Cover Page


Introduction: What Is Ender’s Game?



CHAPTER 1 “The Teachers Got Me Into This”: Educational Skirmishes … with a Pinch of Freedom

Liberal Education Is Paideia’s Game

Vocational Prep: A Heaping Tablespoon, or the Main Dish?

Is Battle School Just Trade School?

Should Critical Inquiry Be Socratic or Social?

Critical Inquirer for the Dead

Educational Skirmishes


CHAPTER 2 Illusions of Freedom, Tragedies of Fate: The Moral Development of Ender Wiggin

Putting a Name to Evil

Evil and Its Refrain

Graff’s Sacrifice

The Moral Development of Ender Wiggin


CHAPTER 3 Xenocide’s Paradox: The Virtue of Being Ender

“A Little Private Moral Dilemma”

“The Name of Ender is One to Conjure With”

Plato or Aristotle?


CHAPTER 4 Teaching to the Test: Constructing the Identity of a Space Commander

“They’re Gonna Make You Do Time Out in the Belt …”

“Leader’s Aren’t Born, They Are Made”

Battle School Panopticon

Testing 1, 2, 3 …

“I’m Sure You Can Get Your Training at Someone Else’s Expense”

Every Action Has an Equal and Opposite Reaction



CHAPTER 5 The Enemy’s Gate Is Down: Perspective, Empathy, and Game Theory

Understanding Your “Enemy”

Understanding, Empathy, and Love

Loving Your Enemy

Back to the Game

The Enemy’s Gate


CHAPTER 6 War Games as Child’s Play

Paradox of the Heart and the Head

War Games

The Problem of Dirty Hands

Death Games and Moral Decision-Making

Moral Distance Makes the Heart Grow Fainter

Ender’s a Willing Pawn


CHAPTER 7 Forming the Formless: Sunzi and the Military Logic of Ender Wiggin

“Of Course We Tricked You Into It”

“The Enemy Outnumbered Him a Thousand to One”

Mazes and Formlessness


CHAPTER 8 Do Good Games Make Good People?

So What Is a Game, Anyway?

Games Without Goals?

This Game Is Deadly Serious

Do Good Games Make Good People?



CHAPTER 9 Bugger All!: The Clash of Cultures in Ender’s Game

Two Sides of the Same Coin, but Which Side Is Which?

When One Face Is Up, the Other Face Is Down

Two Faces of the Same Coin, and I Am the Metal in Between


CHAPTER 10 Why Ender Can’t Go Home: Philotic Connections and Moral Responsibility

Communicating Across the Galaxy

That Blasted Fantasy Game

Ender’s Quest for a New Home


CHAPTER 11 Of Gods and Buggers: Friendship in Ender’s Game

Ender, the Superman

Happiness or Power?

Ender, the Political Animal

“I the Sweetest Friend You Got”



CHAPTER 12 “I Destroy Them”: Ender, Good Intentions, and Moral Responsibility

“He Didn’t Just Beat Him. He Beat Him Deep”

“I Didn’t Want to Hurt Him!”

“All His Crimes Weighed Heavy on Him”

“Nevertheless, It’s Still You Doing Those Things”


CHAPTER 13 Ender’s Beginning and the Just War

“The More You Obey, the More Power They Have Over You”

“I Don’t Have Murder in My Heart”

The Moral Equivalent of War

A Waste of Brief Mortality

“At Least You Have Some Survival Instinct Left”


CHAPTER 14 “You Had to Be a Weapon, Ender … We Aimed You”: Moral Responsibility in Ender’s Game

Involuntary Bugger-Slaughter

Why It’s Not Okay to Let Rich Kids Drown

“You Tricked Me Into It”

“The Real Education Was the Game”

“I’ll Tell Your Story to My People, So That Perhaps in Time They Can Forgive You …”


CHAPTER 15 The Unspoken Rules of Manly Warfare: Just War Theory in Ender’s Game

Peace Is the End of War

The Rules of the Game

Playing by the Rules

The Justice of Ender’s Games

Ender’s Last Game: The Justice of the Third Invasion



CHAPTER 16 Locke and Demosthenes: Virtually Dominating the World

A Child’s Rise to Power

“Every Citizen Started Equal, on the Nets”

“[He] Knew How to Exploit Fear in His Writing”

New Friend Request from Hannah Arendt

“We’ll Be Too Entrenched to Suffer Much Loss”

The Heart of the Matter


CHAPTER 17 Ender’s Dilemma: Realism, Neoliberalism, and the Politics of Power

Survival of the Fittest

Why Can’t We Be Friends?

Ender’s Dilemma

The Power to Persuade

Fighting for the Future


CHAPTER 18 People Are Tools

Chosen to Save Humanity

The Tragedy of Ender’s Game

The Court-Martial of Colonel Hyrum Graff

What Is Ender’s Game?

Lessons from Ender’s Game


Convening Authorities of the Court Martial of Colonel Hyrum Graff

The Ansible Index

The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series

Series Editor: William Irwin


A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, and a healthy helping of popular culture clears the cobwebs from Kant. Philosophy has had a public relations problem for a few centuries now. This series aims to change that, showing that philosophy is relevant to your life—and not just for answering the big questions like “To be or not to be?” but for answering the little questions: “To watch or not to watch South Park?” Thinking deeply about TV, movies, and music doesn’t make you a “complete idiot.” In fact it might make you a philosopher, someone who believes the unexamined life is not worth living and the unexamined cartoon is not worth watching.

Already published in the series:

24 and Philosophy: The World According to Jack
Edited by Jennifer Hart Weed, Richard Brian Davis, and Ronald Weed

30 Rock and Philosophy: We Want to Go to There
Edited by J. Jeremy Wisnewski

Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy: Curiouser and Curiouser
Edited by Richard Brian Davis

Arrested Development and Philosophy: They’ve Made a Huge Mistake
Edited by Kristopher Phillips and J. Jeremy Wisnewski

The Avengers and Philosophy: Earth’s Mightiest Thinkers
Edited by Mark D. White

Batman and Philosophy: The Dark Knight of the Soul
Edited by Mark D. White and Robert Arp

Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy: Knowledge Here Begins Out There
Edited by Jason T. Eberl

The Big Bang Theory and Philosophy: Rock, Paper, Scissors, Aristotle, Locke
Edited by Dean Kowalski

The Big Lebowski and Philosophy: Keeping Your Mind Limber with Abiding Wisdom
Edited by Peter S. Fosl

Black Sabbath and Philosophy: Mastering Reality
Edited by William Irwin

The Daily Show and Philosophy: Moments of Zen in the Art of Fake News
Edited by Jason Holt

Downton Abbey and Philosophy: The Truth IsNeither Here Nor There
Edited by Mark D. White

Ender’s Game and Philosophy: The Logic Gate Is Down
Edited by Kevin S. Decker

Family Guy and Philosophy: A Cure for the Petarded
Edited by J. Jeremy Wisnewski

Final Fantasy and Philosophy: The Ultimate Walkthrough
Edited by Jason P. Blahuta and Michel S. Beaulieu

Game of Thrones and Philosophy: Logic Cuts Deeper Than Swords
Edited by Henry Jacoby

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Philosophy: Everything is Fire
Edited by Eric Bronson

Green Lantern and Philosophy: No Evil Shall Escape this Book
Edited by Jane Dryden and Mark D. White

Heroes and Philosophy: Buy the Book, Save the World
Edited by David Kyle Johnson

The Hobbit and Philosophy: For When You’ve Lost Your Dwarves, Your Wizard, and Your Way
Edited by Gregory Bassham and Eric Bronson

House and Philosophy: Everybody Lies
Edited by Henry Jacoby

The Hunger Games and Philosophy: A Critique of Pure Treason
Edited by George Dunn and Nicolas Michaud

Inception and Philosophy: Because It’s Never Just a Dream
Edited by David Johnson

Iron Man and Philosophy: Facing the Stark Reality
Edited by Mark D. White

Lost and Philosophy: The Island Has Its Reasons
Edited by Sharon M. Kaye

Mad Men and Philosophy: Nothing Is as It Seems
Edited by James South and Rod Carveth

Metallica and Philosophy: A Crash Course in Brain Surgery
Edited by William Irwin

The Office and Philosophy: Scenes from the Unfinished Life
Edited by J. Jeremy Wisnewski

South Park and Philosophy: You Know, I Learned Something Today
Edited by Robert Arp

Spider-Man and Philosophy: The Web of Inquiry
Edited by Jonathan Sanford

Terminator and Philosophy: I’ll Be Back, Therefore I Am
Edited by Richard Brown and Kevin S. Decker

True Blood and Philosophy: We Wanna Think Bad Things with You
Edited by George Dunn and Rebecca Housel

Twilight and Philosophy: Vampires, Vegetarians, and the Pursuit of Immortality
Edited by Rebecca Housel and J. Jeremy Wisnewski

The Ultimate Harry Potter and Philosophy: Hogwarts for Muggles
Edited by Gregory Bassham

The Ultimate Lost and Philosophy: Think Together, Die Alone
Edited by Sharon Kaye

The Walking Dead and Philosophy: Shotgun. Machete. Reason.
Edited by Christopher Robichaud

Watchmen and Philosophy: A Rorschach Test
Edited by Mark D. White

X-Men and Philosophy: Astonishing Insight and Uncanny Argument in the Mutant X-Verse
Edited by Rebecca Housel and J. Jeremy Wisnewski

Superman and Philosophy: What Would the Man of Steel Do?
Edited by Mark D. White

The Ultimate Daily Show and Philosophy: More Moments of Zen, More Moments of Indecision Theory
Edited by Jason Holt

The Ultimate South Park and Philosophy: Respect My Philosophah!
Edited by Robert Arp and Kevin S. Decker


Sons of Anarchy and Philosophy
Edited by George Dunn and Jason Eberl

Supernatural and Philosophy
Edited by Galen A. Foresman



What Is Ender’s Game?

In his introduction to Ender’s Game written six years after the book was originally published, author Orson Scott Card goes both backwards and forwards in time to talk about the inspiration for the story and its public reception. One of the most interesting things about Card’s novel is the diversity of its audiences. Now with the 2013 film adaptation of Ender’s Game, starring Asa Butterfield as Andrew “Ender” Wiggin and Harrison Ford as Colonel Hyrum Graff, the story of a young boy under siege from all quarters in a not-too-distant future will get its widest reception yet, and never at a better time.

Card tells us in his introduction that he was fascinated by the underlying premise of Isaac Asimov’s original Foundation series, the epitome of Golden Age science fiction, celebrating the marriage of reason and technological progress. Granted a one-time-only Hugo Award in 1966 for “Best All-Time Series,” Asimov’s Foundation (1951), Foundation and Empire (1952), and Second Foundation (1953) use the conceit of “psychohistory,” an incredibly advanced form of mathematical sociology, to plot the decline, fall, and rise of a Galactic Empire and the secret “Foundation” colonies of scientists whose job it is to make sure that the cosmos doesn’t descend into a new dark age. About Foundation, Card writes:

The novel set me, not to dreaming, but to thinking, which is Asimov’s most extraordinary ability as a fiction writer. What would the future be like? How would things change? What would remain the same? The premise of Foundation seemed to be that even though you might change the props and the actors, the play of human history is always the same. And yet that fundamentally pessimistic premise (you mean we’ll never change?) was tempered by Asimov’s idea of a group of human beings who, not through genetic change, but through learned skills, are able to understand and heal the minds of other people.1

This idea had immense appeal to Card when he read of Asimov in the late sixties, near the peak of American entanglement in Vietnam and social unrest tied to the war and the civil rights movement. It’s no surprise, then, that as a young person Card turned to sci-fi for healing rather than mere entertainment.

Like Asimov’s predictions about the distant future, Card’s (although centered closer to the present) concern things that haven’t happened yet and some things that may never happen. This doesn’t make them wholly fantastical, though, as Card’s uncanny predictions of the Internet, the use of child soldiers, and biological warfare (in Speaker for the Dead) show. Like Card, philosophers often pose questions about the intersection of time, change, and human nature: can we ever change? What resources from our past have we forgotten? Is human nature inherently violent and disruptive, does society or some malevolent force guide us to be so, or can we ever transcend our temptation to cruelty and the use of brute force?

As Card himself admits, Ender’s Game is a disturbing novel. It’s unrelenting in the degree to which its protagonist is oppressed in social, military, and ethical ways. In the chapters in the first part of this book, “Third: The Making of an Impossible Child,” four philosophers and educators consider how Ender’s character and moral development are affected by the system of monitoring children on Earth for the correct temperament and abilities to become a child soldier. Ender’s existence as a “Third” is a rarity in an overpopulated world in which parents are restricted to two children. So not only is Ender’s very birth a consequence of the policies of the military regime that both protects and controls the Earth, but his education and socialization—at least after Colonel Graff spirits him away to Battle School—are carefully controlled to produce the result Earth needs. But is this any way to treat a child?

In one of the letters Card received after the publication of Ender’s Game, an army helicopter pilot confesses:

I read Ender’s Game during flight school four years ago. I’m a warrant officer, and our school, at least the first six weeks, is very different from the commissioned officers’. I was eighteen years old when I arrived at Ft. Rucker to start flight training, and the first six weeks almost beat me. Ender gave me courage then and many times after that. I’ve experienced the tiredness Ender felt, the kind that goes deep to your soul. It would be interesting to know what caused you to feel the same way.2

Of the many audiences that have appreciated Card’s book, the men and women in uniform are the most surprising in their identification with the main character. As in the case of the army aviator, their sympathy mainly has to do with the shared experience of training and combat and the resultant transformation of a person’s entire worldview. In the second section of this book, “Game: Cooperation or Confrontation?” four authors take on the philosophical connections between war and games that make up the bulk of the novel’s adventures. These chapters show that empathy as well as strategy, and the ability to commit oneself to something for its own sake, are all vital needs of space commanders.

And what about the poor buggers? The hive-queens and their drones are portrayed by the International Fleet Command of Ender’s time as merciless and predatory. All they care about is ­eliminating every human from the face of the galaxy. Only a select few—Mazer Rackham, and eventually Ender—can understand what they might do next. But Leon Perniciaro, who wrote a master’s thesis entitled “Shifting Understandings of Imperialism: A Collision of Cultures in Starship Troopers and Ender’s Game,” points out how different the portrayal of giant, insect-like alien invaders appears in Robert Heinlein’s 1959 shoot-em-up Starship Troopers versus Ender’s Game, with Card’s surprising use of the ­buggers, or Formics, as foils but not enemies.3 Card’s sympathetic ­portrayal of the aliens opens up the possibility that philosophy can assist us in understanding, rather than demonizing, those who seem to present themselves as our enemies. So in the third section of this book, “­Hive-Queen: All Together Now,” three philosophers discuss all things Formic and ­philotic, showing how “others” from different cultures have contributed to the development of humanity’s image of itself.

“We’re saving the world, after all. Take him,” says one of Graff’s ­colleagues when the decision is made to recruit and train Ender Wiggin. Some of Ender’s most peculiar and incompatible traits—his ability to empathize with and even love his enemy as well as his violent streak—have emerged in the I.F.’s analyses as “the right stuff” for a commander who will lead a strike at the bugger homeworld. From the very beginning—as a number of the authors in these pages point out—Ender knows what he’s being trained for, and the logical limit of what he’s being asked to do is complete destruction of the buggers—xenocide. So why does he continue to play along? In the fourth section of this book, “War: Kill or Be Killed,” four authors—including an Air Force colonel—scrutinize ethics in times of war to assess the degree to which Ender, Graff, the International Fleet Command, and humanity as a whole are responsible for the “evil that men do” in times of conflict.

Ender’s Game may be unique in science fiction in that it has at least two sets of sequels. On the one hand, three books, beginning with Speaker for the Dead (1986), continue the sociocultural prophecies as Ender travels the universe and gets married on the planet Lusitania. On the other hand, the “Shadow” series, beginning with Ender’s Shadow (1999), tells the story of Ender’s Game from Bean’s perspective and then dives into the fate of Earth after the Third Invasion. No one can fault Orson Scott Card for the “big picture” thinking of his Enderverse, with developments that are both shocking and challenging to our sense of what’s good and true. In the final section of this book, “Hegemon: The Terrible Things are Only About to Begin,” four philosophers sketch the world that war and invasion have created—a future Earth in which the experience of every child is electronically overseen by the military and in which anonymous personalities on the nets determine international relations.

So it’s time to begin the exercise. The battleroom door is opening. Your reactions will be monitored. Don’t settle for anything less than victory, and remember: the enemy’s gate is down.


1. Orson Scott Card, “Introduction” to Ender’s Game, Author’s Definitive Edition (New York: TOR Books, 1991), xii.

2. Ibid., xxii.

3. Leon Perniciaro, “Shifting Understandings of Imperialism: A Clash of Cultures in Starship Troopers and Ender’s Game,” MA Thesis, University of New Orleans, May 2011,, accessed October 1, 2012.

Part One




“The Teachers Got Me Into This”

Educational Skirmishes … with a Pinch of Freedom

Cam Cobb

What does Ender’s Game tell us about the art of education, or ­pedagogy? And what on Earth does this have to do with freedom? To answer these questions, we need to step back in time. For thousands of years, people have debated the structure learning should take. For Socrates (469–399 BC), education was an interactive experience involving ­critical inquiry, dialogue, and a collaborative process that encouraged people to question the world around them by reasoning things out. Socrates left quite an impression on his students, most notably Plato (429–347 BC). Intermingling his own views with Socrates’ in a long dialogue called the Republic, Plato envisioned ­education as the identification of natural skills of children with the aim of preparing them to take on roles in society that corresponded to their perceived abilities. Children gifted in the use of reasoning, for instance, would join the “guardians” and rule the state. For Plato, then, education would be highly selective, and would also train the young for their future work. In this regard, Plato emphasizes his own kind of vocational education, centering on training in a skill or trade to prepare for a career. While Socratic critical inquiry and Platonic “vocational prep” aren’t exactly opposing philosophies of education, they do at times conflict with one another.

And this conflict returns us to Ender. In this chapter we’ll consider what Ender’s experiences tell us about the differences between liberal education, vocational training, critical inquiry, and that elusive matter of freedom in, and as a result of education. Specifically, we’ll address the following questions: Does everyone need a liberal education? Are schools training grounds for the workplace? And finally, is critical inquiry essential to being an educated person?

Liberal Education Is Paideia’s Game

A liberal education is one that is meant to free or “liberate” a person’s mind. It has nothing to do with being liberal or conservative in the way those terms are used in contemporary politics. A liberal ­education involves studying subjects such as mathematics, logic, ethics, ­aesthetics, music, poetry, rhetoric, and biology. In Plato’s Athens, these subjects were known collectively as paideia, which, in a very general sense, means to educate. Yet Ender’s Game devotes so much attention to ­non-liberal topics—the social life of Ender and his schoolmates, the interactive learning of the war games in the battleroom, and the individual problem solving in the virtual reality of the Giant’s Drink—that it’s easy to believe that Ender had very little liberal education at all.

Plato felt that vocational learning was important, but he also saw liberal education as complementing it. True education was a matter of balancing one’s body and mind. When sketching the details of his ideal city-state in the Republic, Plato carefully described the military training of the rulers of the city: “The person who achieves the finest blend of music and physical training and impresses it on his soul in the most measured way is the one we’d most correctly call completely ­harmonious.”1 Plato reasoned that learning music and poetry would inspire a more harmonious soul in soldiers, enhancing their courage and lessening their tendencies toward cruelty. Ultimately, for Plato, a well-­balanced curriculum helps foster harmony in individuals and societies.

Support for liberal education has fluctuated over the years. Mortimer Adler (1902–2001) reasoned that everyone is owed a liberal education because “the best education for the best is the best ­education for all.”2 Yet public schooling in the United States in the late twentieth century was riddled with problems in Adler’s view, mainly due to low expectations. In his words, “A part of our population—and much too large a part—has harbored the opinion that many of the nation’s ­children are not fully educable.”3 Unimpressed with the prevalent practice of “tracking” learners according to their abilities, Adler argued that we have not “always been honest in our commitment to democracy and its promise of equality.”4 The Paideia Proposal, Adler’s 1982 manifesto, mapped out an alternative system in which every learner would study a blend of classically oriented courses for 12 years.

Alas, the future society of Ender’s Game does not follow The Paideia Proposal. Still, Ender does get a kind of liberal education with three core aspects. First, in terms of comprehension and performance, Ender learns about military history, military tactics, and strategic-oriented mathematical calculations in the classroom. Second, he develops problem-solving skills in the cyber-reality of the computer game, the Giant’s Drink. Third, in terms of interactive performance and cognition, Ender learns about hand-to-hand combat and command in the simulated war games of the battleroom. Though these three pieces of Ender’s education lend variety to the content and delivery of the Battle School curriculum, the variety is admittedly limited.

For Ender and his fellow trainees, Battle School is an intense, ­emotionally draining experience. Anderson warns Graff after Ender is promoted to the rank of Commander, “We want to teach him, not give him a nervous breakdown.”5 Anderson’s fear is well-founded. Competition is fierce and the pace is demanding. Children’s performances in the battle­room are ranked on a daily basis, and rankings are circulated for all to see. Battle School isn’t a place where children feel free to show or talk about their emotions. Dink observes, “That’s right, we never cry. I never thought of that. Nobody ever cries.”6 In this unforgiving setting, Ender has a series of violent entanglements with his peers, fights and arguments that he deeply regrets. “I’m doing it again, thought Ender. I’m hurting people again, just to save myself. Why don’t they leave me alone, so I don’t have to hurt them?”7 While Wiggin doesn’t initiate any of these conflicts, his lashing out often has fatal consequences.

Plato would likely chide Colonel Graff, saying that Battle and Command School fail to offer the sort of balanced curriculum called for in the Republic. Nowhere in Ender’s learning is there any poetry, music, or visual arts. Nowhere is there any learning about grammar, rhetoric, or biology. Graff would perhaps counter that education is a matter of realpolitik, pointing out that Ender didn’t need liberal education to lead Earth to victory.8 In response, Plato would counter that educating an army of soldiers who aren’t harmonious souls would lead to cruelty, which has wider social implications.

Vocational Prep: A Heaping Tablespoon, or the Main Dish?

Philosophers of education have argued that vocational training is an important part of education, but they’re also conflicted about how much of a part it should be. If these thinkers were chefs, we might say that some call for a pinch of trade preparation while others believe it should be the main dish itself.

So where does this leave Ender? Wasn’t his education entirely ­vocational? Certainly, Battle School is designed to select, stream, and ultimately train different types of soldiers for Earth’s army. But, looking more closely, further questions spring to mind: What sort of vocational education did Ender experience? Was Ender’s occupational training balanced with other subject areas? Was Ender simply ­compelled to follow orders and forego critical inquiry, or was he ­educated to develop his own strategies when faced with complex problems? In reaching for answers, we need to consider two versions of vocational learning, one put forward by Plato and another set out by thinkers concerned with what’s called a “Taylorist” view of increasing social efficiency.

For Plato, a balanced education would mix vocational learning with a broad-based liberal education. On the vocational side, schools should identify the aptitudes of learners and sort them into different streams, which would eventually lead to different occupations. Curriculum—the content, depth, length, and method of one’s studies—would be designed to match an individual’s aptitudes and career path. Plato’s choices for career paths are rather limited. He worked from the idea that children are predisposed by their natural proficiencies to enter one of three general classes, all of which are necessary to a harmonious society. These are the guardians, “auxiliaries” (or peace-keepers), and skilled producers of crafts. Some children are bound to become carpenters, others to become retailers, and still others—but only a select few—to become rulers. To sell this idea to the public we are given the “myth of the metals,” a story told in Book III of the Republic. According to this myth, the natural aptitudes of children are spelled out by their souls, which contain different mixtures of gold, silver, and bronze. Each person is either dominantly gold (rulers), silver (auxiliaries), or bronze (artisans). Because the divine creator made every citizen’s soul out of alloys of all these substances, it’s ­possible for families to include members of different classes. Plato felt that this myth should be told to people as a “noble lie,” because some people would be dissatisfied with their place in society. But people aren’t always the best judge of their own interests. Plato thus favored a fairly rigid class system in which people are trained according to their merit. This class system would lead to a society in which people are trained to do better what they can already do. Of course, the drawback is that Plato’s state is one in which individuals can’t choose their careers, and class mobility is severely limited.

Since the Republic first appeared over two millennia ago, Plato’s ideas have been crucially influential on the way we think about schooling. “Plato laid down the fundamental principle of a ­philosophy of education,” American educator John Dewey (1859–1952) observed, “when he asserted that it was the business of education to discover what each person is good for, and to train him to mastery of that mode of excellence.”9

But some educators didn’t think Plato’s “heaping tablespoon” model for vocational learning went far enough. As public schools sprang up in the United States in the late nineteenth and early ­twentieth centuries, a heated debate arose between those who favored ­vocational training, those who supported a liberal education, and those who championed critical inquiry. In the first camp, a collective—or, ­perhaps “cartel” is a better word—of thinkers argued that the purpose of education is to enhance worker productivity.10 They felt that public schools should be designed to prepare children for the specific tasks of an industrial society.

Before delving further into this vocational-oriented view of ­education, we need to take a step back and consider “Taylorism.” In the late nineteenth century, mechanical engineer F.W. Taylor looked at the manufacturing industry through a scientific lens. To enhance labor productivity he called for a greater degree of managerial ­control, tighter standardizations of practice, and more prescriptive forms of training.11 Drawing from the ideas of “Taylorism,” ­educators like W.W. Charters, Franklin Bobbitt, and David Snedden unleashed a flurry of rules, guidelines, and procedures to steer schooling away from a liberal curriculum’s perceived frivolity.12 Snedden argued that a vocational school must “reproduce practical processes, must give the pupil many hours of each working day in actual practical work, and must closely correlate theoretical instruction to this practical work.”13 Like the budding soldiers in Battle School, children would listen to instructions, follow them, and memorize a range of ­workplace-oriented tasks through repetition. What children would not learn in this setting is how to critically question the world around them.

Is Battle School Just Trade School?

Does the I.F.’s Battle School aim to prepare its students for specific occupations? To increase their efficiency as soldiers, or to make them “well-rounded persons”? To answer these questions, let’s consider the purposes and organizational design of Battle School.

We’ll begin with the purpose of Battle School. Colonel Graff, the principal of the school, offers some useful remarks. While recruiting Ender, Graff says, “Battle School is for training future starship ­captains and commodores of flotillas and admirals of the fleet.”14 Later, when strolling with Ender from the shuttle to the school, Graff elaborates on this point, “My job is to produce the best soldiers in the world. In the whole history of the world.”15 Here, Graff provides us with the first part of Battle School’s mission statement: the school aims to train soldiers and produce an effective army.

But with a new phase of an interplanetary war looming on Earth’s horizon, there’s a second, more urgent, aspect to the mission. Graff later adds, “We need a Napoleon. An Alexander…. My job is to ­produce such a creature, and all the men and women he’ll need to help him.”16 Clearly, the Battle School aims to identify and develop a general who will be able to lead Earth to victory. And this aspect of the mission is personally significant for Ender, whom Graff expects to fulfill this very role. If we were to judge Battle School strictly by Graff’s mission statement, we’d say that it is specifically aimed at ­producing skills and, as such, is highly vocational in focus.

But does the design of Battle School correspond to its vocationally driven core purpose? Let’s begin with streaming, the process of ­directing learners along pathways: children enter Battle School when they’re five or six years old. They’re chosen based on observations gleaned from a vast surveillance network and a series of tests. Very few children are actually invited to attend Battle School, so in a sense streaming begins at birth. But further streaming occurs inside the school itself. In terms of career pathways, Battle School is designed to continually assess and challenge learners, guiding them toward ­different occupations within Earth’s army, all based on their perceived abilities. As Colonel Graff abrasively tells a group of incoming children, “Most of you are going to ice out. Get used to that, little boys. Most of you are going to end up in Combat School, because you don’t have the brains to handle deep-space piloting.”17 This statement hearkens back to Plato’s “myth of the metals.” Maybe Graff had a copy of the Republic in his back pocket as he dressed down that group of newbies.

Ender advanced through the Battle School levels at a brisk pace, and was promoted from Launchie to Salamander Army at age six, two years ahead of any of his peers. Petra described the Salamander program as follows: “School for us isn’t like it is for the Launchies. History and strategies and tactics and buggers and math and stars, things you’ll need as a pilot or a commander.”18 At this higher level, school is about military history, tactical-oriented mathematics, and strategizing. So it would seem that the army platoon curriculum of Battle School is entirely vocational in nature.

Should Critical Inquiry Be Socratic or Social?

As we’ve seen, Ender’s education was, for the most part, vocational. It involved an unhealthy dose of deception and surveillance, as Colonel Graff constantly manipulated Ender’s social settings, friendships, and competitive interactions. But what sort of critical inquiry, if any, was involved in Battle and Command Schools, and how important was it for Ender’s learning? Critical thinking encourages thought processes rooted in rigorous and reliable procedures of inquiry.19 When the ­critical inquirer encounters ideas, she poses questions that help her to “identify faulty arguments, hasty generalizations, assertions lacking evidence, truth claims based on unreliable authority, ambiguous or obscure concepts, and so forth.”20 Let’s consider two versions of ­critical inquiry.

As we’ve seen, Socrates treated thoughtful verbal exchange as ­integral to critical inquiry. Believing himself to be ignorant, he went about ancient Athens asking questions of others in an attempt to ­collaboratively reason things out. He examined a wide variety of important topics: justice, courage, love, piety, wisdom, and friendship. The technique of posing questions to test the validity of others’ claims to know the truth is still today known as the “Socratic method.” The version of critical inquiry demonstrated by Socrates’ dialogues could be defined as an interactive, question-driven process of reasoning things out.

Critical inquiry can also be the key to freedom in the eyes of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire (1921–1997). In a schoolroom dominated by a teacher’s agenda, students are treated as though they’re empty containers to be filled with knowledge. Freire called this the “banking” view of education, where teachers provide, lead, and control while students receive, follow, and are controlled. To ­liberate people from this “teacher–student contradiction,” Freire called for students as well as teachers to pose and investigate real problems. Through problem posing, “the teacher is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach.”21 Problem posing, in Freire’s view, also leads students to become “critical co-investigators in dialogue with the teacher. The teacher presents the material to the students for their consideration, and re-considers her earlier considerations as the students express their own.”22 For Freire, critical inquiry is both a result of, and an essential component of liberation.

Critical Inquirer for the Dead

While attending Battle and Command School, Ender faced a variety of complex open-ended tasks that required some critical thinking. These critical inquiries center on the Giant’s Drink game and the battleroom.

During his free time, Ender often played a virtual reality game that presented him with a series of puzzles. Because of Ender’s actions, the Giant’s Drink initially transformed into Fairyland and later into the End of the World. The parameters and objectives of the game regularly shifted as the computer responded to Ender’s strategies. As Major Imbu described it, “The mind game is a relationship between the child and the computer. Together they create stories. The stories are true, in the sense that they reflect the reality of the child’s life.”23 This way of developing both the learner and the curriculum at the same time would certainly appeal to Socrates. But over time, the perplexing nature of the game confounded Ender:

Ender did not understand how the game functioned anymore. In the old days, before he had first gone to the End of the World, everything was combat and puzzles to solve—defeat the enemy before he kills you, or figure out how to get past the obstacle. Now, though, no one attacked, there was no war, and wherever he went, there was no obstacle at all.24

The individualized design of the Giant’s Drink game invites multiple and varied experiences of critical inquiry. The open-endedness of the game invites Ender to solve complex problems through unconventional means. Unfortunately, the solitary nature of the game contrasts with the interactive and social emphasis placed on learning by both Socrates and Freire.

The rules of the battleroom may also inspire critical inquiry. They exist in a state of flux, and so reflect the unpredictable nature of life. When Ender is promoted to commander, for instance, his team’s schedule is accelerated dramatically. Sometimes they face multiple challenges in a day, something unheard of at Battle School. Additionally, the challenges intensified, as Ender’s opponents sometimes outnumbered his own team significantly. The teachers’ flippant disregard for battleroom routines angered Ender, who “didn’t like games where the rules could be anything and the objective was known to them alone.”25

Although the constantly shifting parameters prompted Ender to further develop his skills as a soldier and commander, his feelings of frustration grew. When he was offered a space at Command School, these feelings motivated him to take a leave of absence and return to Earth. When Valentine, his trusted sister, encouraged him to return to his studies, Ender tersely replied: “They aren’t studies, they’re games. All games, from beginning to end, only they change the rules ­whenever they feel like it.” He holds up a limp hand. “See the strings?”26 Later, an exasperated Ender states, “I’ve spent my life as someone’s pawn.”27 It seems that the unpredictable nature of the battleroom – and Battle School itself – made Ender feel powerless and manipulated, a resounding echo of Freire’s worries about teacher domination.

Does the battleroom actually offer experiences of critical inquiry? Somewhat. While Freire would undoubtedly question whether the challenges Ender faced as a commander were reasonable, both Freire and Socrates would applaud the teachers’ integration of social learning into this component of the school’s curriculum. The fact that the rules (or lack thereof) in the battleroom tasks are reserved for teachers alone to determine, though, conflicts with Freire’s belief that learners should have a say in curriculum construction. He would be concerned about the undemocratic nature of this teacher–student relationship. Card writes:

And the despair filled him again. Now he knew why. Now he knew what he hated so much. He had no control over his own life. They ran everything. They made all the choices. Only the game was left to him, that was all, everything else was them and their rules and plans and lessons and programs, and all he could do was go this way or that way in battle.28

Ultimately, Freire would be unsurprised with the escalating personal struggle that Ender has with his own education.

Educational Skirmishes

Imagine that we invited the philosophers mentioned in this chapter to visit Battle and Command School, perhaps on “Meet-the-Teacher Night.” We’ve somehow transported Socrates, Plato, Mortimer Adler, and Paulo Freire through space and time to examine Ender’s situation. What would they think? While Plato would be happy with the vocational foundation of the curriculum, he would be unimpressed with the absence of a liberal education. For him, the I.F.’s training schools would be developing individuals who don’t have harmonious souls and are inclined to cruelty. The relative lack of liberal education would, of course, trouble Adler greatly. We’d expect to hear from him some very sharp comments regarding the implications of creating a society that favors specialization over generalization and empowers certain specializations over others.

After engaging Graff in a delightful question-and-answer about the core meaning of war or justice, Socrates would probably express his concern with the lack of dialogic learning. The sort of thinker Graff would produce, for Socrates, would fail to be an active inquirer who lives a reflective, “examined life.” While Paulo Freire would be pleased with the amount and variety of problem posing at the two schools, he’d also express his grave concern with the undemocratic ­relationship between teachers and learners. Such an unbalanced power dynamic forces students learn under a relationship of domination, and quietly encourages them to perpetuate that domination.

Ender’s learning experiences illustrate how vocational learning, liberal education, and critical inquiry can coexist, but as conflicting pedagogies. Battle and Command School offered experiences that were predominantly vocational in nature, and their liberal curriculum was virtually non-existent. The degree to which Ender experienced critical inquiry really depends on whose definition we use. As we have seen, Ender’s Game illustrates just how different views of pedagogy can intermingle and conflict with one another. It also demonstrates how these conflicting pedagogies deeply affect the growth of both individuals and society.29


1. Plato, Republic, trans. G.M.A. Grube, revised by C.D.C. Reeve (Cambridge, MA: Hackett, 1992), 88.

2. Mortimer Adler, The Paideia Proposal: An Educational Manifesto (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1982), 7.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game (New York: TOR Books, 1991), 173.

6. Ibid., 109.

7. Ibid., 115.

8. For more insight into realpolitik and the politics of Graff and the Enderverse, see the chapter by Ted Henry Brown and Christie L. Maloyed in this book.

9. John Dewey, Democracy and Education (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1916), 309.

10. See R.E. Callahan, Education and the Cult of Efficiency (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1962).

11. Ibid.

12. See H.M. Kliebard, “The Rise of Scientific Curriculum Making and Its Aftermath,” Curriculum Theory, 5:1 (1975): 27–38.

13. David Snedden, “Fundamental Distinctions between Liberal and Vocational Education,” Curriculum Inquiry, 7:1 (1977): 51.

14. Card, Ender’s Game, 20.

15. Ibid., 34.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid., 32.

18. Ibid., 79.

19. Nicholas C. Burbules and Rupert Berk, “Critical Thinking and Critical Pedagogy: Relations, Differences, and Limits,” in Thomas S. Popkewitz and Lynn Fendler, eds., Critical Theories in Education (New York, NY: Routledge, 1999), 45–66.

20. Ibid., 46.

21. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Bergman Ramos (New York, NY: Continuum, 1970), 80.

22. Ibid., 81.

23. Card, Ender’s Game, 121.

24. Ibid., 140–141.

25. Ibid., 261.

26. Ibid., 236.

27. Ibid., 312.

28. Ibid., 151.

29. The author would like to thank Kevin Decker and Michael Potter for their astute guidance.


Illusions of Freedom, Tragedies of Fate

The Moral Development of Ender Wiggin

Jeremy Proulx

What is it about Ender Wiggin, his life, his actions, the ruthless ­pedagogy to which he was subjected, and his eventual destruction of an entire alien species that so many readers of Ender’s Game find so disturbing? Ender himself is at once a highly sensitive, gifted child and a monster capable of brutal violence. There is also the obvious fact that Ender was manipulated in such a way as to develop and sharpen these violent tendencies, leading him toward a course of action that no child should ever have to take responsibility for.

All of this amounts to a highly discomfiting tale. It’s tempting to explain this by pointing out that Orson Scott Card seems to want to create sympathy for undeserving characters, especially Ender. One reviewer of Ender’s Game suggests that Card models the character of Ender Wiggin on Hitler.1 Another agrees that there’s something ­morally suspect about Card’s attempt to make us sympathize with a child who beats other children to death with his bare hands, but we should just focus on why Card is asking his readers to forget the consequences of Ender’s actions and to worry only about his ­intentions.2 Ender, after all, never wanted to hurt anyone. Perhaps the details of the story itself aren’t as disturbing as are Card’s ­authorial decisions.

But while this all may be true, it doesn’t seem to capture very much about the story of Ender Wiggin. Regardless of intentions, the evil acts of violence, manipulation, and neglect in the story strike us as evil precisely because of their horrific consequences and, what is worse, because the people responsible for them were able to live with ­themselves afterward. We all want to think that the evil that occasionally surfaces in humanity can be explained, and that it is just another problem to be solved. Could society or his family have fixed Ender? Is society somehow responsible for creating this moral monster? What went wrong? How can we prevent the anti-humanitarian horrors of the Battle School from ever happening again?