackness; they are not special snowflakes to be nurtured; they are there to be disciplined and to learn hard-knocks. So there’s a lot of stuff like this:
Your lack of knowledge of the Belt and the Solar System is deplorable. Learn the following by heart. Sheet after sheet of data about the planets, asteroids, rings and moons of the Solar System, endless names and numbers and lists and computer file references.

Back in school he had never been forced to learn things by heart. That was dismissed by the powers-that-be in the Earth educational system as “rote-learning”, old fashioned and restrictive and undesirable. It didn’t leave a student with what Principal Rigden always called “time for smelling the roses.” Rick didn’t recall smelling many roses. He did know he had spent a lot of time watching the tube.
Ha, that Principal Rigden! The dick. Yeah!—the real business of education is forcing kids to memorise endless lists of computer file references. That’s what I’m going to be doing with my students, just as soon as the new academic year begins.

Here’s an example of how real teaching happens: a (female) teacher called Barney French, who ‘might have been pretty but for her oddly lopsided face.’
“You stated on your general knowledge quiz that Rome was founded in the year 753A.D. Would you be interested in revising that opinion?”

There was a long silence as Deedee opened her mouth and then closed it. Finally she said, tentatively: “753 B.C.?”

“Correct. A mere difference of fifteen hundred years, but what’s that between friends? Bravo. ... Now listen all of you. You may be thinking, what the hell is all the fuss about? Barney French is nit-picking on things that don’t make a damn of difference. Well if you think that you’re wrong.” ... She walked along the line of trainees, turning so that they could get a good view of her misshapen face. “See the scars? See the bone grafts? Take a close-up. You’re seeing me after thirty-seven operations and the best plastic surgery that money can buy. My body is in worse shape than my face—I have more metal than bone in my shoulders. And I’m one of the lucky ones. Four people died in the accident that did this. And do you know what caused it?”
That's right—it was caused by somebody not knowing the correct date of the legendary foundation of Rome. (Well: ‘one lousy plus sign that should have been a minus in one small subroutine that controlled one phase of a continuous casting operation on CM-24’). In the environment of Belt Mining ‘the details matter’. Should any of my students, let's say, mistakenly conflate the Lacanian Real and French Realist fiction in an essay on nineteenth-century fiction, I shall yell at them: ‘You’ve never known real horror until you see what a pressure jet of molten steel does when it hits a human body in low-g!"

Now that’s higher education.

So, yes, clearly I need to model my pedagogy on the Full Metal Jacket drill instructor. I also (this is almost too obvious) need to ditch English Literature and start teaching something useful like Engineering or Physics. Are there any English teachers at all in Sheffield and Pournelle’s future vision of Higher Education? Why, yes, there are. As one of the main characters, Polly Quint, recalls:
“My English teacher told me—before he decided that he was more interested in getting into my pants than into my head—that cussing is the sign of an inferior intellect and an inadequate vocabulary.”
Fuck, yeah. Polly knows that sometimes real engineers need to do the Actual Swearing. That's all part-and-parcel. She also knows that unlike Engineering teachers, English professors aren’t really interested in their subject; they’re interested in boffing their students. The swine. And just in case we've missed the hammerhead thesis here, the novel ends with the Rick being addressed thuswise: 'back on earth you were being strangled by the biggest, most inefficient, best entrenched bureaucratic system in the world. You were in school, adrift within an education system that had lost any interest in the value of knowledge, or truth, or discipline, or self-evaluation. Like all monopolies it was more interested in perpetuating and protecting its own territory than in anything else. The men and women who emerge from the school system know less and less -- and then wonder why they find themselves unemployable.' Well, they won't for much longer. Not when I stick my ugly face directly in their line of sight and tell them about what a pressure jet of molten steel does when it hits a human body in low-g.

As to whether it is possible, even with the greatest literary talent, to make a 'good' novel out of this confection of right-wing ideological tendentiousness, bias, strawmannery, tedious earbending and downright banging-your-fist-on-the-edge-of-the-pulpit preaching ... well, that's a different question.


rreugen said...

I understand you found the novel useful, but did you like it artistically too?

Thank you.

A fan. (

Travis Butler said...

I admit, I'd be interested in seeing a compare-and-contrast with Bujold's Falling Free. I've never read Higher Education (and I'm suspecting I would have done the wall-throw with this one, based on the description); but FF plays the 'space and engineering are unforgiving disciplines' card in what I suspect is a much more palatable and intelligent way. :)

Whether you function as welders or inspectors, the laws of physics are implacable lie-detectors. You may fool men. You will never fool the metal. That's all.

Rich Puchalsky said...

Reading Pournelle without even the uncertain leavening of Niven isn't something I'd want to do.

Travis, I've read Falling Free, and the laws-of-physics-as-lie-detectors bit is no part of what I found memorable about it. It's a minor work of Bujold's, and what I thought was memorable about it is that it suggests that sexuality can be liberating in more than the standard, creepy, SF-geek way. The main character of the book is a member of an oppressed underclass of genetically designed people, and because she fools around with an engineer, they get to like each other, which is the first step in her access to education and in him getting to help her and her group as a class, etc. Bujold is really good on reproductive issues generally, and I thought it was a good novel about sexuality leads to freeing social connections for some people.

The "laws of physics make my ideology really important" thing is jsut a version of Fans Are Slans, and it's not something I see in later Bujold work.

NineMirrors said...

The boffin gets a boffing?

David Duffy said...

I seem to recall that one of the physics lessons in this book was on why the Ringworld would be unstable. Get those kinds of calculations wrong and your great american novel will crash and burn, you know.

Robert said...

I have not read this book and have nothing really substantial to say, but . . .

What's especially weird about that "753 A.D." example is that, while the student may have gotten the absolute value of the date right (so to speak), her answer still has pretty egregious implications about her general historical knowledge. (What civilization does she think Christ lived in?) So it's a bad example of the principle that "details matter," since it's actually a huge error. I guess the teacher acknowledges this with her sarcastic "but what’s that between friends?", but to acknowledge a problem is not to address it.

(And if one wanted to be cheeky, one could speculate that only an education system that focuses on the memorization of "endless names and numbers and lists" could produce a mind so tuned for rote recall at the expense of thought that it could produce a howler like that "753 A.D." answer. . . .)

Rainer Skupsch said...


Rainer Skupsch said...

Oops, sorry, I didn't really mean to post these enigmatic eight letters. :-)R.

JP said...

Polly 'Quint'?

Adam Roberts said...

JP: that is indeed her name. Do you think she might be related to that guy in Jaws?

Bill from PA said...

I think she’s more likely a descendant of James' Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. Maybe it’s just that the “getting into my pants” part makes me imagine some ancestral seduction being reenacted in each succeeding Quint generation at a lower literary level.