The Moral of the Story: The Profession

At Fairfield train station there is, on most days, a cardboard box filled with books that says “please take”. I usually don’t, either because I’m rushing to catch the train or because I’m reading something else. Also, the books in the box are usually Mills&Boon.

On Monday I nonetheless stopped to have a browse, and picked up a book called Nine Tomorrows, by Isaac Asimov. It’s a collection of nine short science fiction stories – the book was published in 1963, but most of the stories in it were published around 1957. I immediately thought it would be a good book to do as part of this “moral of the story” segment, since sci-fi often has a slightly moralizing tone to it. The thing that decided me, though, was the fact that a previous owner of the book – someone with very neat and swirly handwriting – has at some point written in the moral of the story at the end of each chapter.

So I thought I’d share with you the lessons that, according to our swirly-penned anonymous friend, can be learned from Asimov’s nine tomorrows – one short story at the time.

The Profession

In this story we are introduced to a future in which our form of obtaining information – that is, learning from books – is completely obsolete. Instead, the required knowledge is merely “dumped” into a person’s head. This first happens at eight years old, when each child is “taught” to read through the flick of a switch. Later, when the people turn eighteen, they are given a profession in a (slightly) more complicated, but no less instant, process. This profession is (of course!) matched to each person’s abilities, and as one Technician explains it: “Practically any human being can absorb practically any body of knowledge, but each individual brain pattern is better suited to receiving some types of knowledge than others. We try to match mind to knowledge as well as we can within the limits of quota requirements for each profession.”

Obviously this way of learning saves a lot of time, and is a much more efficient system than our “old” education system, and blah blah – however, it is clear (to the reader) that the technique relies on an understanding of learning and education that values content over (and at the expense of) process. And, the future people in the story aren’t completely happy with it either: “Every once in a while, we come up against a young man [of course the characters are all men, grumble grumble] whose mind is not suited to receiving a super-imposed knowledge of any sort.”

And this, of course, is where things get interesting. I don’t want to spoil the story for you, I just want to highlight that according to the previous reader (the One of the Swirly Handwriting), this story is about “the ability to think for yourself, own mind not controlled by computers or other beings”. I’m reading a moralizing tone into that, and aside from being interesting from a psych perspective in terms of theories on memory and learning, the relevance of this story to moral psychology has to do, I think, with purity concerns. (Check out Jonathan Haidt’s 5 moral domains!) Because, I must admit that I wrinkled my nose in something like disgust, at the idea that knowledge is about pouring learningness into previously-empty vessels. But then again, I am a Social Scientist. And, in The Profession Asimov makes it very clear that as a Social Scientist, I would say that.

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