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.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.
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.
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?”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!"
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?”
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.