Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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  Science Fact-ion by Randall Hayes
July 2018

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 Apprentice.”

Folklorists study 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

G100.Giant ogre

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, both in 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.

Ironically, medical 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 Thomas 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 Serenity, 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:

  • Semi-autonomous learning communities, the way professionals learn things, by doing research, where there are no experts, because by definition research involves things nobody knows.

  • Starting with 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 criminally ineffective).

  • 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.

  • Integrating all 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.

  • Institutionalizing experimentation, such as randomized clinical trials of teaching methods.

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 EEG, 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 circuits).

Transranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS)

This trickles 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 July 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.

Randall Hayes, 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.

Read more by Randall Hayes

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