“No personal hovercraft today,” he thought. “And no teleportation, or robotic maid, either.”
The future’s never what we think it’s going to be. Today he was doing something he never would have imagined: helping out with his granddaughter’s schooling. Smart as a whip, that one. Eleven years old and asking questions he didn’t think about until he was… well, sometimes she asks questions that he’s never thought of.
He picked her up at his daughter’s house and after they sat down in the train he said, “Ok. Hit me.”
“I want to know more about ‘school,’” the girl said, looking not at him, but out the window.
He frowned. “When I think back about school, I think about,” he thought for a moment, “lines.”
“Lines?” she turned and trained her bright gray eyes on him. “What kind of lines?”
“There were lines for everything. Waiting for the bus? You’re standing in a line. Handing in your worksheet? Write your name on the line at the top.” He thought about the heady smell of the purple mimeographed forms. “There were lines on the wooden rulers. There were lines painted on the gymnasium floor. Lines of desks in every classroom.”
“Keep going,” she prompted. “What other kinds of lines were there?”
Every kind you can think of, he said. Columns of little ovals you filled in when you took a standardized test. Lines of benches connected to lines of tables that got folded up and put into the wall. You walked in lines during a fire drill. The linoleum tile made up a grid of lines that covered the floor. And your report card was a set of criss-crossing lines that made tiny boxes that held your grade for each class.
“Wow,” she shook her head. “Sounds like a prison. Or a factory.”
Smart as a whip, he thought.
He knew that education had gone through a revolution, but it was just background noise to him—his kids had grown up by then. But after he’d agreed to help with his granddaughter’s schooling, he sat down with his daughter and asked her to give him the short version of what was going on in education these days—and of how we’d gotten here.
It wasn’t because of hovercraft or teleportation or robots, but some of it did come about because of technology. “Moore’s Law”—the idea that computers would keep getting more powerful, while getting cheaper at the same time—and the third version of the internet kept our foot on the gas pedal. More virtual everything, more out-of-school learning, more “learning communities.” Modern technology was giving everybody access to knowledge, Just like the printing press, radio, or television had once done.
But it wasn’t just technology that was changing. By the late 2020s people had come around to what teachers had known forever: the factory model of schooling was kaput. Everyone understood that a kid’s education shouldn’t be carved up into slices, with science over there and math over here, as if the two had nothing to do with each other. By this point most people understood that you couldn’t line kids up like so many bottles and just pour knowledge into them. Everyone learns differently, and you didn’t need a Ph.D. in education to know that.
Most people knew what a good education should look like, but not many of us could afford it. The parents of the private-school kids and the people in the nicer suburbs were taking steps in that direction. But for everybody else, the best kind of education was too expensive.
By the ‘30s things were in a bad state: well-funded school districts were only inching towards something better, while poor districts couldn’t move forward at all. Rich schools gradually got better while poor schools rapidly got worse. It took a long time for people to see that this kind of divide wasn’t hurting some of us: it was hurting all of us. Evidence had been piling up that showed the real costs of churning kids out of crumbling, crowded, under-funded schools: more poverty and crime, not enough social services and medical care, and a global economy where the U.S. was falling behind with every passing year.
Infrastructure costs aggravated the situation. The biggest part of the cost of teaching kids wasn’t in the teaching: it was in keeping up the buildings that the teaching happened in. His generation had touched off a school construction boom in the 1950s and ‘60s. But by the fourth decade of this century those buildings were past the 80-year mark—just like him. Energy costs had skyrocketed and the technologies that these buildings were saddled with for heating, cooling, lighting, and plumbing dated to the 1930s. The older those facilities got, the more expensive it became to keep them running. We needed more teachers but we couldn’t hire them because it cost so much to keep the machinery of education running. And the districts with the oldest schools were the ones with the least amount of money to prop them up.
People had been arguing for years about how we should spend our education dollars differently to make things better. But it wasn’t a matter of how districts were spending their funds—it was how they were getting them. Back in 1991 a fellow had written a book showing that the inequalities of our school funding system were leading us to disaster. His book caught on. About forty years after he wrote it.
In 2032 a city in California decided to take radical steps. First, they spread education funding evenly by pooling it from multiple school districts. But that was nothing compared to step two: getting rid of the schools. They were moving learning out of school out and making just about everything a classroom. It was California, so people laughed. But that was the start of Deschooling.
Today, students, caregivers, and teachers worked together to decide on units of study. Each Learning Group was made up of four to ten kids, accompanied by a teacher. Groups larger than five had to have a teacher’s aide as well. And learning was happening everywhere. Kids went to ‘school’ by visiting libraries, zoos, botanical gardens, aquariums, and cultural centers. They went to non-profits like universities, retirement homes, hospitals, and food pantries. New kinds of chaperone and transportation businesses—subsidized by funds that used to pay for busses—popped up, to get kids to their learning destinations. It was all scheduled out ahead of time, and ran pretty well, thanks to Moore’s Law.
Maybe one day out of five, kids were in designated Learning Centers. There, you’d find from ten to fifty kids, each small Learning Group with its own teacher. The Learning Centers were state-funded, usually small, and didn’t need fancy equipment and facilities. Best of all, you could put one just about anywhere—from what had once been a clothing store in a strip mall to a decommissioned post office. Some of the learning centers were even housed in what used to be schools. When those properties had been sold at auction, the new owners fronted part of the costs to install a small Learning Center.
Today, kids were learning at all kinds of places, but it happened most often in one of the 35,000 places of learning that were already right there in their communities: museums. Kids went to local history museums, national parks, science centers, natural history museums, art museums, children’s museums. They went to the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum, and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. They went to the Bannock County Historic Museum in Idaho, the Bakersfield Museum of Art in California, and the Boyhood Home of President Woodrow Wilson in Georgia. They went to the Central Pennsylvania African American Museum, the Coast Guard Heritage Museum in Massachusetts, and the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office in Washington, D.C. People had no idea how many museums there were until they started sending their kids to them. Even the least-populated state in the lower 48—Wyoming—had more than a hundred museums.
Taking kids to museums wasn’t a new idea: for centuries millions of kids went there on field trips each year. But school groups weren’t always the main audience for exhibitions; partly because, at most museums, school groups didn’t pay admission. But dwindling funding during the twentieth century—and the economic crash in this one—meant that museum exhibits had to do more than just inspire people: they had to make money by generating ticket sales or by attracting heavy-hitting donors. For a while it seemed like every big exhibit you saw was sponsored by some corporation or another. Learning stayed at the heart of most museums’ missions, but keeping the doors open and the heat on had to come first. No one learns anything at a museum that shuts its doors—which was what happened to more than a few.
Deschooling changed that landscape. Museums still had to keep an eye on their budget and maintain their visitorship. But once museums became the main learning site for children, they had a predictable flow of cash coming in. In the past, state funds were supposed to cover the basic costs of running the schools, and in most districts you lived or died on your local tax base. De-schooling changed that. There weren’t any more school districts. And the pooling of state and local funds meant that everyone was drawing from the same pot. Museums now got state education funds based on factors like the number of students they hosted each year.
Best of all, the new system made just about everyone happier: kids, parents, tax payers, real-estate agents, the building trade, transportation companies, non-profits in general, and—probably more than anyone else—teachers.
When they got to the museum, his granddaughter flashed her ID—like she was FBI or something—to the admissions lady, who smiled when she recognized her, scanned her ID, and waved her in.
“This is my grandfather,” she pointed over her shoulder. “He’s with me.”
When he was a kid, the bell rang and they marched in single file into the classroom. Every morning they had to chant, “We’re all in our places with bright, shining faces.” Yes we were. Put in our places. Today, it was well-ordered chaos. Times do change, and sometimes even for the better. He thought about this as he looked up at the skylights in the museum’s main hall. Then he looked around for his granddaughter.
There she was: one of three kids gathered around a painting. She had told him that her group was putting together images of paintings from the museum’s collections for a report they were writing. As he watched, one of the museum educators came over and started talking with the girl, who pointed to the painting and then at her electronic tablet thing. He couldn’t tell for sure, but the impression he got was that his granddaughter was teaching the educator something about recording images on the computer.
Smart, he thought. Smart as a whip.