Educating the Starborn

Chaos Manor View, Sunday, July 26, 2015

It’s Sunday night, and I’m still in fiction mode. This is short shrift…



Educating the Starborn

Dear Jerry:
In your View for 7/23/2015 ( you wrote:

I have been worrying about education: what is the curriculum for children on an interstellar colony? There must be some common culture, and it won’t all be science and technology.

Would the answer not depend on what kind of common culture you want to establish among the starborn?
I immediately thought of Dr. John Patrick’s comments about children and stories. Recall from my previous e-mails that Dr. Patrick is a pediatrician and a founder and president of Augustine College in Ottawa.

Dr. Patrick tells how children love hearing stories repeated over and over because the stories inform the child about his place in the world.
At one time in western civilization the most widely known stories were from the Holy Bible. Every one of those stories was about moral consequence. People were so familiar with those stories that it is said that the miracle of Dunkirk was launched by a three-word message from a British officer trapped on the beach: “But if not”.
(See George Will’s “A Dying Tradition” at,764718&hl=en
or Will’s more recent “Closing the book on literature” at
More recently in America the most widely known stories come from television advertising, stories with no moral consequence in which the most frequently taught lesson is “Just do it!” This week we have seen one result of that teaching. We have watched videos of highly-schooled physicians negotiating the selling prices for the brains and hearts and livers of human beings who were dissected as living babies in their mother’s wombs.
As Arthur Leff wrote in “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law”, “As things now stand, everything is up for grabs.”
(Duke Law Journal, Vol. 1979, No. 6, pp. 1229-1249 (December 1979). Available as a PDF file from
Dr. Patrick points out that the Jews have survived for more than 2,000 years without a homeland and are still identifiable as Jews. That is a miracle. If you took a bunch of Americans to an isolated desert island, for how many years would they remain Americans? The reason for the Jews’ survival can be found in Deuteronomy 6, where parents are instructed by Moses to tell their story to their children:

In the future, when your son asks you, “What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees and laws the Lord our God has commanded you?” tell him: “We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.

In other words, tell the children the stories, and tell them over and over again:

Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

One place Dr. Patrick discusses this is in his lecture “Why Ethics Courses Do Not Make Us Ethical.”
(A recording can be found at )
What kind of sustainable common culture do you want for your starborn? Will they have a high view of humankind? Or will they have a diminished view of what it means to be human in which their fellow humans are no more than meat to be used by others.
Best regards,
–Harry M.

You have raised some of the questions that concern me; I can’t really comment, but I hope to address them in the book


RE: Educating the Star Born

You asked: “I have been worrying about education: what is the curriculum for children on an interstellar colony? There must be some common culture, and it won’t all be science and technology. Sure, as time goes on, there will be those who choose to specialize, “Classicists”, Shakespearian experts, and so forth; but, besides Dr. Seuss, what books have all the kids read? And whose history?”

E.D. Hirsch Jr.’s What Your [K-6th] Grader Should Know series might be a good place to start.  It may be too USA specific but the series is based on his concept of Cultural Literacy or a common knowledge base for educated people.

After that perhaps the Harvard Classics and Fiction instead of Britannica’s Great Books. Your own suggestions on history and math plus one or two ‘foreign’ languages after all if the Swiss can have 3 official languages why not our Star Born?

Thanks for keeping us informed,

Paul Evans


educating the starborn

Dear Mr. Pournelle,
You ask “what books have all the kids read? And whose history?” A fascinating question. What I’m wondering is, how might we avoid a dystopian answer?
On the assumption that “everything” (or near enough) is available electronically, there will be easily enough available for multiple intellectual universes. We already do that: interesting studies have found that politically-literate readers in the United States tend to cluster in two groups, one of which would never read Ann Coulter and the other would never read Michael Moore. Both are convinced the other group has nothing worth considering.
So: given the easy availability of “everything,” how do we avoid smug echo chambers? Alexei Panshin once wrote of our desperate need for Inspectors General, and the problem that anyone suited for the post would never have the arrogance to apply. Perhaps an electronic society will need a wise, honest and open-minded Board of Censors? Such a thing being implausible, I find myself at a loss for any good answer to your question…
Allan E. Johnson

I can’t be at a loss; we have a book to write…


Some thoughts on curricula for the starborn

On Jul 25, 2015 4:32 PM, “Gary Pavek” <> wrote:

Jerry –

Saw your mention of wondering about curricula for the starborn, and then this morning ran across a brief review of Ender’s Game which had some salient points.

The second and third paragraphs are the payload that relates to your question. Orson began the thinking that led to Ender’s Game when he read the Foundation Trilogy and wondered how one would train soldiers in microgravity. That led to the Battle Room and the selection of children as trainees because they would not have years of habit in gravitational thinking to unlearn.

This caused me to realize that there would probably be an entire curriculum in microgravity physical activities, and another in physical activities in higher-gravitational environments. One of the expected results of the latter would probably be broken bones and casts, possibly such that one could not graduate without breaking something. After all, nothing teaches caution as well as pain, and gravity demands caution.

My understanding is that current medical theory requires some exercise in gravity or else the bones will weaken and muscles will atrophy, etc. One might offset some of that with novel medications and various therapies (muscle stimulation, ultrasound, standing while strapped onto a vibrating plate, etc.) but it looks like humans need gravity. There is also no reasonable theory that I’ve seen that points the way to a workable artificial gravity, so the spinning hollow asteroid/ship or the giant spinning centrifuge/wheel seem to be the only viable means of keeping humans healthy without requiring multiple hours per day of physical training or physical therapy.

I realize that this doesn’t exactly fit your question, which seems to be more about the humanities, but if nothing else it does point to how strange that world would seem to us ground pounders.

Where will children get their sense of wonder? No fireflies? No fireworks? No snowflakes, butterflies, or lightning and thunder? No clouds, no rain, no dawn, and no sunset? No baking in the long days of the summer sun. Of course they’ll have the stars, but if that’s all you’ve known, will they still inspire wonder? Especially in the deeps between the stars, when the stars don’t seem to change.

Good luck with your ruminations!

–Gary P.

Oops. Forgot one source of gravity: acceleration, but that does require mass to discard.

How long would it take to get a xenon ion thruster up to ram scoop speed, anyway?

Fortunately I don’t have that kind of education in my story. Scott did his well, of course. As to enough acceleration to provide gravity, unless you have reactionless drive you are talking about really big ships. Fortunately I have a planet to provide gravity…


Islam & the rest of the world
Hello Dr Pournelle,
I’ve been thinking about this a for a couple of days now..
If The Islam world is following “the duty to bring the entire world under submission; there could be truces with the infidels, but peace with them is forbidden by the black letter law of the text” then there is no hope for peace.
Either the world adopts their belief system or their belief system is removed….one way or another. This is their choice, war is the game you play when the other person want to or you lose.
Half measures don’t do it.

Rob M

That was also what we faced in the Cold War: Communist theory was chiliastic, and that was taught in compulsory Marxist theory classes in every University and High School and Grade School in the Warsaw Treaty Organization. Fortunately much of the ruling class did not believe it in the last years of Communist rule; even more fortunately, the United States adopted strategies of containment and technology early after World War II and avoided a destructive war. You may credit Stefan Possony with part of that.


Giving Doctors Grades    (nyt)

JULY 22, 2015 

ONE summer day 14 years ago, when I was a new cardiology fellow, my colleagues and I were discussing the case of an elderly man with worsening chest pains who had been transferred to our hospital to have coronary bypass surgery. We studied the information in his file: On an angiogram, his coronary arteries looked like sausage links, sectioned off by tight blockages. He had diabetes, high blood pressure and poor kidney function, and in the past he had suffered a heart attack and a stroke. Could the surgeons safely operate?

In most cases, surgeons have to actually see a patient to determine whether the benefits of surgery outweigh the risks. But in this case, a senior surgeon, on the basis of the file alone, said the patient was too “high risk.” The reason he gave was that state agencies monitoring surgical outcomes would penalize him for a bad result. He was referring to surgical “report cards,” a quality-improvement program that began in New York State in the early 1990s and has since spread to many other states.

The purpose of these report cards was to improve cardiac surgery by tracking surgical outcomes, sharing the results with hospitals and the public, and when necessary, placing surgeons or surgical programs on probation. The idea was that surgeons who did not measure up to their colleagues would be forced to improve.

But the report cards backfired. They often penalized surgeons, like the senior surgeon at my hospital, who were aggressive about treating very sick patients and thus incurred higher mortality rates. When the statistics were publicized, some talented surgeons with higher-than-expected mortality statistics lost their operating privileges, while others, whose risk aversion had earned them lower-than-predicted rates, used the report cards to promote their services in advertisements.

This was an insult that the senior surgeon at my hospital could no longer countenance. “The so-called best surgeons are only doing the most straightforward cases,” he said disdainfully.

Research since then has largely supported his claim. In 2003, a study published in the Journal of Political Economy compared coronary bypass surgeries in New York and Pennsylvania, states with mandatory surgical report cards, with the rest of the country. It found a significant amount of cherry picking in the states with mandatory report cards: Coronary bypass operations were being performed on healthier patients, and the sickest patients were often being turned away, resulting in “dramatically worsened health outcomes.”

“Mandatory reporting mechanisms,” the authors concluded, “inevitably give providers the incentive to decline to treat more difficult and complicated patients.” Surveys of cardiac surgeons in The New England Journal of Medicine and elsewhere have confirmed these findings. And studies from 2005 and 2013 have shown that report cards on interventional cardiologists who perform angioplasty procedures are having similar results.

Surgical report cards are a classic example of how a well-meaning program in medicine can have unintended consequences. Of course, formulas have been developed to try to adjust for the difficulty of surgical cases and level the playing field. For example, a patient undergoing coronary bypass surgery who has no other significant diseases has an average mortality risk of about 1 percent. If the patient also has severe kidney dysfunction and emphysema, the risk of death increases to 10 percent or more. However, many surgeons believe that such formulas still underestimate surgical risk and do not properly account for intangible factors, such as patient frailty. The best surgeons tend to operate at teaching hospitals, where the patients are the most challenging, but you wouldn’t know it from mortality statistics. It’s like high school students’ being penalized for taking Advanced Placement courses. College admissions officers are supposed to adjust grade point averages for difficulty of coursework, but as with surgical report cards, the formulas are far from perfect.

The problem is compounded by the small number of operations — no more than 100 per year — that a typical cardiac surgeon performs. Basic statistics tell us that the “true” mortality rate of a surgeon is not what you measure after a small number of operations. The smaller the sample, the greater the deviation from the true average.

Report cards were supposed to protect patients by forcing surgeons to improve the quality of cardiac surgery. In many ways they have failed on this count. Ironically, there is little evidence that the public — as opposed to state agencies and hospitals — pays much attention to surgical report cards anyway. A recent survey found that only 6 percent of patients used such information about hospitals or physicians in making medical decisions.

It would appear that doctors, not patients, are the ones focused on doctors’ grades — and their focus is distorted and blurry at best.





Freedom is not free. Free men are not equal. Equal men are not free.




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