06 June 2012


I came out of the pub, crossed the road which stretched in a pure straight line from horizon to horizon, and stood at the edge of a vast cold swale, the landscape feature which had once convinced earth-bound writers that this planet was crisscrossed by vast canals. Unlike the deep green of the terraformed environment at my back, what lay before me was unchanged from the days of the first NASA rovers, unchanged since further back than anyone could imagine.

Had I consumed less alcohol the wind might have stung, but it did not, and the grey sky swirled with the slight, threadlike clouds which always stretched above, and I stood there for a long time, the blown sands scouring my face...

Earth rises above the Martian landscape. NASA
I'm no Ray Bradbury, but I believe that I retain the "child-like" capacity to imagine. And to imagine in a way which is human-centered, not technology-centered.

"Mr. Bradbury referred to himself as an “idea writer,” by which he meant something quite different from erudite or scholarly. “I have fun with ideas; I play with them,” he said. “ I’m not a serious person, and I don’t like serious people. I don’t see myself as a philosopher. That’s awfully boring."' (The New York Times)

Unlike so much of science fiction, which endlessly halts the storyline to explain one technology or another, Bradbury was less interested in the rocket which got you to Mars than in how you'd behave when you got there. He was as interested in the wide range of human experience as he was in the morals of his stories. And he was as interested in how the structures of his writing and how it impacted understanding as he was in the storytelling itself: When you turn the page to Chapter 31 in Something Wicked This Way Comes(the first Bradbury book I remember listening to), you are faced with nothing but, "Nothing much else happened, all the rest of that night," and the tension of the preceding story arc pops like an overinflated balloon.

Bradbury understood technology as a tool, not an end, and he understood human environments in transcendent ways.

The Pedestrian: Illustration by Joseph Mugnaini
"To enter out into that silence that was the city at eight o'clock of a misty evening in November, to put your feet upon that buckling concrete walk, to step over grassy seams and make your way, hands in pockets, through the silences, that was what Mr. Leonard Mead most dearly loved to do. He would stand upon the corner of an intersection and peer down long moonlit avenues of sidewalk in four directions, deciding which way to go, but it really made no difference; he was alone in this world of A.D. 2053..." (The Pedestrian, 1951 pdf)

As I read of Bradbury's death on this 6th of June, I thought of how different his "imaginings" were than too many of ours. Though, "The 1953 release Fahrenheit 451- inspired by the Cold War, the rise of television and the author's passion for libraries - was an apocalyptic narrative of nuclear war abroad and empty pleasure at home, with firefighters assigned to burn books instead of putting blazes out. A futuristic classic often taught alongside George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, Bradbury's novel anticipated iPods, interactive television, electronic surveillance and live, sensational media events" (Guardian/Press Association), Bradbury was not overly invested in describing what had replaced books, or even why. He did not worry about making books look like books on an iPad, he worried about the maintenance of human stories, and storytelling.

I say this here because I get very tired of people imagining our future schools and seeing specific products - products which sit on today's consumer shelves no less. I ask people to "dream," to "fantasize," and they all too often come back with iPads and laptops, with iBooks and YouTube. But we don't need an imagination - and we don't need schools - for those things. They're out there, and they are not even "new" anymore.

The point becomes obvious when you consider Bradbury's strongly held attitudes toward "schooling," "Mr. Bradbury himself disdained formal education. He went so far as to attribute his success as a writer to his never having gone to college. Instead, he read everything he could get his hands on, by authors including Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Thomas Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway. He paid homage to them in 1971 in the autobiographical essay “How Instead of Being Educated in College, I Was Graduated From Libraries.”' (The New York Times) He sought an education as widely ranging, as unfiltered, as possible. He did not want the imposed frames of textbooks and lectures, but instead sought to observe the world (see post below). He didn't want homework, and he wouldn't have wanted video homework either, he wanted what he found in the stacks of his beloved libraries - the chaotic way humans actually learn by leaping from topic to topic and interest to interest.

Mars is Heaven, Ray Bradbury Theater, see parts two and three
But that is not to suggest that Bradbury did not understand the power of any chosen medium. As with the "turn the page to Chapter 31," he could magnify the power of any method of storytelling. '"What I have always been is a hybrid author," Bradbury said in 2009. "I am completely in love with movies, and I am completely in love with theatre, and I am completely in love with libraries."' (Guardian/Press Association)

So, to celebrate the life of one of our greatest authors, begin to imagine. But do not assemble your fantasies from shelves stocked by Steve Jobs or Larry Page or Bill Gates or George Lucas, assemble them from dreams of education embedded deeply in humanity, in the people - the society - the culture - we want to be, and perhaps in the technologies we imagine our students inventing.

When you fantasize what school might be, don't begin with school
- Ira Socol


Matt Landahl said...

Ira, thanks for the post. It really has me thinking about the right way to imagine school.

GirlWithTheCane said...

Beautiful. Thank you.