Sci Fi and Schooling Worlds Collide: Education for the Starborn

Jerry Pournelle speculated here, and his readers chime in here, about what sort of education would be needed by those born on an interstellar colony:

I have been worrying about education: what is the curriculum for children on an interstellar colony? There must be some common culture, and it won’t all be science and technology. Sure, as time goes on, there will be those who choose to specialize, “Classicists”, Shakespearean experts, and so forth; but, besides Dr. Seuss, what books have all the kids read? And whose history?

One answer I liked, from Harry M, in part:

Dr. Patrick tells how children love hearing stories repeated over and over because the stories inform the child about his place in the world. At one time in western civilization the most widely known stories were from the Holy Bible. Every one of those stories was about moral consequence. People were so familiar with those stories that it is said that the miracle of Dunkirk was launched by a three-word message from a British officer trapped on the beach: “But if not”.
(See George Will’s “A Dying Tradition” at,764718&hl=enor Will’s more recent “Closing the book on literature”   at

More recently in America the most widely known stories come from television advertising, stories with no moral consequence in which the most frequently taught lesson is “Just do it!” This week we have seen one result of that teaching. We have watched videos of highly-schooled physicians negotiating the selling prices for the brains and hearts and livers of human beings who were dissected as living babies in their mother’s wombs.

As Arthur Leff wrote in “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law”, “As things now stand, everything is up for grabs.” (Duke Law Journal, Vol. 1979, No. 6, pp. 1229-1249 (December 1979). Available as a PDF file from

Dr. Patrick points out that the Jews have survived for more than 2,000 years without a homeland and are still identifiable as Jews. That is a miracle. If you took a bunch of Americans to an isolated desert island, for how many years would they remain Americans? The reason for the Jews’ survival can be found in Deuteronomy 6, where parents are instructed by Moses to tell their story to their children:

In the future, when your son asks you, “What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees and laws the Lord our God has commanded you?” tell him: “We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.

In other words, tell the children the stories, and tell them over and over again.

Couple thoughts:

I’m thinking technology training won’t be a problem for a few generations at least, since it’s unlikely that a huge portion of any interstellar colonists won’t be high-end tech geeks. If mom and dad spend their days laying Hobartium cables along the colony’s perimeter to power the Repulsor Array,  and are recognized and honored for their labors, enough little Janes and Johnnies will want to follow suit – and will have the environmental (and genetic!) prerequisites to do so.

Establishing and maintaining a civilization, on the other hand, will be a HUGE challenge and problem. The at-rest state for human culture is barbarism and tyranny. Republican Democracy, with human rights and the outrageous notion that the wisdom of the nation lies in its people, not its leaders, is terribly anti-entropic: Falling into barbarism is as easy as falling down. That’s why Harry M above has the right idea.

Putting the above together: the Geeks will assume they are the smart ones, and therefore naturally ought to be in charge. And, in fact, when the major pressing problems are all engineering problems, they may even be right. People being people, they will get used to the idea that the engineers ought to be in charge – less work for them, and the oxygen keeps coming and the lights are on, after all. Pournelle’s Law will quickly kick in, and the geeks who like power will get it. And then the colonists are oh so screwed. (If you’ve ever worked in a company where the Geeks are in charge, you’ve seen a minor vision of how this will work out. Just imagine throwing adulation and real power into the mix…)

One nice side effect of needing to have lots of engineers: I would expect graded classroom education to die the death its has long deserved, as the ‘luxury’ of warehousing kids for a decade or more for their parents convenience will not be affordable – you need the talent in the field. I’d expect apprenticeships at a young age, with something like guild training, to accompany the storytelling so essential to civilization.

Thoughts?  Think I’ll send this to Dr. Pournelle and see what he thinks.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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