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The Push-Button School of Tomorrow (1958)

The May 5, 1958 edition of Arthur Radebaugh's Sunday comic, Closer Than We Think, showed off the high-tech school of tomorrow. With hordes of baby boomers flooding into public schools in the 1950s, it makes sense that this strip would focus on different solutions for overcrowding with that technological optimism we identify as being uniquely post-war American.

The student desk of the future includes a small camera, presumably so that the teacher being projected on a large screen in the front of the class can keep tabs on the little rascals. One thing that fascinates me about computer consoles of the retrofuture is that the QWERTY keyboard is not yet an assumed input device. Each computing device seems tailored to meet the needs of the intended user, as with this learning machine of the futuristic year 1999 and this auto-tutor from the 1964 New York World's Fair. That being said, the Google of 1964 was quaintly analog with its typewriter attachment.

One of my favorite details from this panel is the kid in the white shirt who's waving to someone in a gryocopter just outside the window. Better pay attention, lil' Johnny! TEACHER IS WATCHING!

Tomorrow's schools will be more crowded; teachers will be correspondingly fewer. Plans for a push-button school have already been proposed by Dr. Simon Ramo, science faculty member at California Institute of Technology. Teaching would be by means of sound movies and mechanical tabulating machines. Pupils would record attendance and answer questions by pushing buttons. Special machiens would be "geared" for each individual student so he could advance as rapidly as his abilities warranted. Progress records, also kept by machine, would be periodically reviewed by skilled teachers, and personal help would be available when necessary.

Many thanks, as always, to Tom Z. for the color scan of this strip.

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Reader Comments (3)

"Teaching machines"! Now there's a phrase nobody's used in a few decades. I'm old enough that I was actually instructed (briefly) by an Encyclopaedia Britannica teaching machine, in the early 1970s. It was a large plastic thing that looked like a slightly larger bathroom scale, containing a cardboard disk you could rotate to view the questions and answers one at a time through a little slot. In other words, it was like a giant ViewMaster with no pictures, let alone 3-D Flintstones cartoons. It was quite lame. I even found it quite lame as a child, and this was at an age when my peer group and I found the Magic 8-Ball to be thrilling. I quickly lost interest in the EB "machine" given that all it could do was present written information in a manner designed to be less accessible than if you were to read the same material on normal paper. I was the sort of kid who read encyclopedia entries for fun, but I regarded EB's faux computer with disdain.

Perhaps the unimpressiveness of the cardboard-and-plastic EB "teaching machine" was why the ads for it always showed pictures of creepy modern sculptures. Here are some ads from the marketing wizards at EB:

I can't find any pictures of the actual EB gadget, but I recall it looked somewhat like the consoles the kids were using in that illustration, except the "screen" was smaller and it didn't have any buttons and it was an even less appealing color.

I think they used to give the "machine" out when you ordered a complete set of the Micropedia and Macropedia (of course they were hoping you'd buy more cardboard-disc-based software for it.) Later they switched to giving out leatherette-bound replicas of the 1771 Britannica, which was much more interesting. (The 1771 Britannica was three volumes: A-B, C-L, and M-Z. The first volume had wonderfully long articles. My favorite was "Astronomy", as that was back when the planets still had genders.)

August 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKibo

Also, the blue-shaded kid in the back row going to get marked down by the futuristic robo-teacher for typing out "a^(1/n)" instead of "a^(n/n)". I assume that the machine will bellow "Incorrect! HUMAN error detected!", and then the multicolored meter's needle will move into the red zone while electric shocks are administered to the puny human's torso. Maybe this is why he's blue: Once he gets the correct answer, the machine will reward him by re-starting his heart.

As for the view out the window, if you look closely, you can see that the school yard is surrounded by what looks to be a fence topped with razor wire. This is why the boy in the background is frantically waving at the autogiro. "Take me away from here!" But in the all-too-terrifyingly plausible world of the future, there is no escape from the school system for the class of 1984.

August 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKibo

Maybe in rich countries, this push-button schools would be utilized well. Third-world countries, however, require proper and careful execution that would make such a futuristic approach to education more viable and of course students who are willing to learn.

September 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterHalley | Flyers

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