Few things say as much to me about a culture as its education system. What a society values, it teaches to its young, and that means its values are at the core of any system designed to teach and enculturate children.
Education is a big issue right now. People are drowning in student debt, but many of them are unable to get jobs in the fields that they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to acquire qualifications in. We’re wrestling with questions about what education is for, what constitutes a good one, and how much it should cost. Eventually, questions like that will (or should) filter into our speculative fiction.
There are lots of middle grade and YA books where schools function as a setting element. Harry Potter, Vampire Academy, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid come to mind. In those stories, if education is relevant at all, it’s a catalyst for adventure or an obstacle that the characters have to deal with while trying to get what they want. So the education systems are familiar: residential English school, American-style public school. They’re a backdrop, or a motif, not a problem in themselves.
Adult lit doesn’t spend much time on education at all, unless we’re dealing with some kind of magical initiation and training. In those cases, again, the method and problems associated with the educational system are usually not discussed beyond the protagonist whining or complaining about the hardass mentor. I’m betting we’ll see a shift in the next 10 to 15 years because more and more people are returning to school later in life, and we have increasing numbers of college grads who can’t get the jobs they want.
I’m also betting on this because, in the past five years, I’ve had two long-term, large-scale spec fic projects up-end themselves and decide that they were suddenly going to start making a HUGE DEAL about how the education systems in their societies are broken, holding people back, and need to change. Well, I’m not a political writer, and I’m not a psychic, but I do pay attention to social movements, and I listen to what is important to people. I didn’t plan to write about education, but I figure if both of my story worlds have decided that education needs to be written about, I’m gonna go with it.
So, when I realized this was happening in my work, I took a step back and started asking myself some hard questions. What is the purpose of education? David’s tackled that here in a Feminist Friday Post and here in an analysis of education in Naruto. What does the ideal education system look like? Who should have access to education, and who should pay for it? Is education really the social equalizer? The more questions I asked, the more I didn’t have good answers – and I still don’t, but that’s okay with me because I never want to preach to my audience. I want to pose questions and let my readers make up their own minds.
I decided to get more purposeful about the education systems in my universes, though, and to that end, I came up with a list of “ideal education system criteria.”
Before I share them, a disclaimer:
These are all my personal opinions. They don’t reflect Holly or David’s views about education. I could probably make separate posts arguing for each point I’m about to list, but I’m not going to, because they’re here for illustrative purposes. We’re talking about my methods of creating a fictional education system, not my sociopolitical views.
- Basic education (the things you need to know and the skills you need to have in order to get by in your society) should be available and accessible to everyone without cost.
- The definition of “basic education” should be reevaluated periodically to make sure that people are actually receiving appropriate education.
- Adequate food, clothing, and shelter should be available to students when necessary.
- Teaching methods should be flexible, with opportunities for self-directed learning for students who want them and more guided learning for those who would benefit.
- Student-teacher ratio should be no higher than 10-1.
- “Basic education” should include entry-level work experience and/or community service.
- Students should have regular opportunities for cultural exchange and involvement with people outside their age groups (who aren’t teachers or parents.)
- Higher education should be affordable and accessible to everyone, but not necessarily free in all cases.
- Higher education should have multiple tracks and options, allowing career-focused learning to take place independently of Gen-Ed requirements or electives (basically trade school running alongside of more traditional learning programs with options to do both) and more room should be allowed for independent study and self-designed curriculum within standing programs.
Once I had made up this list, I realized how many impossible questions and variables it presented. I started trying to use it to construct the “perfect” education model, because I’m a nerd and I make up social models for fun. But I stopped with most of my questions unanswered, because I remembered that what I was trying to do was flesh out the details of already existing education systems in my stories and figure out how to make those systems work better by the end. No matter how hard I worked at it, there was no way I would be able to devise a “perfect” system, because stories don’t work that way. In the story, you don’t want perfection; you want flaws and problems for people to struggle with. What the list gave me, though, was a better understanding of my own creations and the inherent flaws I was working with.
In Synn, my low-tech, preindustrial world, only the very wealthy or very lucky (read: magically talented) have access to any kind of education. The system itself is very flexible, and it allows for distance learning, self-directed study, and strives to tailor things to individual learning styles. The problem is, almost no one gets in, and advancement depends entirely on what a teacher or mentor thinks your performance in year-end evaluations and projects measures up to. Most education is magically oriented, and “magician” is basically synonymous with “scholar” or “scientist.” Nobles have basic literacy, political science, languages, and some training in critical thought and analysis, but not much else. Math skills are horrid unless you’re a sorcerer, priest, or scientist.
One of my characters, Aldra, explained it this way in an interview with Melissa Barker-Simpson:
“In the Northern Realms, you have to apply to one of the schools. There are seven. If you’re wealthy, a teacher or mentor affiliated with one of the schools comes to you, or if you’re poor but really lucky, you can get a scholarship to live at the schools. I was fortunate because two of my parents are already sorcerers, so I had a mentor. He taught me some things and helped me design a personal curriculum taking different classes at various schools. I was also allowed to incorporate classes from Earth. Sorcery is an interdisciplinary field. You study magic and a variety of other things. We know how the weather works, and chemical processes, geology, and things like that. We can combine that knowledge with Colored magic to do things. Lifespans are longer, especially among people who know magic, and that puts a different perspective on continuing education. You have to be able to do a little bit of everything, including employable trade skills. Magic doesn’t make money, though some well-known magicians have noble patrons. Most sorcerers have more learned skills than innate powers and abilities.
I guess we’re more “the people with special knowledge” than “the people with special powers” although we have powers that others don’t. Witches have inborn powers to manipulate nature, so they don’t always need as much technical knowledge
Magicians work in groups and there’s more of an academic emphasis than a standard “adventurer” one like your readers would probably expect. The degree I have, called an Intermediate Holdership, typically takes between 8-10 years to acquire. It’s worth about as much career wise as an Associate’s Degree on Earth, and once you get it, you need a research grant and approval from one of the schools to go to the next level.”
In my space opera, Adanna’s Beginning, distance learning is the norm. It’s overseen in each locale by a “headmaster” who makes sure that students are meeting certain standards, but there are many different programs of study available. Unfortunately, most of them focus on STEM or military training because there’s a long-term space war going on. The younger characters are frustrated because most of the education options are only available to military personnel or their children, and there’s little variety or opportunity to explore the arts and humanities.
Normally I would love to see STEM learning get more attention and priority, but not at the expense of arts and humanities, and certainly not if ALL the development is going toward military applications.
I have plans to balance things out in both worlds, but how I’ll get there remains to be seen. Check out my blog if you’re interested in seeing what I come up with. I know I’m wondering how I’m going to fix it all.