This Century's Apprentices
"Set me a task!" said a voice, like the roaring of an iron furnace.
The boy only trembled, and his hair stood up.
"Set me a task, or I shall strangle thee!"
But the lad could not speak. Then the evil spirit stepped towards him, and putting forth his hands touched his throat. The fingers burned his flesh. "Set me a task."
"Water yon flower," cried the boy in despair, pointing to a geranium which stood in a pot on the floor.
– The Master and His Pupil, English folktale
I'm sure you know the
rest, generally. We've all heard one version
or another of the story Goethe called “The Sorcerer's
stories the way naturalists study nature. They catalogue and classify
the memes used in stories, only folklorists call them motifs.
For instance, from Aarne Thompson's Index:
G100.–G199. Giant ogres
G110.Possessions of giant ogres
G120.Physical characteristics of giant ogres
G130.Customs of giant ogres
G150.Giant ogres – miscellaneous
Originally the subject
of folklore was the oral traditions of different cultures, but modern
incarnations of that work continue across genres of popular culture,
the academy and (gloriously) out
of it. There are even attempts to automate
the process to increase its speed and consistency.
From my readings, one
of the few persistent differences between SF and fantasy is the way
education tends to be portrayed. SF uses classrooms,
and fantasy uses apprenticeships (Harry Potter and imitators being
exceptions to the rule). Fantasy characters don't learn to fight with
swords by sitting down with a manual,
though lots of historical people had to do exactly that; instead,
they fight with blunted blades under a stern, exacting master.
Military SF blurs the line a bit by having recruits do practical
things outside the classroom like PT and combat simulations; still, a
teacher and a drill sergeant are very similar characters,
mythologically. These motifs are often just caricatures, used
to express a cluster of ideas in an easy and efficient (or lazy) way.
The reality of
education is much more complex. Parts of Europe like Germany and
Switzerland have had very successful apprenticeship programs in all
sorts of trades for a hundred years or more. These have been copied
here in the US in blue-collar construction industries, and after a
decades-long detour of promoting college as the only socially
acceptable pathway to success, there is currently quite a bit of
interest in expanding apprenticeship programs to other industries
like health care and finance. The policy wonks at the think tank New
America (who have lots of good SF ideas) have been
promoting them in a series of reports and meetings.
school, arguably the most elitist training system of all, has always
used a hybrid model of coursework and clinical experience. Scientists
use a similar system; we just don't call our trainees apprentices
and journeymen. We call them grad
students and postdocs.
My Ph.D. program did have classes, but the heart of the experience
was a multi-year mentored research project, overseen day-to-day by an
advisor and less often by a Jedi Council of other senior scientists.
This project was expected to produce real and original results.
My point here is that
the age-segregated classroom is only one option, a dated product of
industrial thinking, an attempt to standardize the production of
interchangeable factory workers and bureaucrats. There are other
possibilities. My mom started her teaching career during the 1960s in
a one-room rural schoolhouse, before the 20th century
caught up with Kentucky and students were bussed into town to the big
blocky “consolidated” schools. In that one-room
environment, there was naturally a lot of group work and peer
mentoring. Today these are well-recognized, at least in the
educational literature, as best practices to support human learning,
which depends at least as much on relationships as it does on clarity
of the information presented (we are, first and foremost, social
mammals). The early 21st century is still trapped in the
20th’s industrial model, when we have a global,
practically instantaneous communication network, where a student can
find pretty much any information she wants at any time. Why? Force of
habit? Institutional inertia? Imaginational market failure?
Utopian authors, from
More through Skinner's Walden
Two, almost always played with educational models
and technologies. In modern SF, Neal Stephenson has the talking
book in Diamond Age. Cyberpunks download skill
packages. Whenever authors want to present something comfortingly or
even frustratingly familiar, as in the Firefly sequel
they go with a single teacher leading a classroom. What I want to see
are some stories where the author plays with the idea of education
itself, featuring, for example:
learning communities, the way professionals learn things, by doing
research, where there are no experts, because by definition research
involves things nobody knows.
languages, which humans absorb almost effortlessly before the age of
five, but which become a chore after the age of twelve (our current
system of starting foreign languages in high school is almost
Mixed cohorts of
age and expertise (including teams of teachers) that emphasize the
robustness of the social unit, and the robustness of the learning,
rather than how quickly information can be presented.
artistic, emotional, physical, scientific, social, and spiritual
knowledge into a single coherent system, rather than the specialized
silos that we currently think are inevitable and normal.
experimentation, such as randomized clinical trials of teaching
Of course, many of us
are reluctant to think of social arrangements as a form of technology
that can be manipulated and optimized to fit particular environments.
Fine. If tech is only gadgets, below are three learning technologies
that I've never seen in an SF story.
EEG for Understanding
One of the banes of a
teacher's life is the fact that when asked, “Do you
understand?” students often nod politely and dishonestly. Using
a team led by Edmund Lalor at the University of Rochester and Trinity
College Dublin have isolated a signal that indicates at least
linguistic understanding, because it disappears when the same speech
stream is played backwards (which should trigger all the same
low-level auditory neurons but not the higher level linguistic
Transranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS)
electricity into the brain, not to transfer information like writing
to a hard drive, which is a common SF trope that I wrote about in
2016, but instead to focus attention, speeding up
natural synaptic plasticity. The idea is to make practice more
efficient, radically reducing the 10,000 hours that pop culture now
says is necessary to produce expertise. This is a real thing that
exists now. I haven't tried it, but it could be transformational.
Simply “gamifying” learning with little virtual rewards
to activate the dopamine system has already proven to be effective
when designed carefully.
Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)
This is a slightly
older technology, which takes the opposite approach. TMS doesn't
increase anything. Instead, it turns off inhibitory brain
circuits that prevent people from using abilities that they already
possess. The approach grows out of studying savants,
who display “splinters” of artistic or mathematical
abilities far beyond their background level of intelligence. The most
dramatic results have come from studies of neurologically intact
people whose drawings get temporarily better under TMS. One could
imagine all kinds of applications, realistic or fantasmagorical.
Ph.D., has totally forgotten the two years of Spanish he took during
college, which is kind of a bummer.
A bunch of different versions of “The Sorcerer's Apprentice,” starting with the first known written version by Lucian, the Roman satirist called by some the first SF writer.
This paper is 20 years old now. I include it because it's a good introduction to the problems of studying culture scientifically. How much progress since then?
And are still doing today. My friend Hager especially recommends the George Silver (1599).
The scene changes abruptly and disturbingly at 1:08. Just so you know.
“Rewinding the Memory Tape”
Scroll down to the “Discover” by Bob Marcotte on p14.
Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (much-hyped, not well understood scientifically)
This one also includes some interesting speculation on placebo effects.
A quick search on PubMed showed 2616 results, 138 of them freely available review articles.
Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation
This showed 13071 results on PubMed, 435 of them freely available review articles. Some articles cover both technologies.
Hermelin, Beate (2001). Bright Splinters of the Mind: A Personal Story of Research with Autistic Savants. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Philadelphia, PA.
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