ISAAC ASIMOV, EDUCATOR
Isaac Asimov is best know as a science fiction writer, but would more accurately be called a science writer. By the time of his death, in 1992, he had published over 450 books and articles, of which approximately one quarter were fiction. The remaining three quarters focused primarily on scientific topics such as chemistry, physics, biology, mathematics and astronomy. He also wrote on the humanities of history, literature, humor and religion. Asimov rarely wrote on the specific topic of education. Still, his materials are replete with references to our future as a society and how education will play a role in its progression. Many of these educational references were related through accessibility, technology and theology.
Asimov took the role of explaining the intricacies and complexities of science so that everyone could easily understand them. A classic example of this came from articles that he wrote for Science Digest magazine, beginning in 1965. The title of his department was called "Please Explain." Readers to the magazine would ask both timely and esoteric questions regarding subjects from entropy to Mars; radio waves to atomic particles. He used plain language and relevant metaphors to relate the answers.
In an article on the greenhouse effect he simply stated that "The carbon dioxide of the atmosphere acts like the glass of the greenhouse" (Asimov, 1974, p. 70). Another article asked the question "What is the speed of gravitation?" (p. 90). Asimov moved quickly and precisely through the mathematical and physical terminology. He gave the numbers on the movement of "massless" exchange particles such as photons (186,282 miles per second, the speed of light) and then equated these particles to "massless gravitons." He explained that since both have the same physical composition they must both move at the same speed. Asimov all the while related this to the sun and earth. He concluded that if the sun disappeared it would take 8.3 minutes for us to see the extinguishing light. At that moment of darkness we would be free of the sun's gravitation.
This accessibility to information was important for Asimov. He felt that intelligence was not just a product of genetics, but more a result of environment. He related that if someone were to try and artificially create him they would have never used his biological parents (Asimov, 1983, p. 35). He goes further by assuming that if one were to tamper with genetic intelligence then the product child would be expected and encouraged to perform at a higher level; "warmed before the benevolent fire of books and intellectual games and stimulating conversation."
Asimov saw that information needed to be plentiful and unrestricted to provide an opportunity and environment encouraging inquiry. He foresaw people pursuing any interest at anytime from the comfort of their home. These people were unfettered by the mundane work of daily life ultimately liberated to personal, intellectual pursuits.
Asimov saw the use of robots and automation as the tools to free people from binding chores. Those who chose to pursue politics, construction, economics or agriculture would do so out of entertainment, not necessity (Asimov, 1979, A choice..., p. 343). He also pondered how people would fill this new free time. While some may initially be bored without external demands, it is the empty time that would ultimately inspire an enthusiastic drive toward exploration.
Asimov saw one vehicle for inquiry as a vast digital library accessible to everyone. The information on this library would be held in ultraviolet lasers beamed to satellites and directed back to waiting home terminals. Individuals could then explore any aspect of a subject and freely detour to associated links. Once a person developed a deep understanding they may then want to add information to the library. This new information would be cross referenced to check for duplicates and then made available for all others (pp. 341-343). This is an obvious prophetic description of today's internet access.
This "Global Computerized Library" would make learning fun and accessible to all people regardless of their age or ability. In fact, Asimov introduced this notion as a solution to the "graying" of our planet (pp. 338-340). The median age of our world is rising while our education system looses relevance after the teen years; partly because school is practically perceived as a penalty of youth.
Technology becomes the great equalizer bringing all people, regardless of age, sex, race or ability to the intellectual table. As each individual's ideas are brought into parity then the level of technology, application and inspiration will ultimately rise for everyone. The most profound changes he thought would come from the heretical questions asked by both endo and exo thinkers; those inside and outside a profession (Asimov, 1983, pp. 49-55). He refers to these kind of questions as heresy because they challenge the dominant power paradigm.
Asimov asserted that religion has been a powerful factor in monetary, intellectual and political control throughout history (p. 50). The heresy of Galileo powerfully flew in the face of the medieval European inquisition. Darwin's evolutionary theories are still of considerable religious controversy to the point where school libraries and curriculum are regularly challenged to diminish their discussion. Asimov observed that in the place of Darwinian evolution many religious advocates demand the "equal time" teaching of creationism (pp.16-19). He noted that creationism holds the floor in church and home discussions without the exploration of competing views. He says that this is precisely the motivation of religious zealots; to maintain a blockade on information so that "their victims never hear of anything else" (p.18).
Conversely, Asimov used science as a religion throughout his fictional work Foundation. This story begins with a prophetic "psychohistorian," Hari Seldon, who foresees the demise of the Galactic Empire. Seldon inspires a group of people to preserve the human experience through a massive encyclopedia. This society of "Encyclopedists" moves to the planet Terminus to compile information. Seldon's ulterior motivation was to create a new society based on science and intellect that would usurp the Empire's sphere of influence. The Encyclopedists develop a religion of science with rites, ceremonies and priests. The priests venture off to other worlds inspiring "barbarians" to expand their intellectual pursuits. In actuality, the priests are nothing more than salespeople hocking technological advances. The other worlds build to a certain point and then desire to conquer Terminus. In reaction, the Encyclopedists stop the support of technologies and the thriving barbarian societies come to a halt. In the end, it is technology that demands peace from all of its participants. The "religion" ultimately becomes an unnecessary intermediary and its facade is cast off (Asimov, 1951).
Issac Asimov demonstrated tremendous educational insight even though he was considered a writer and scientist. His notion of accessibility was inclusive, presuming that everyone can understand and appreciate even the most complicated concepts by explaining them in relevant, jargon-free vernacular. Technology was definitely a cornerstone of Asimov's philosophy. He believed that mechanical innovations could free people for life long exploration and provide them with unlimited information. He saw religion as a mire to free thought and presumed that science could raise humanity to a higher social standard. He did not try teach the specifics of how to achieve these ends, but definitely inspired questioning, imagination and inquiry throughout our society, and our world.
Asimov, Isaac (1951). Foundation. New York, NY: Gnome (Doubleday).
Asimov, Isaac (1974). Please explain. Houghton Mifflin.
Asimov, Isaac (1979). A choice of catastrophes. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster,
Asimov, Isaac (1979). In memory yet green. New York, NY: Doubleday.
Asimov, Isaac (1981). Change. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
Asimov, Isaac (1983). The roving mind. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus.
A review of literature in partial fulfillment of the course Philosophical Foundations of Education,
MLS 654 E, Course Consultant is Mona Gardner, Ph.D.
February 19, 1998
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