Monday, March 5, 2012

All the Breaks

Spring is just around the corner, and with it the enthusiastically anticipated Spring Break. Even in college, it seems, the best part about school is getting away from it.

This is not surprising. School and pain always have been entwined – for most of history quite literally. An ancient Egyptian clay tablet survives on which a student had scratched this praise for his teacher: "You beat me and knowledge entered my head." One suspects that he was told to write this rather than that he felt a sudden urge to record his gratitude for posterity. Corporal punishment remained a normal educational technique through the 19th century and it persisted in diminishing quantities well into the 20th. My mother spoke of public school teachers whacking her hands with rulers for petty infractions of school rules. Even the kindly schoolmaster in the sentimental Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939) whips a schoolboy while uttering the classic disclaimer that it gives him no pleasure.

Nowadays, beyond the tedium of all-too-frequently joyless classes, the greatest pain is financial in the form of property taxes, tuition fees, and student loans. The rise in the cost of education has outpaced general inflation consistently for decades. There at last may be light on the horizon, however. Increasingly, education is moving online; even traditional brick and mortar schools often require students to take an online class or two in order to accustom them to the practice. Yet, these very classes expose the truth that live teachers and physical classrooms are no longer entirely necessary. A syllabus and an internet connection work as well most of the time. Online colleges, vastly cheaper than the conventional kind, already have a strong and expanding foothold.

This development was foreseen long ago by sci-fi author and futurist guru Isaac Asimov. In 1951, almost 30 years before the first home computers were marketed, Asimov imagined the devices serving as home teaching machines for children in his short story The Fun They Had. In this tale, two children in the 22nd century discover an old paper and ink school book in the attic. They are astonished to learn that large groups of children once attended “classes” together and that these classes were led by live human teachers. The story concludes, “Margie was thinking about how the kids must have loved it in the old days. She was thinking about the fun they had.”

This story was and still is widely anthologized in school books. I remember reading it in grade school. My teacher, missing the point of the story, told us how lucky we were to be living in those “old days.” She wasn’t alone. Educators almost always miss Asimov’s point. Asimov was saying the opposite. Don’t take my word for it. In his eclectic book The Roving Mind, Asimov specifically complains that school anthologies “together with certain letters I get, often make it clear that the story is interpreted non-ironically as a boost for contemporary education.” He then compares opponents of computer and online learning to people who once believed no automobile ever could replace a sensitive living horse. (Yes, I know I said something like that in a recent blog, but I do drive a car nonetheless.) His fictional future kids on their machines, able to proceed at their own pace and to break for play on their own schedules, are learning better and are having a better time doing it. As for the social aspects of school (many of them awful, really), they can be duplicated much more cheaply and simply without the big educational apparatus attached to them.

But what about Spring Break? If colleges cease to be a weary grind, will there be such enthusiasm about getting away from them on the beaches of Daytona or Panama City, Florida? I don’t think the state’s tourist industry need worry. 20-year-olds are pretty sure to show up for a party regardless. If you throw it, they will come.

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