Try to imagine, if you possibly can, a time when all teaching Is done remotely, when teachers don’t see their students face-to-face, when students spend classtime sitting at home in front of a screen watching a teacher in a studio trying to entertain them.
That might sound a bit familiar.
But I’m not talking about an article written this month, I’m talking about a short story written in 1966 by Lloyd Biggle — a dystopian satire of education in the “future” (the 2020s!), where distance learning is practiced not out of necessity but for budgetary and pretextually pedagogical reasons:
“Keep it to yourself. And just between us, I’ll tell you the most potent factor in the philosophy of the New Education. It’s money. Instead of a fortune invested in buildings and real estate, with thousands of schools to maintain, we have one TV studio. We save another fortune in teachers’ sala- ries by having one teacher for a good many thousands of students instead of one for maybe twenty or thirty. The bright kids will learn no matter how badly they are taught, and that’s all our civiliza- tion needs — a few bright people to build a lot of bright machines. And the school tax rate is the low- est it’s been in the last century and a half.”
You can see an image of the actual opening page below, from my slightly the-worse-for-wear original copy. Then you can read the entire story online, in the internet archive, where it suffers slightly from scanning and optical character recognition but is still 99.9% readable. As a bonus, you get the entire issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in which the story appeared.
The story’s title is “…And Madly Teach,” a title that is meaningful to no more than 4% of Biggle’s readers. Back in 1966 it immediately resonated with me because of my amazing AP English course (which I discussed a couple of weeks ago). We had not only read a lot of wonderful Ancient Greek plays — both tragedies and comedies — but also half a dozen of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, along with the Prolog.That in itself wasn’t so exceptional; it was the fact that we read them in the original Middle English that was quite unusual. (A brief but essential digression here: some people think that Middle English is the language the Shakespeare spoke. But if that’s what you think, you’re 200 years off. Shakespeare spoke and wrote Modern English — Early Modern, I admit — and it’s clearly readable today with a little unfamiliar vocabulary thrown in. Chaucer’s English, two centuries earlier, was almost a different language altogether. Almost, but not quite, in contrast to Old English, the language of Beowulf, from 400 years before Chaucer; that is truly a different language.) Anyway, in 1964–65 English teacher extraordinaire Dudley Fitts had us read a lot of Chaucer in the original, which was absolutely eye-opening for a certain budding linguist. Four lines from the Prolog stuck permanently in my memory, so when I read Biggle’s story a year later I had no trouble recalling them:
A CLERK ther was of Oxenford also,
That unto logyk hadde longe ygo.
Sownynge in moral vertu was his speche,
And gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche.
If you’re going to wimp out and demand a translation into Modern English, here is a rough one:
There was a cleric, also from Oxford, who had long ago started studying logic. His speech was full of moral virtue, and he would gladly learn and gladly teach.
There. That wasn’t so bad, was it? But of course you lose the meter and rhyme of the original.
Now you can see why those lines so inspired Biggle… and me. That might have been when I decided I had to become a teacher.
Here’s the opening page that I promised you: