I’ve developed a habit, it seems, of using this blog to share some world-building work I’ve done that didn’t quite make it onto the pages of my new book, Ecological Memory.
Not putting everything I’ve imagined into the book was deliberate on my part. As I’ve explained before, the reason to have a fully-developed fictional world is not to share every little brilliant detail with the reader (that impulse is a major source of “darlings” to be killed) but rather to make the few hints one does give the reader seem real. And yet I do want to share these details—and some of you seem interested. These posts get “liked.” So here is another one.
Getting an Education
So, I’ve already told you some about my fictional, post-apocalyptic world. I’ve told you about money. I’ve told you about clothing. And I’ve told you about food. Now let me tell you about school.
In the story itself, the educational system is still re-evolving. When society collapsed, a lot of children died, and few new children were born for several years After, producing a lost generation. The children on the older side of the gap were all home-schooled or just not schooled after the collapse, while those born in the first ten years or so After were so few and so spread out that it was difficult to develop institutions to serve them—hence references to boarding schools “for the county’s few high-school-aged children.” So the system I’m about to describe was not yet fully developed at the time of the story, though some aspects of it were already in place, at least in some areas.
Education for Little Kids
For the most part, children under about 12 years old are home-schooled. Universal home-schooling is possible because virtually everyone lives in multi-family groups; babysitters and tutors are always available. Also, a public education system exists to give families the tools they need to teach children.
The educational method currently called “unschooling” has become the standard. That is, there is no set curriculum, and adults assist children in learning what the children themselves are interested in. I realize unschooling sounds bizarre to people who aren’t used to it, but I’ve seen a version of it in operation, and it really does work. Kids love to learn, at least until they’re taught to associate learning with boredom and frustration.
Some may object that children won’t learn the right things without guidance. That’s a valid question, and my response is two-fold.
A Digression into Educational Theory
First, unschooling might look the same as children running around with no education at all, and it probably feels similar to the children, who get to spend most of their time playing—but from the perspective of the parent it is very different. Unschooling is labor-intensive for parents, who must keep track of the child’s abilities and interests and stand ready to steer the child in the right direction. A game or a household chore can become a learning opportunity, but only if the parent stands ready to make it so.
Second, much of our standard education consists of setting and enforcing standards for what children are supposed to learn when, but such standards can do more harm than good. The standards are designed for the developmental pathway of the majority of children, but there is a large minority of kids on different pathways, kids who are naturally slower or faster in this or that subject. Many, perhaps most, of these kids eventually catch up, either with special help or, in some cases, without. It’s easy to find adults who were slow readers as kids but who read just fine now.
The problem is that while mild developmental delays may be temporary, the stigma associated with being a slow kid—or an unusually smart one—can have permanent consequences (I speak from experience; I was slow and fast at the same time). As the saying goes, trying to force a square peg into a round hole is not just ineffective, it also damages the peg. Unschooling offers an alternative in that kids can move along whatever developmental pathway happens to be theirs, irrespective of whether they are in the majority or not.
Yes, of course they’ll have to confront the norms and standards of the wider world eventually, and that will be difficult for those who are still neurodivergent in one way or another. But let them do it when they’re older and have the emotional maturity to deal with the problem as a practical challenge rather than as a source of fear and shame.
Back to the Imaginary Future
So, in my imaginary future, unschooling at home has become the standard for children under 12 or so. The switch to multi-family living has meant that parents don’t need as much outside professional help, and the public education system works to support parents as educators, not replace them.
The system has two main components. First, there are free educational activities available at the weekly markets for all ages and ability levels. Second, there are children’s educational centers in each town that offer optional children’s classes, tutoring, field trips, equipment and supplies, plus classes for parents. Parents can also use the centers for day-care on an as-needed basis, and children can meet and socialize with other children there. The centers give children all the resources of a fully-equipped school, but without taking education out of the hands of parents.
Some centers also offer day-care and enrichment for elderly or disabled people–it’s good for the young and the old to have contact, generally. Some centers are associated with semi-private children’s sleep-away camps.
The centers are usually run by either private charities and church groups or by groups of parents, with funding and oversight by the state. Some are run by the state directly. None charge any fees for use.
Education for Teenagers
For adolescents, there are schools, usually boarding schools (since transportation is either slow or expensive). These are usually run by the town directly with state money and oversight, though there are private options, too.
To enter such a school, a student must be able to read, write, do basic math, and have a basic understanding of history, geography, and science. The program is six years long (in practice, five to seven years is typical) and covers the equivalent of high school and some college. Students can get school credit through various other means, such as testing out of a class or documenting an independent project for credit. Since most graduates do not go on to higher education but instead become farmers like their parents, job skills are not the primary focus of school. Instead, the point is to shape young people into responsible, well-rounded citizens and to provide the unity of educational experience not provided in childhood—the idea is to get everybody on the same page.
Most schools are divided into three stages. Within each stage, students are free to work at their own pace, but they must complete each stage to move on to the next. Curricula and schedules vary somewhat between schools, especially between states, but it’s possible to describe a typical example.
Students spend two weeks on campus (a weekend trip home is optional) and then one week at home, year round, except for breaks around holidays. Three days per week, students take classes in English, Math, and History. Recess and lunch are used for practicing a second language–no English allowed. One day per week is dedicated to Art, Music, and either Dance or Drama. One day per week is either presentations by students and faculty (students may attend any they like) or all-day field trips in play-based or service-based science. Free athletic play is encouraged in the afternoons and at recess. Most classes are “flipped,” meaning that students learn new material as homework from books, videos, or computer tutorials and then go to class to practice with help from the teacher or older students.
The material covered includes some things we cover in middle school, as well as some high-school stuff.
The basic structure is the same as in Stage One, but with six main courses, not three. English is split into Literature and Writing, Math is split into Algebra and Geometry, and History is replaced by Civics and Social Studies. Rather than all being funneled into Art, Music, and Drama or Dance, students can choose among many electives, including various art options, science options (such as chemistry, biology, astronomy), computer programming, and history classes (such as Russian history or the history of the American labor movement). The Friday science field trips continue, as do recess and lunch in a second language. Students are encouraged to act as near-peer tutors to younger students, and may skip class to do so once per week.
Now the schedule and structure changes. Students spend a single week on campus and two weeks at home, working on semi-independent, student-designed projects.
Projects can belong to any of six categories: engineering, science, social justice, journalism, performing arts, and fine arts. Over the course of the Stage, each student must complete at least two projects in each category. Each year, at least one project must be individual, at least one must be group, and at least one must be service-based. It’s OK to do a lot of small projects or just a few large ones. Students still must earn credit in various academic subjects, such as Creative Writing and Algebra II, but each student can decide—with the guidance of an adviser—how to cover those topics in interesting projects. For example, a group of students might decide to produce a play about a robot together. Depending on each student’s role in the production, the play could count as performing arts, fine arts, or engineering, and involve credit in creative writing, advanced mathematics, electrical engineering, and social studies. All projects must be approved ahead of time, and must be evaluated by both the student and their adviser afterwards, before credit is awarded.
Besides working with advisers, students may also take short classes, usually only three or four meetings in a single week, in various topics that might relate to their projects, and can request classes on certain topics they need. There are also electives in advanced math, computer programming, history, and various trade skills—all of which give homework that must be completed independently while the student is off-campus. Either CPR/first responder certification or lifeguard certification is also required. There are discussion groups on various topics, too, which students may join. Students may attend the day-long field trips with younger students, and are encouraged to serve as tutors to younger students in class. Students are also encouraged to develop projects in partnership with outside businesses or farms (other than that of their parents), and to serve apprenticeships. Upon completing a project, students must give a presentation to the school, sharing what they have learned.
Upon graduation, most young people take a year or two to work and travel before returning home to farm, take up a trade, or start a business. Sometimes such trips evolve into an extended life of wandering, or the young person may settle down far from home—usually a result of falling in love with someone met while traveling. Only a small minority of students go on to college.
College and Beyond
College does exist in the story, but it, too, is still in a process of rapid evolution. Because of the demographic hole, there have been few if any “college-age” people for some years, and those few have had little if any prior formal education. Most students are therefore older people attempting a career change, and curricula must be extremely flexible, embracing both experienced adults who may have degrees already (from Before the collapse) and the younger set who never passed third grade. Then, too, there are so few college students of any age that most schools can’t rely on tuition for their budget. Instead, they are workshops, labs, museums, research facilities, think-tanks, or other groups that take on students as a side-line.
Also, all colleges are new since the pandemic, and they are all very small, with only a few hundred students. Many are not sustainable businesses and are not going to stick around very long.
In time, higher education will expand and stabilize somewhat. While the college-educated remain a small percentage of the population, more young people coming up means more students, and more schools able to rely primarily on tuition. And while most schools remain small, a few large schools with thousands of students do emerge and become the basis of new cities—I’ll explain that in a later post.
But the basic educational structure my characters are familiar with remains.
“College,” as such, is no longer about earning a degree. The important credential is now guild membership–guilds act as agents and advocates for members and insure that members have whatever qualifications are appropriate. They also charge booking fees, fund-raise, and otherwise collect money on behalf of members, who then receive a guaranteed income and other benefits. The idea is to free the professionals in certain fields from the direct demands of the market so they can concentrate on their work.
Students preparing for such a field take college-level classes, but they leave school when they are ready to join a guild, not when the school confers a degree, leaving most programs somewhat open-ended. There are also no “majors” as such. Rather, each school has one or more “tracks” that students follow from enrollment—in some ways, the undergrad and graduate levels have collapsed into each other because the boarding schools have taken over the function of the first year or two of college.
How many years a track might take depends on what kind of work the student is preparing for—anywhere from two to six years is common.
Once a student is ready to stop classes, he or she chooses a guild application sponsor, who may be a member of the college faculty but need not be. The sponsor is a professional mentor and senior guild member who vouches for the student’s ability to work in a professional capacity—in general, one cannot work in certain fields without guild-membership, so sponsors temporarily extend their membership to include the student. In some fields, such as medicine, the student’s scope of practice is sharply curtailed. With rare exceptions, students earn no compensation for their work during this period, which is considered an extension of their schooling. Indeed, they must pay a fee to their sponsor. Some sponsors unofficially fund their students, though.
Sponsors often work with multiple applicants at once, and the fees can be a substantial part of their income.
Besides allowing the student to gain professional experience, sponsors also supervise the student’s work and provide any necessary hands-on training. After anywhere from a few months to a few years, the sponsor guides the student through the process of applying to a guild and signs off on the application.
There is no guarantee any guild will accept an applicant. In fact, since guilds guarantee members an income for life, they do not accept more members than what the market seems able to bear–if too many qualified people apply, then some must be rejected despite their qualifications. It’s also not uncommon for individuals to take a few classes without intending to try for membership, simply as a matter of personal and professional development. Very few people are guild members, but between college courses and public educational events at the markets, the population as a whole is fairly well educated.
Guild members are recognizable as such because they dress differently than other people, at least in formal or professional settings. Most guilds specify professional dress and most have a cowl, collar, or shawl that identifies members of that particular guild. Some give members rings, instead of or in addition to specialized clothing.
Once someone joins a guild, it is possible to join other guilds without a sponsor, but the application process is otherwise the same.
The new version of a doctorate is senior guild membership. Senior guild members are properly addressed as “doctor” and are acknowledged experts in their field. Guilds are run by senior members–not all actually involve themselves in administration, but they are the only ones who can. It is they who vote on whether to accept new members. They also can also serve as application sponsors (they need not belong to the same guild the student applies to). They are recognizable by a silver pin the wear on the chest.
In some fields, such as journalism, entertainment, and education, senior members are few; the standard is that membership alone is enough for practice, and senior members are needed only to keep the guilds going. In other fields, such as medicine, the standard is senior membership, and both applicants and regular members have limited roles.
For example, in medicine, an applicant might be an orderly, a medical technician, or a paramedic. A regular member might be a physician’s assistant or a medic (a practitioner working under the remote supervision of a doctor). A doctor must be a senior member.
Science occupies a middle ground in which most researchers are senior members, but regular members can have full careers just as masters’ level people do today.
To become a senior guild member, no additional coursework is necessary–though there are professional development courses available through many schools and through guilds, and many would-be seniors take them. Some also go back to college to broaden their knowledge-base. In medicine and some other fields, an intensive apprenticeship is necessary. In some cases, the applicant must write and defend a dissertation. In all cases, the applicant assembles a portfolio of professional experience–the process is less one of further education and more a demonstration of already-acquired skill. The prospective senior works with a liaison from the guild who may or may not act as a mentor but at least provides guidance through the process.
On becoming a senior guild member in one guild, joining a second as a senior does not require a repeat of the process of application, only a mutual agreement.