The intrepid Maria Popova — BTW, if you’re not subscribing to her newsletter or following her on Twitter, you should — points to a really interesting item in How to Be a Retronaut.

The Retronaut blog, which collects artifacts from the past to help us understand the present, unearthed an article from Ladies Home Journal circa. 1900, headlined, “What May Happen in the Next Hundred Years.” Its author, one John Elfreth Watkins, Jr., lays out his predictions for the American life in the early 21st century.

Among his calls: Americans will be taller. (True) There will be no C, X, or Q in the alphabet. (False) Photographs will be telegraphed from large distances. (True) Rats and mice will be gone. (False). Pneumatic tubes, instead of store wagons, will deliver packages and bundles. (False, but Amazon is working on it.)

But somehow I found his predictions for “How Children Will Be Taught” most compelling. Here’s what he says:

A university education will be free to every man and woman. Several great national universities will have been established. Children will study a simple English grammar adapted to simplified English, and not copied after the Latin. Time will be saved by grouping like studies. Poor students will be given free board, free clothing and free books if ambitious and actually unable to meet their school and college expenses. Medical inspectors regularly visiting the public schools will furnish poor children with free eyeglasses, free dentistry, and free medical attention of every kind. The very poor will, when necessary, get free rides to and from school and free lunches between sessions. In vacation time, poor children will be taken on trips to various parts of the world. Etiquette and housekeeping will be important studies in the public schools.

Your thoughts?


37 Responses to “The future of education . . . 100 years ago”

  1. Su T says:

    Wonderful paragraph. But you have to have a country with people who value education and are willing to pay higher taxes for it. Witness European countries, particularly Finland and Germany.

  2. It sounds like the idyllic past that so many social conservatives want to return to was actually quite progressive in it’s hopes for the future. If only we actually had the social conscience to invest that fully in our nation’s education…it could be so wonderful. Let’s hold on to this idea and hope that the American’s of 2100 can pick up our slack.

  3. Ray says:

    Not bad for 100 hundred years ago . its interesting that the ideology has not changed much from this guys vision

  4. COD says:

    That description of education doesn’t sound that far off from a lot of Europe today.

  5. Patrick says:

    Fuse project is coming close with the one laptop per child, glasses concept …

    Interesting to see the importance of the poor instead of the importance of everyone no matter how rich or poor.

    Sounds like a (narrow) vision of the internet …

    ( :

  6. Though-provoking, Dan.

    Talking about retro, this takes me back to the time of Cicero (106 BC – 43 BC!) & his 6 Mistakes of Mankind.
    I’d like to briefly mention them here for everyone to understand how these mistakes can be repeated centuries after centuries:

    1. Believing that personal gain is made by crushing others;
    2. Worrying about things that cannot be changed or corrected;
    3. Insisting that a thing is impossible because we cannot accomplish it;
    4. Refusing to set aside trivial preferences;
    5. Neglecting development and refinement of the mind;
    6. Attempting to compel others to believe and live as we do.”

    God bless us all.

  7. Jessica says:

    Wow, great thought provoking articles and some great comments as well. I love the idea that the author of this article 100 yrs ago had the forethought to consider that grouping students BY LIKE STUDIES was an important approach to education. The subtly there is that he did mention by like abilities. A key point that we are forgetting in today’s educational structure. In the real world, we all work together and learn to work together in like careers (or studies you could say). Good for the author that they could see that. Perhaps in another 100 years we’ll get there.

    I also wanted to thank Nuruddin for that great comment… I’ll be looking up more about what Cicero said!

    Here’s to the next 100 years in edu!

  8. Patrick says:

    As Sir Ken Robinson states; the current model of education is based on a production line mentality, born during the industrial revolution.
    The grouping students by like studies fits great in Dan’s idea of a conceptual age; grouping students by concept to collaborate and feeding their passion together.

    I haven’t (yet) read Drive.

    I think (hope) the future of education in 100 years could be self driven by intrinsic motivators, supported by technology & in a collaborative manner rather than a competitive one.

  9. Osbert says:

    We more or less had this in the UK. It’s now being rapidly dismantled.

  10. Tracy says:

    I love this vision of education. How sad is it that 100 years later I am wishing the same thing? It does make me think, though. It’s not really about valuing education. It’s about valuing people and the world. It’s about ensuring that everyone, regardless of income, has experienced the best that life (and the world) has to offer. How sad is it that we force the portray kiddoes to endure more kil and drill over the summer? Interestingly enough, if we did engage more kiddoes in trios and experiences, their background knowledge would increase which would increase their reading comprehension. Which would then increase their likelihood of moving on to bigger and better things without struggling as hard.

  11. Corey Trench says:

    We’re practically there on education. We just have yet not accepted the economic servitude fostered by the current system. When college enrollment starts decline, we will know things are really changing. Even the great middle class is tapped out. Not a question of willingness to support education. Look at NYS property taxes. What else is left to tax? Our pie is growing smaller. Confiscation of wealth is no answer. Creating and availing free and current content with, maybe, “educational navigators” will lead to incredible results.

    I, too, liked Nuruddin’s post. That’s ancient wisdom.

  12. Rebecca SMith says:

    Ah, free everything for everyone! Free childcare if you can’t afford it and want to go to school. Free housing if you want to go to school, but can’t afford it. Kids even get free lunch when school isn’t in session! Free dental care, free books, free…why work?! It will just get taken away from you because you’re the evil “rich.”
    Ever read Ayn Rand?
    Interesting comment about simplified English. Similar to our texting language now? RU going 2 skool? K, ’cause if UR going 2 skool then y lrn H2 read & rite?

  13. It’s a great idea, and I’m a little bummed that it didn’t turn out this way.

    My first reaction, upon reading this blurb, was to smile to myself and chuckle at the author’s naive look at the future.

    My second reaction, however, was to feel a bit of disgust with myself and with the world at large for being so jaded that this kind of world view seems naive. Why DIDN’T the 21st century start with this kind of bang?

    It’s a little like getting home from a grueling day at work and having your wife say, “I almost got steaks for tonight, but decided the grocery store was too crowded.”

    But then, maybe a “free college education” might not be a good idea. We have “free and appropriate public education” now, and it ain’t turning out so hot. It seems like the majority of students going into two-year colleges have to take some form of developmental course just to come up to speed. I occasionally teach a developmental writing course, for example, in which the majority of students can’t pass a standardized exam aimed at the 8th grade reading level.

    Still … wouldn’t it be nice to be free of student loan debt? Nicer still to have free dental and vision care? Just having a free ride to and from school would have been handy for me, personally. Free housing may have caused my brain to implode.

  14. Anthony Dina says:

    Can we revisit the etiquette and housekeeping piece please? And not just for the poor kids. 🙂

  15. Greg says:

    Sounds like our current U.S. government educational system.

    Of course, tripling funds for government schools in the past decade has not lead to a more educated student body.

  16. psikeyhackr says:

    It probably could have been done. But in 1900 no one would have predicted this:

    We have screwed things up in ways that could not have been predicted because technology enabled us to do too much for silly reasons.

    Most likely we can now make good education really cheap with computers but do you think it will happen. We could have created a National Recommended Reading List decades ago but who even suggests it?

  17. Red Denal says:

    This is true for first world countries, where the government and NGOs (non-government organizations)are willing to provide enough support for the less fortunate to uplift their level of education.

  18. MT-headed says:

    The paragraph frustrates me somewhat. As a middle-class father of college students I find myself and children with fewer opportunities than those with greater income and ability to purchase “opportunities.” AND, with fewer opportunities than those with lower incomes, as they receive many more scholarships and freebies. We (middle class) are left with huge debts (school loans) for myself and my children which further hinder our opportunities for years to come. We are willing to work hard for what we have, but end up with somewhat restricted ability to actually “get ahead” because of larger burdens expected of us. I suspect that, at the time it was written, there was more of an elite class, a larger number of poor, and a small middle class in America.

  19. Gerry says:

    A university education will be free to every man and woman (FALSE). Several great national universities will have been established (TRUE). Children will study a simple English grammar adapted to simplified English, and not copied after the Latin(Mmmm…kinda TRUE). Time will be saved by grouping like studies (TRUE). Poor students will be given free board, free clothing and free books if ambitious and actually unable to meet their school and college expenses (TRUE in some cases thanks to non-profits). Medical inspectors regularly visiting the public schools will furnish poor children with free eyeglasses (FALSE), free dentistry (TRUE in some cases – thanks to some Non Profits), and free medical attention of every kind (FALSE). The very poor will, when necessary, get free rides to and from school and free lunches between sessions (TRUE). In vacation time, poor children will be taken on trips to various parts of the world (FALSE). Etiquette and housekeeping will be important studies in the public schools (FALSE).

  20. Rod says:

    I predict, given the knowledge we possess today and the evolution of this knowledge over the next 100 years, that by 2111 (when the members of the graduating class of 2011 reach the age of 118, their children reach the age of 95, their grandchildren reach 70, their great-grandchildren reach 45, and their great-great grandchildren reach 20), research on teaching and learning immediately affects practice, all children benefit from these practices, learning is individualized and customized to every child (and includes local schools, human teachers, technology, and children), and the literature is devoid of the phrase 22nd Century Learning (because the people of 2111 realize that they’re one full decade into the 22nd Century).

  21. MT-pocketed says:

    It is so hard to pick one thought from all of that, so I will say the following two things, with my perspective of a public school teacher.

    First – the article reminds me of my parents whenever they come up with something that we should cover in public education (most popular: balancing your checkbook). We need to define what the goal of our educational system is. Public education has had the purpose of creating good citizens, but that is different than good workers, and also different than college-ready. That paragraph spoke to something more simple than what I believe our current goal is. It talks about the health and well-being of the students.
    Second – I am connecting the paragraph with the reading I have done about Zappos (cause I watch Colbert – and the CEO, I think, was on discussing his book with the 10 Core Values of his company –, because the company is also interested in its employee’s happiness and well being. I am looking at defining “core values” as opposed to stating “rules” as I plan how I want to start the school year. How will that change the culture of the classroom?

  22. npatry says:

    How do you spell “socialism”?

  23. Jameson says:

    100 years ago I schools we designed to mass product, moderately educated, obedient factory works. The influences of Fredrick Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management, and its central themes of efficiently, uniformity and centralized control, had a big impact on our public schools and our factories.

    Ironically, the business world came to reject most of Taylor’s ideas, while Taylorism became more an more entrenched in our schools. To me it seem the author saw these failings.

  24. Aleksandar says:

    Education in the future will be free. Not only students will not pay for it but also they would decide on their own what they would like to learn. Diploma would not have any influence in finding jobs. Only skills would matter. People will have chances to compete for every public job they want by proposing the highest productivity for the position they want. The best offer any time will get the job. If workers do not meet their proposals they would pay such price that would never do it again. Unemployment would not exist because the work hours would be shortening proportionally to the unemployment rate. People would cooperate with each other and be happy.

  25. Stephen says:

    Nothing is free!

  26. Aleksandar says:

    The purpose of education in schools:
    1. Day care. You people enjoy making money more than spending time with kids.
    2. Obedience to authorities. That creates alienation, stupidity and evil. Those who are more obedient by their nature are more successful and prevent good more.

  27. Andrea says:

    Not only have we not achieved this gentleman’s social vision, our schools are still teaching the same way Laura Ingalls was taught in the early 1800’s before paper and pencil were invented! (never mind the internet…)

  28. There is no reason that those things shouldn’t be a reality. There is so much potential in the schools, especially through passionate teachers, however, that passion is destroyed by administrators and policy that refuse to be proactive. I am a former teacher that left the profession because I could no longer stand by idle while our children receive a sub-standard education. The worst part is that they don’t even realize what a disservice the American public schools system is doing to them until it is too late. I have had countless former students get in touch with me during college or afterwards (I taught high school) and said, “you were right about me not really getting the best education I could get in high school.” There is anger and resentment in the voices of these students and there is NO REASON for it! We have a ton of research about what helps students really learn, and we have passionate teachers willing to put these into practice, but again, administration and policy prevent this from happening. Maybe if more people were idealistic like Mr. Watkins and got organized with other like-minded people who refused to take “no” for an answer we would actually see some change. Parents could make this happen but unfortunately many of them have no idea how bad even the “best schools” can be.

  29. Joe A. says:

    Inspiring, but it will take another 100 years for all of this to come true. Universities will die hard.

  30. mistamiller says:


    Interesting paragraph, but it’s not so much about teaching/learning as it is about taking care of needs.

    BTW, I “teach” English at a votech high school. Your book Drive has revolutionized how I approach my classes. Thank you. I am journaling my summer school students’ experiece with autonomy at

    I am learning a lot about control.

    Thanks for your book and TED videos!

  31. Eddie Deen says:

    There is no such thing as teachers, only learners. What is out there in space and time is historical data. Understanding can not come from just analyzing data, understanding can only happen when data is within context, where it has meaning to the learner. There is no stories on a screen, only light, the story is created by the observer, the audience, the student. Over a 100 years ago, Einstein proposes a different way of seeing the universe, but will it be a 100 years more before people can see the light as it is and not how the brain is creating the illusion of what you think it is? We should go back to Pestalozzi, an educational reformer in the latter part of the 1700’s, who believed that learners should be able to be devloped instead of having knowledge implanted. Taking control of one’s own education will be the future. Control creates responsibility, which leads to the idea of earning your keep, which leads to validation, which leads to happiness. By nurturing the inner being and by learning by imagination, Pestalozzi set the stage for the learner to learn…..Rote drills was not a part of his stage for learning to take place. Visual understanding is the only way for a student to actually learn, even if they are blind.
    When schools learn that there is no experience taking place in a school, there is no experiences taking place in the classroom, then they will be able to set stages for students to actually learn….The only place where experiences takes place is within the consciousness, the inner being. There is no experiences in space and time, what is within space and time is a set or relationship between events that makes up the history of the world….
    The only reality is the meaning that the student puts on the world that they create. When a student can project meaning and purpose into what they are interested in, then learning can take place. Learning has to be beneficial to the learner to have any value. The fundamental problem in today’s schools is the ignorance of understanding the nature of consciousness. Einstein said, “That a person could not solve the problem at the same level of consciousness that created the problem.” To create the necessary change in a mega-changing world, we have to discuss who is the observer in our observations and figure out how to set the stage to always move to a higher level of consciousness. Unaware of your unawareness is the biggest problem in the next 100 years.

  32. Steve says:

    I have to believe there are at least 100 million Americans who are in favor of this vision for education. Yet, they don’t do anything about it – they wait for the government to do it. Why don’t they just proceed on their own? I promise that if you really want to pool your money and pay for at least some of these things, nobody will stop you.

  33. Yvonne says:

    I like the differentiation between the poor and the very poor, the latter being able to take trips all over the world, but only when necessary.
    Education is not about charity it’s about basic human rights.

  34. Susan says:

    Now if only that were to come true. I think education as it is at present has a long way to go before it attains that state. You’re bound to have a couple of politicians or pundits who’ll find a problem with that single paragraph.

  35. tom sullivan says:

    Free Education?

    Since when is anything free? I don’t see the university professors working for free, nor the books being or their authors working for free, nor the utility companies… Oh you mean, get others to pay for something you think is important. I see. BTW: “Free” to the recipient devalues the gift to the person and done frequently, to society as a whole… to quote so many others… just look at Europe. 🙁

  36. julia says:

    on first reading, this is the sentence that stood out to me:

    “Poor students will be given free board, free clothing and free books if ambitious and actually unable to meet their school and college expenses.”

    and the most meaningful words in that statement are IF AMBITIOUS.

    No matter the economic status of a learner, if they have no ambition, they will not appreciate or embrace the materials and resources their teachers offer them.

    I believe that any ambitious child in the USA has access to become what we describe as “learned.”

  37. Ann I. says:

    “Pneumatic tubes, instead of store wagons, will deliver packages and bundles.”

    (Somewhat True) Tellers send small bundles over short distances to you car at the bank drive-through using pneumatic tubes.

    As a kid I dreamed about this same thing – packages sent directly to you through a tube instead of through the mail.