The Future of False Hope

Those of us who write science fiction and fantasy are often considered to be people who enable escapism through our writing. Certainly, I’d dispute that, particularly given what I write. But…even if the charge happened to be true, which it’s not, we writers would hardly be the only ones in U.S. society institutionalizing escapism.

The other day a husband and wife who are acquaintances told me how upset they were by the university commencement address given by a Nobel laureate because the scientist had laid out rather directly and bluntly some of the challenges that the next generation would have to face, in particular those involving energy supplies and global warming. They both felt that a commencement address should be inspiring and uplifting, and “not a real downer.”

On the one hand, I can see their point. Hitting bright young graduates between the eyes with the cold water of realism is not exactly encouraging, when commencement is considered “their” day.

On the other hand, times have changed. Many long years ago, when I was in high school, educators made a practice of pointing out one’s short-comings in more than graphic detail, day after day, while suggesting that major improvements in attitude, effort, and skills were the only way to avoid a life of failure and lack of accomplishment. And when one got to college, the “standard” entry address to college freshmen was: “Look to your left; look to your right. By the end of the year, one of you won’t be here.” In those days, there was a draft and a war in Vietnam, and for young men, at least, not being there meant a good chance of being somewhere else — a place distant, hot, damp and dangerous. And more than a few students didn’t make it through the curriculum. Those that did finally got to hear an excessively optimistic speech about how they would go forth to conquer the world… or at least their chosen profession.

Today, except in a comparative handful of institutions, education tends to be all about encouragement and reward for often negligible accomplishments. For all the talk about tightening standards, and the like, the functional literacy of American university graduates continues to decline, even while the grades given — and received with little gratitude — has continued to inflate. Given the recent financial crises, it’s also clear that fewer Americans seem to know enough basic mathematics to understand how to calculate the impact of a mortgage payment on their monthly budget… or even what a budget might be.

So… we’ve moved from a more realistic system of education, where the commencement addresses were always falsely encouraging, to an educational regime that tends to exude false hope and low standards, but where commencement addresses are occasionally sobering. Personally, as a curmudgeon and cautious optimist, I think the old system prepared more students for the real world… and back then false hope was limited to an occasional commencement address and not dispensed throughout an entire course of studies.