The miseducation of Carl Sagan

The video above is a reading from Carl Sagan‘s 1995 book “The Demon Haunted World“. It is the part of the book where he reflects on his education and his early interest in astronomy in particular and science in general.

Sagan is scathing about his education. He could not understand why he was taught things which were stated as facts but which were not explained. He mentions long division that was taught as a method with no explanation as to why things had to happen as they did.

His escape as a child was into science fiction and science fact books. The library became a place where he could allow his boundless imagination and interests.

It reminded me so much of the library where I would go as a child. This was not school where you were given a strict diet of information and not allowed to ask questions. Here you could explore questions in your own way, allow yourself to wander around the many shelves full of books covering so many areas of life.

It was only when Sagan went to the University of Chicago that he was able to really explore ideas and ask questions and meet minds that were open to discussion and debate. It was here, as he explains in the book, that he was able to “fill in the many gaps in my education”.

Sagan was a very bright child who was able to use school to his advantage whilst realising that he gained little or nothing from it. How many children of his generation and indeed of generations before and beyond were not so lucky? These children were expected to sit and be taught the facts like empty vessels that needed to be filled. There was no wonder, no excitement, no space to dream.

What might Dr. Sagan make of our current educational debate?.. of a return to a form of schooling that he hated and which did not allow real learning to take place? Of an obsession with results which means tests of facts and facts alone?

The title of his book was perhaps very apt….. “the Demon Haunted World”.


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