Charles Sheffield/Jerry Pournelle
Higher Education (1996)
16-year old Rick Luban wastes away his life in school. In a near-future USA the public education system has become so egalitarian that actual learning has been obsoleted. Two years from graduation, Rick can hardly read or write. When a comparatively harmless prank gets him expelled from school his intended future as a comfortable welfare recipient is destroyed. With nowhere to go Rick grasps an unexpectedly offered chance of future useful employment and signs up with an asteroid mining company. After a period of grueling tests Rick is found fit to go to space as a trainee where his real education starts. He must learn the skills required to stay alive in the unforgiving environment of space, some of which aren't in the books, but especially the fact that his survival is now in his own hands.
Not surprisingly, Higher Education bears some resemblance to Pournelle's earlier Exiles to Glory. It is a coming-of-age novel in the vein of the classic Heinlein juveniles, although much more modern in such aspects as the kids' language, the presence of girls, and there's even S-E-X. No reality denial of teenage interests there. One implausibility remains unresolved throughout the book: why would a space company recruit semi-literate no-goods like Rick and his fellow trainees? These may turn out to be good kids but industry can't afford to train highly skilled engineers starting out at elementary school level. If the US school system can't deliver, hire elsewhere in the world. Probably the authors are too patriotic to acknowledge this possibility, though.
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