In the opening sequence of each episode of “The Jetsons” we see young Elroy dropped off at the Little Dipper School. Down he goes, dropped from the family car in his little bubble top flying saucer; his purple and green lunchbox in hand. Despite this, viewers of the show don’t get many peeks at what education in the future is supposed to look like. All of that changes in the last episode. Here the story revolves around Elroy’s performance in school and a bratty little kid named Kenny Countdown. It’s report card day (or report tape, this being the retrofuture and all) and the obnoxious Kenny swaps Elroy’s report tape (which has all A’s) for his own (which not only has four D’s and an F, but also an H).
Elroy brings his report tape home and naturally gets in trouble for getting such low marks. The confusion and anger are settled after Kenny’s dad makes him call the Jetsons on their videophone and explain himself. But by then the damage had been done. Elroy ran away from home with his dog Astro and proceeded to get mixed up with some common criminals. (Based on the last 24 episodes of the Jetsons you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking that maybe 50 percent of people in the year 2063 are mobsters, bank robbers and thieves.)
A robot teaches Elroy Jetson and a class of the future (1963)
Aside from the vicious fights over racial segregation in our nation’s schools, one of the most pressing educational concerns of the 1950s and ’60s was that the flood of Baby Boomers entering school would bring the system to its knees. New schools were being built at an incredibly rapid pace all across the country, but there just didn’t seem to be enough teachers to go around. Were robot teachers and increased classroom automation the answers to alleviating this stress?
As Lawrence Derthick told the Associated press in 1959, the stresses of the baby boom would only get worse in coming years with more kids being born and entering school and the number of teachers unable to keep pace with this population explosion: “1959-60 will be the 15th consecutive year in which enrollment has increased. He added this trend, with attendant problems such as the teacher shortage, is likely to continue for many years.”
Other than the Jetsons, what visions of robot teachers and so-called automated learning were being promised for the school of the future?
“Push-button education” in the May 25, 1958 edition of the Sunday comic “Closer Than We Think” (Source: Novak Archive)
From the May 25, 1958 edition of “Closer Than We Think”:
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 machines 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.
The Little Dipper School, which Elroy Jetson attends (1963)
In the August 24, 1960 Oakland Tribune the headline read “NEA Allays Parent Fears on Robot Teacher”:
How’d you like to have your child taught by a robot?The article went on to cite a recent survey showing that there were at least 25 different teaching machines in use in classrooms around the United States. The piece also listed the numerous advantages, including instant feedback to the student about whether their answers were correct and the ability to move at one’s own pace without holding up (or feeling like you’re being held up by) the other students in a class.
With the recent splurge of articles on teaching machines, computers and electronic marvels, the average mother may feel that her young child will feel more like a technician than a student this fall.
Not so, reassures the National Education Association. The NEA says it is true that teaching machines are on their way into the modern classroom and today’s youngsters will have a lot more mechanical aids than his parents.
But the emphasis will still be on aid — not primary instruction. In fact, the teaching machine is expected to make teaching more personal, rather than less.
In recent years, teachers have been working with large classes and there has been little time for individual attention. It is believed that the machines will free them from many time-consuming routine tasks and increase the hours they can spend with the pupil and his parents.
“Automated schoolmarm” at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair (Source: Novak Archive)
From the Official Souvenir Book: “The Autotutor, a U.S. Industries teaching machine, is tried out by visitors to the Hall of Education. It can even teach workers to use other automated machines.”
Robot teacher from the December 5, 1965 edition of the Sunday comic strip Our New Age (Source: Novak Archive)
“Compressed speech” will help communications: from talking with pilots to teaching reading. Future school children may hear their lessons at twice the rate and understand them better!Fast-talking humanoid robots have yet to enter the classroom, but as I’ve said before, we have another 50 years before we reach 2063.
Watching the “billionth rerun” of The Flintstones on a TV-watch device in The Jetsons (1963)
In keeping with its conservative leanings, viewers in 1963 are at least assured of one thing — that it doesn’t matter how much well-meaning tech you introduce into a school, kids of the future are still going to goof off.