Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Of Starship Troopers and Marching Morons

Firstly, apologies for my absence. I've been moving house, trying to finish a Ph.D. thesis, teaching Creative Writing to freshmen, and occasionally even writing some fiction. I've approximately finished moving house, though too many of my books are still in cartons, so my plans to continue the "Lost Books" series is hampered by my inability to find those books (though new bookshelves are being put up as I type this). Similarly, my intention to comment on the print and cinema versions of Starship Troopers will have to wait until I've seen 300.

But I was reminded of Starship Troopers this morning while embroiled in a discussion of C. M. Kornbluth's 'The Marching Morons' on another blog, Paul Riddell's The Esoteric Science Resource Center.

In case any of you don't know the story (and The Best of C. M. Kornbluth will have its day in my Lost Books series), it postulates that the tendency of intellectuals to have fewer children than the less educated will result in a world overpopulated by congenital idiots shepherded by an overworked minority with IQs six times as high. Kornbluth also used this idea in 'The Little Black Bag' and his collaboration with Frederick Pohl, Search the Sky... but in 'The Marching Morons', a twentieth century con man comes up with a murderous but sanitized retroactive solution to the problem.

Like so much dystopian sf, these were cautionary tales that started with the premise "If this goes on..." and came up with a worst-case scenario. While Kornbluth was almost certainly wrong about the influence of genetics on intelligence, at least two of these stories stress that the problem is also a cultural dumbing-down, an anti-intellectual streak that is strengthened by the tendency of people who are more inclined towards intellectual pursuits to have fewer children (and from what I've read, as late as the 1960s men were statistically less likely to marry those women who did have the determination to pursue higher education and a career), giving increasing power to an increasingly less educated majority until "wise guy" becomes the greatest insult imaginable (a similar premise to that of Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451). Kornbluth raised the possibility of mass sterilization and rejected it on practical grounds; he failed to predict the developments in contraception that could have been used to slow down the population increase (as in Walter Tevis's Mockingbird), but as he was writing in 1950, I'm inclined to forgive him for that. And the end of 'The Marching Morons' shows what Kornbluth thought of the ethics of the solution his racist hustler suggested. (Search the Sky has a more humane answer, but one that depends on a considerably more advanced technology.)

As in dystopias, the setting of these stories may be nightmarish to the writer and most readers (especially as most sf fans are likely to identify with the intellectual elite), but Kornbluth's morons are actually depicted as happy and materially wealthy, albeit doomed to extinction by their over-exploitation of the planet. Dystopia, again, is in the eye of the beholder.

Of course, if you see this trend as real and problematic, there are better ways to deal with it problem than bribing the better educated to have more children (as was tried in Singapore), or restricting the number of children that people can have. A more secure and rewarding life for those who do pursue an education. Easier access to childcare (including allowing brain-workers to telecommute while spending more time with their families). Ready access to information for those who do favour intellectual pursuits but are restricted by geography (the web is a good start). And access to education based on intelligence and application rather than wealth.

Which brings me (at last) to Starship Troopers. There is a scene there where Colonel Dubois tells his students that "Nothing of value is free (...) If you boys and girls had to sweat for your toys the way a newly born baby has to struggle to live you would be happier... and much richer. As it is, with some of you, I pity you the poverty of your wealth."

The novel states that this class, in History and Moral Philosophy, is the only compulsory class for the student body. This does not necessarily prove that education is free in this world (arguably Heinlein's personal utopia); the same teacher repudiates the idea that humans have any rights at all, and his assertion that the incompetent should not be encouraged to waste resources that can be profitably used by the competent might be applied to the material costs of education. However, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, and considering the stance another Heinlein father-figure takes in Have Space-Suit, Will Travel in favour of access to education and against anti-intellectualism, I will give Heinlein benefit of the doubt and presume that he would agree with me that even if access to education is not an inalienable right, it is more cost-effective for a society that can afford to educate its people to do so than to turn it into a privilege for the materially wealthy.

It could even be argued that while "Nothing of value is free" might be interpreted as a justification for making education PAYG, taken in full, Dubois's speech makes a case for giving access to education to those who've made the most use of it in the past, rather than those who can afford to pay for it in advance with their parents' money.

Now, as it happens, our conservative Australian government is calling its most recent budget "an education budget" because it's created a trust for universities to pay for new facilities (not including staff), and removed the cap on full up-front fee-paying places. This means that (our currently government-funded) universities will find it more cost-effective to give preference to students who couldn't qualify for entrance to university on academic merit. The Labor opposition, conversely, is promising to phase out full-fee-paying places in favour of those who qualify according to proven ability. As a tutor and postgrad student at one of these universities, you can probably guess who I'm likely to vote for (and against), and why I was sufficiently motivated to rant at this length.

This has been an unpaid political broadcast. We will return you to your regular programming as soon as possible.


Paul Riddell said...

Ummm...I hate to say it, but you've got a big typo in the middle of that piece. "Paul T. Riddell" has been dead for the last five years. I hate to sound overly pedantic, but it's just "Paul Riddell" these days.

Stephen Dedman said...

Sorry, Paul: fixed!

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