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Science fiction and the extended idea of Bildung

I have a dream, possibly even a vision, of a truly interdisciplinary course. It would not be feasible, certainly not in a system where universities are not so much about learning as passing exams, and where interdisciplinarity is much talked about but generally only carried out when there are business interests at stake (or some nebulous idea of "teamwork"). Not, say, for learning things (other than playing nicely with the other kids).

But I still dream about it. Especially after a couple of glasses of wine in geeky company.

This course would draw on lecturers from a variety of disciplines, ranging from history, via literature, film studies, linguistics and philosophy, to sociology, psychology, and of course biology, computing and physics. Sometimes more than one from each. If they could draw on their specialities, we could attempt to tie it all together in the exploration of a series of science fictional texts.

Imagine all the things we could learn, all the new perspectives we could get not only on literature and films, but on the world around us. Humanities students would get a better grasp of the sciences, and the science students would learn about the perspectives opened up by the humanities and the social sciences.

Imagine, if the course could be open to all students with an interest in the subject: we would potentially end up with people who not only learnt something about their own field, but who could approach fields very different from their own in an academic setting. We could teach critical thinking!

The course could then be expanded (my imagination knows no bounds), so that there were corollary lectures in the specific disciplines, so that they could go through the mathematics of it, for example, or the literary theory for that matter. The core lectures could then focus on the implications, secure in the knowledge that this can be developed elsewhere.

Of course, this would require a coordination of university resources never seen in the annals of man. And ideally it would run across years, so that I could include all the science fiction books and films that I find interesting (there are quite a few of those).

So far my dreams.

You can see how this does not really fit into the current profit-driven pattern of Norwegian universities (or those of most other places, for that matter). God forbid we teach courses that do not provide a handy rubber stamp that can then be converted into cash. But that is a rant for another time (which is coming, believe me).

What I did manage to do was construct and teach a course on science fiction directed at (mainly) second year literature students. I have chronicled some of the trials and tribulations elsewhere. But there is one thing I think I did manage to do: to extend the idea of Bildung in my lectures on literature.

First a word on Bildung. It may sound like an outdated idea, buried in dusty dead white men. And maybe it is. But it is also a useful word for the kind of knowledge which should be shared by all, ideally. Not the specialised kind of knowledge, but the general understanding of a wide variety of things. And one which is not narrowly instrumental, at that. I would argue it is all the more important now than it was back in the heyday of the ideal of Bildung, in part because a variety of subjects are relevant to the political navigation of the society in which we live.

For example, I would claim that all people should know about structures of power, some main bits of history and key texts of literature, a bit about how languages work, a thing or two about rhetorical strategies and some key facts to hang it all on. All of which is fairly standard Bildung stuff. In addition, however, it seems fairly obvious that as informed members of society we should know a thing or two about science. Like whether it is possible to travel faster than light (and why not), or that energy is conserved, or a bit about the laws of thermodynamics and mechanics.

Which is why my lectures covered alterity, what we perceive to be human, how we imagine society, how literature and history influence all this, and what our imaginings tell us about ourselves; but I also made sure my students knew that how we imagine society is influenced by the science and technology we encounter, and that they had some grasp of basic physics: the (im)possibility of time travel, faster than light travel, artificial intelligence, the virtual interconnectivity enabled by internet, etc. (And before you have collective heart attacks worrying about what a literature scholar might be teaching the poor unsuspecting masses about physics: I checked everything with Tor.)

Science fact was never the central point of my lectures, and I certainly never tried to teach equations which tell me little to nothing and most of my students probably less. It was, after all, a series of literature lectures. But is it not relevant to know that some of the plots of Ursula Le Guin's Hainish cycle hinge on NAFAL (nearly as fast as light) travel and what that means for actual interstellar communication; or that when Hannu Rajaniemi created the universe of the Quantum Thief, he drew not only on Maurice Le Blanc's Lupin stories, or his Finnish background, or the futurist idea of eternal life through technology, but also on his background as a mathematical physicist (with a PhD from Edinburgh, like all the cool kids have); or how H. G. Well's Time Machine described time as the fourth dimension, thereby demonstrating the prevalence of the idea before Einstein published his theories of relativity, or how his idea of time travel would differ from the one made possible in general relativity.

History of technology was even more central, in part because how we imagine the future is grounded in the present that surrounds us. From the zippers and helicopters of Aldous Huxley's future (or his hypnopaedia, human cloning and multi-sensory cinema), via the smart houses of Bradbury, the nuclear holocaust with the mood organ and collective televised mentality of Philip K. Dick, to the way the arrival of the internet, with its ability to subvert the more hierarchical predictions for the future makes Rajaniemi so different from Asimov.

Literature does not exist in a vacuum. It cannot. And while the interconnections of literature, the way Adams pokes fun at Asimov, or Le Guin draws on Tolkien, or Rajaniemi on Le Blanc, are all interesting, they are not the full story (if there is such a thing).
Tor, Anja likes this


Tor,  20.11.14 07:14

I'm glad you make an effort to promote bildung, and it's very kind of you to include the sciences. I sort of did the opposite earlier this year, when I gave "motivational talk" to a class of first years physics students, and reminded them that they should try to get more than just a science eductation out of their stay at university. It looked like at least a few of them found it motivational.

I would very much like to take the course you describe, but I think it would also be very interesting to teach it.
Camilla likes this