Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt on, er, correspondence courses

From Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis, 1922, with no comments but a little bolding for emphasis.  Babbitt and his son Ted are talking about the value of a traditional, in-person college education versus correspondence courses taught to thousands by mail.

"Oh punk. I don't see what's the use of law-school—or even finishing high school. I don't want to go to college 'specially. Honest, there's lot of fellows that have graduated from colleges that don't begin to make as much money as fellows that went to work early. . . . And then I could take up correspondence-courses. That's the real stuff! You don't have to recite to some frosty-faced old dame that's trying to show off to the principal, and you can study any subject you want to. Just listen to these! I clipped out the ads of some swell courses." . . .

He snatched from the back of his geometry half a hundred advertisements of those home-study courses which the energy and foresight of American commerce have contributed to the science of education.

[From the ad]: "Soon found I could talk right up to the Super and get due credit for all the good work I did. They began to appreciate me and advance me fast, and say, old doggo, what do you think they're paying me now? $6,500 per year! And say, I find I can keep a big audience fascinated, speaking on any topic. As a friend, old boy, I advise you to send for circular (no obligation) and valuable free Art Picture to:—

     Desk WA        Sandpit, Iowa.


The advertisements were truly philanthropic. One of them bore the rousing headline: "Money! Money!! Money!!!" The second announced that "Mr. P. R., formerly making only eighteen a week in a barber shop, writes to us that since taking our course he is now pulling down $5,000 as an Osteo-vitalic Physician;" and the third that "Miss J. L., recently a wrapper in a store, is now getting Ten Real Dollars a day teaching our Hindu System of Vibratory Breathing and Mental Control."

Ted had collected fifty or sixty announcements, from annual reference-books, from Sunday School periodicals, fiction-magazines, and journals of discussion. One benefactor implored, "Don't be a Wallflower—Be More Popular and Make More Money—YOU Can Ukulele or Sing Yourself into Society! By the secret principles of a Newly Discovered System of Music Teaching, any one—man, lady or child—can, without tiresome exercises, special training or long drawn out study, and without waste of time, money or energy, learn to play by note, piano, banjo, cornet, clarinet, saxophone, violin or drum, and learn sight-singing."

. . .  "There's no reason why, if efficiency-experts put their minds to it the way they have to routing products in a factory, they couldn't figure out some scheme so a person wouldn't have to monkey with all this practising and exercises that you get in music." Babbitt was impressed, and he had a delightful parental feeling that they two, the men of the family, understood each other. He listened to the notices of mail-box universities which taught Short-story Writing and Improving the Memory, Motion-picture-acting and Developing the Soul-power, Banking and Spanish, Chiropody and Photography, Electrical Engineering and Window-trimming, Poultry-raising and Chemistry. 

"Well—well—" Babbitt sought for adequate expression of his admiration. "I'm a son of a gun! I knew this correspondence-school business had become a mighty profitable game—makes suburban real-estate look like two cents!—but I didn't realize it'd got to be such a reg'lar key-industry! Must rank right up with groceries and movies. Always figured somebody'd come along with the brains to not leave education to a lot of bookworms and impractical theorists but make a big thing out of it. . . ."

 "Oh sure, Dad; of course." Ted had the immense and joyful maturity of a boy who is respectfully listened to by his elders. Babbitt concentrated on him with grateful affection:

 "I can see what an influence these courses might have on the whole educational works. Course I'd never admit it publicly—fellow like myself, a State U. graduate, it's only decent and patriotic for him to blow his horn and boost the Alma Mater—but smatter of fact, there's a whole lot of valuable time lost even at the U., studying poetry and French and subjects that never brought in anybody a cent. I don't know but what maybe these correspondence-courses might prove to be one of the most important American inventions."


Dr. Crazy said...

Awesome. Seriously.

Dr. Koshary said...

Plus ça change...

I would be most pleased to see Inside Higher Ed or some other trade organ pick up this post. Not that the MOOCs will waste any time inventing an explanation for why Everything Is Totally Different Now. I'd chuckle anyway.

Contingent Cassandra said...

Hah! I was thinking exactly what Dr. Koshary wrote (the "plus ca change" bit).

And I've been told that the two words one should never say in front of the online learning poobahs at my institution are "correspondence course." Apparently they're sensitive on the subject? Wonder why?

(Mind you, I teach online as well as face to face, but I also scare away a lot of students in the first week or so, who were imagining something a lot easier/more "efficient.")

undine said...

Dr. C--thanks!
Dr. Koshary--why, did I even *mention* MOOCs :)? It did make me laugh, though, with the same arguments being recycled 90 years later.
CCassandra--I teach online, too, but I know people who were doing the traditional correspondence courses within the last decade.

Historiann said...

Brilliant, Undine! Thank you for the reminder.

Now, I wonder if we can get Contingent Cassandra to assign Babbit in one of her online courses. . .

Anonymous said...

Oh, I should send this to my university.


undine said...

Historiann--thanks! Babbitt is scarily appropriate now.
Profacero--and I'll bet it's right in their library, too, waiting to be rediscovered.