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Dune: Adventures in miseducation

Did you know that the “did you know that you only use 10% of your brain” factoid is false?

You probably do. But the myth persists, a result of the near-universal obsession with education and what the brain can do. And it makes sense: if you’re a student reading this, you’re probably hoping that studying will open up the career and life you want, and even if you’re not, you’ve undoubtedly been inundated with methods to improve your mind: meditation, learning to avoid logical fallacies, developing a particular mindset for success, and so on. And of all the books that explore the question of how and why we learn, I find that Frank Herbert’s Dune offers an unsettling, prescient answer to this question.

The novel imagines a future where computers and artificial intelligence are forbidden, with humans training their minds to replace these machines. In its world, the brain can be augmented to do everything from lie detection to foreseeing the future. The “10% of your brain” myth isn’t explicitly stated, but finds a close parallel in the book’s vision of the incredible things the mind can be capable of. It’s difficult to read Dune and not walk away wondering if there’s a (more realistic) equivalent to the mental perfection that the novel’s characters train towards.

This perfection doesn’t just manifest as superhuman powers, but is also linked to more traditional forms of strength. Herbert contrasts the Galactic Empire, a technologically powerful but stagnant civilization, with the Fremen, a tribal race made strong by harsh environments. “People need hard times and oppression to develop psychic muscles”, a scholar within the story states, and the novel presents the Fremen’s psychological resilience to suffering as the key reason why they eventually overpower the Empire. The idea that peace leads to decadence while suffering creates strength is a contested view of history, but Herbert portrays hardship as the key to mental strength.

In fact, characters in the novel define humanity by the barometer of mental discipline. In one of the novel’s most famous scenes, a character’s “humanity” is tested by examining whether he can endure extraordinary pain. It’s explained that an animal would flee from a painful trap, but a human would control itself, “feigning death that he might kill the trapper”. This is a novel which places massive weight on humanity’s ability to learn—it seems to say that strength comes from subjecting oneself to suffering and discipline, until the potential of our minds is unlocked.

But things in Dune are rarely so simple. Most of us probably see education as something with the potential to make us more free. Dune, however, presents a feudalistic future where every form of mental advancement is conscripted in service of those in power, with soldiers and advisors refined through brutal methods into the perfect tools. Even when the protagonist uses his knowledge to demolish the old order of things, it is to establish a new, arguably equally repressive, system of control. The novel presents an awe-inspiring picture of how characters suffer for the sake of mental excellence, but also reminds the reader of the bleak goals that their training guides them towards.

Many things make Dune a novel that speaks to our times: its analysis of religious extremism, the way it explores ecological issues, or how it critiques “white saviour” narratives. But its portrayal of how education becomes nothing but a means to an end also feels starkly prescient. You may have read about a recent study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies claiming that women earn less because they choose the “wrong” degrees, linking the graduate pay gap to how women make up only a third of graduates in Economics, the degree with the highest financial pay-off, but “disproportionately choose to study subjects that yield low financial returns”, such as Creative Arts. If this study is correct, these are the “wrong” degrees if one’s goal is profit. But, at the risk of stating the obvious, there are other goals that are equally—perhaps more—valuable, even if the job market may say otherwise.

Maybe there isn’t a hidden 90% of your brain to tap into, or a way to train yourself to see the future. But we so often try, hoping that current hardship equates to future happiness. Dune entices us with a fantastical sci-fi universe, but Herbert also makes it clear that it’s a brutal, limiting world, where education is a mechanical process of creating tools for the powerful, with little thought to individual needs or personal passions. So, for the students reading this: take the breaks you need, go for a walk, and read a book.

Just maybe not Dune. It’s a work of genius, but having said all this, you might find it a bit depressing.

Artwork by the author.

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