Please note: All files marked with a copyright notice are subject to normal copyright restrictions. These files may, however, be downloaded for personal use. Electronically distributed texts may easily be corrupted, deliberately or by technical causes. When you base other works on such texts, double-check with a printed source if possible.

The Distance Learning School

by Kurd Lasswitz (1899)

(auf Deutsch)


"IT'S REALLY A LONG way home - that's evident on hot days like this. I think I'm tired. But some exercise is good, of course."

These were professor Frister's thoughts, as he went home from high school after four hours of teaching. Now he was comfortably seated in his study. He sat at his desk, head in his hands, stroking his grey hair away from his forehead. His hair was still wet after the rapid walk.

"It is still some time before dinner. So, what to do? Work, of course. There are two large piles of blue exercise books - end exams - waiting to be marked, that must be finished. But not right now! It is certainly very interesting, to put a new generation of new individuals onto the track of intellectual progress each year! Such a beautiful mission it is to make the same knowledge come to life, and doing it with the same vigor, even for the twenty-eighth time. It is a pity though, that individuals repeat themselves pretty much. I am quite certain what they have written in their exam books. Always the same errors. Very informative for a statistician, to see how the same conformity with the laws of human error manifests itself in the development of each and everyone - very interesting. But now, now I am just a little too tired."

”Not just the telephone, but also the television has been perfected to the extent that one can hear the speaker's words and at the same time also very clearly see his image, his movements, every feature. It is now, of course, no longer necessary to travel a long way to school; teachers and students can gladly stay at home.”

Frister grabbed a bundle of papers, which contained his own examination of the temperature curve and its daily changes - very important for the possibility of a heat-wave leave from school. He entered deeply into it. There was one difficult item, which he still hadn't been able to solve. Certainly, he knew how it could be done, but the calculations would take months to work through - where would he get the time for that?

He dipped his pen, made a note, put the pen back, and rested his head between his hands again.

"That would probably work," he thought. "But you must be really alert for it. And when? The four hours, the many lectures, the oversight, and the annoyance over the same stupidities - and the methods. On the whole, regarding educational methods, we are still very much behind. Then, should one not one day think of something better than this old custom of teachers and pupils coming together in a class and - now, this is of course an ideal function - still, much energy is wasted - and it is rather tiresome. I believe, in this respect, development of technology could find a more efficient path."

Frister leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes for a moment.

"Yes," his thoughts went on, "how pathetic our outdated, energy-wasting methods will seem when we look back one hundred or two hundred years from now! Young people, with a sense of responsibility more strongly implanted into their marrow, teachers who make use of the most modern techniques - no excuses, no attempts at cheating, no childishness, no pranks, no overstrain - ideal conditions! Why can't I until then - maybe - take the time off - funny, that this never occurred to me - very funny - then I must ask, was there not someone knocking right now? Oh, it is you, my colleague Mr. Voltheim - nice to see you! I was just thinking about you. You are a man of invention. Do you know of some establishment, which may - how shall I put it? - modernize and simplify teaching - hum - "

"Well," answered Voltheim's voice, "I'd like to think, that our distance learning school is quite an excellent establishment."

"Distance learning school? Why do you look at me with that strange look, dear colleague? I am only a little fatigued - but please, have a seat."

"I know very well that your lesson will begin soon, and I hope I will not disturb you."

"Today? Me? No, of course not. I am feeling very queer, I think I have a bit of a headache. What day is it today?"

"July the 8th, 1999, Mr. Science Councillor."

"Well, yes - that's right. Hum! I was just thinking - Science Councillor - you can never resist making one of your little jokes, can you?"

"That is quite simply your title as distance teacher of geography at the 211th telephonetic general high school. But listen! It's ringing. The students are connected. You may begin."

Frister really tried to look into his colleague's eyes, but the features of the other got blurred before him. He heard a faint, melodic rattle, without understanding from where it came. "It is surely one of Voltheim's jokes," he thought. "Well now, I will not disturb him. We will soon see what he is up to." And laughing he said: "My dear colleague, I am really not prepared at all, and I have no idea whatsoever what this distance learning school is."

"Oh, but please, Councillor" - Voltheim's voice was clear as he continued - you're trying to pull my leg. Yesterday already you did deliver your lecture for today into the phonograph. And you did write a brochure about the distance learning school as early as in 1977, don't you remember?"

"I really can't, I'm afraid."

Voltheim laughed out loud. "Now then, watch out," he said. "Can you see that strange picture gallery over there on the wall?"

Frister looked up. He was very much surprised. Indeed, on the wall, where otherwise there used to be a bookshelf, now some thirty rectangular frames were hanging. But the pictures within them were alive. There were young people between sixteen and nineteen years of age, making themselves comfortable, each and everyone in an armchair. And surely, those were his last year students, although in unusual suits. There was his best student, whose clean-shaven head just barely peeped up behind a newspaper. And Meyer was actually smoking contentedly on a cigar. Others chewed their breakfast.

"Well, I really believe those are my students over there," said Frister. "Very interesting! If I only could understand what this means. Have I really been on vacation for a hundred years? Assume this is the case, dear colleague, and talk to me as if we now really have the year 1999 and as if I temporarily have lost my memory."

"With pleasure, Councillor, if it amuses you. These young people certainly are the last year students of the 211th distance learning general high school. You see, they are in fact not at all in a classroom, instead most of them sit in their own apartments, precisely like yourself. Only in cases where parents don't have space enough to accommodate the entire distance learning equipment in their houses, do the students set out for specially arranged public distance learning centers. These young people live, as you know, in the most diverse places of our native country, because the distance learning communication may be expanded up to a thousand kilometers and more."

"I don't really know anything of this, dear colleague. Just go on, please. Methods must have made truly great progress during my vacation."

"I'd say they have! Not just the telephone, but also the television has been perfected to the extent that one can hear the speaker's words and at the same time also very clearly see his image, his movements, every feature. It is now, of course, no longer necessary to travel a long way to school; teachers and students can gladly stay at home."

"Most pleasing," Frister murmured. "But what about inspiring each individual - "

"Can still be done. As you can watch your students, they may as well see the teacher, only within a considerably larger frame, in real-life size, so to speak. On the other hand, the students cannot see each other, only hear, but when they talk you can hear everything. You only have to press the key there at the front, then you are connected and may begin teaching."

" I see! In that way disturbances are out of the question! But is there really such a hurry? Tell me, dear colleague, this establishment must have cost the state a lot of money?"

"So what? After the discovery of the immeasurable gold fields on New Guinea and the petroleum wells in German China, we have so much money that we really don't know of anything better to spend it on than educational purposes."

"Well, well! How much is my salary then?"

"Surely you know that! As Science Councillor - 50,000 Marks. But now to the point. The progress of school hygiene is, of course, not any lesser. The overstrain problem is solved. These armchairs, where the students sit, are in the most ingenious way equipped with automatic measuring instruments, where body weight, pulse, pressure, exhale volume, and consumption of brain energy are displayed. As soon as the permitted amount of brain energy has been used up, the psychograph indicates the level of fatigue, the connection between student and teacher is automatically interrupted and the student in question is thereby exempted from further instruction. As soon as a third of the class has been 'bounced out' in this way, you must end the lesson."

"Very good it seems. However, if I am a little tired, as today, for instance -"

"With a salary like that! But this is also provided for. When you wish to begin, then you really have better to put on this marked brain-protection bind. Then you will be protected from the risk of using up more brain power in school than resonable, considering your students' capacity and your own salary bracket. Now, press the button. Can you hear, it is ringing? Now, your image is also shown to the students, so you may talk to them."

"But what shall I say? I am not prepared you know," whispered Frister quietly to Voltheim.

"It will come to you," he answered furthermore. "As an experienced teacher - just let the students do the talking. On each frame you can read the name. Your lecture is here in the phonograph, and all you need is to press there."

It was immediately obvious that the teacher through a remote function had appeared before the class, that is, the students could see him. Rathenberg stowed away his newspaper, Meyer quickly put his cigar butt aside, and Suppard and Neumann swallowed the last bites of their breakfast rolls.

Frister surveyed the picture frames.

One of the students - this was Meyer - made a bow and said: "I was absent during the previous lesson."


"I had to have my second brain convolution massaged."

Frister shook his head. How could he determine whether this was a valid apology according to modern standards? "Why then was that necessary?" he asked, signing to Voltheim that he needed his assistance.

"Well," Meyer said, "my parents had my dreams photographed, and it appeared that I always dream about horses."

"Lies!" whispered Voltheim. "Horses became extinct long ago."

"But horses have been extinct for a long time," Frister said.

"Precisely, Sir, that's why I had to get my massage."

"Oh, come on, geography is the best brain massage you can get."

Frister noticed that two of the frames, which were still empty, did not activate until just now. He read the names and said: "Well, Heinz, why did you come only now?"

"I am so sorry, Sir, yesterday my mum forgot our pocket protein machine at the women's club in Spitsbergen, and I had to fetch it quickly. Since it was very windy, I was somewhat delayed."

"And you, Schwarz, why are you so late?"

"I, I - yesterday my father was appointed Privy Councillor of Electricity-"

"Now, I fail to see the causal connection there."

"Well, we were connected to the celebration, to the central sparkling wine line, and therefore I could not go directly to my room."

"Subterfuges!" whispered Voltheim. "Revelry."

"Well well," Frister said, "the facts are not entirely clear to me. Now tell me, Meyer, what did we cover during the previous lesson?"

"I am sorry, Sir, I was not present yesterday."

"Oh, yes, that's right. Can you tell me, Brandhaus?"

"I am sorry, Sir, I could not work yesterday. Here is an excuse from my father."

Brandhaus pressed the button on his phonograph, and one could hear the bass voice of an older man: "Due to overexertion of his arm muscles yesterday, my son Siemens could not do his homework. Brandhaus."

"What?" Frister wondered. "Surely, you don't use your arms for studying?"

"Our engine is out of order, so I would have been forced to turn the phonograph manually to listen to my annotations, but I couldn't do that."

"How did you bring that overexertion on to yourself?"

"By practicing on my flying bicycle."

Embarrassed Frister looked around at Voltheim.

"Could be," he murmured. "He probably took a trip up in the air with a few young ladies and danced too many air quadrilles."

"Listen, dear colleague, it doesn't seem to be fewer excuses in use in the distance learning school than in my own time." And he turned back to the students.

"Well then, Rathenberg, what did we go through?"

"The optical telephone centers connected to America. But we don't have those anymore. They were all closed down, since they were replaced by the chemical remote antenna. The recently discovered jets of a chemical solution are namely able to penetrate the hot center of the globe. Thus it is possible to speak right through the middle of the earth by chemical means."

Frister shook his head in surprise back and forth.

”Since it became possible to use solar radiation directly as working power, the technicians got to be the ruling estate, incorporating all the tools of mankind within their grasp, and they created a nation based on shares ...”

The student interpreted this as a sign of disapproval and continued: "Sir, you mentioned the 'Kreuzberg-Chimborasso' line yourself, but it was also shut down this morning. I just read that in the Berliner Fernanzeiger."

"All and well - now, Hornbox, go on."

"The most important states in America are the Empire of California, the Kingdom of New York, the Anarchist Republic of Cuba, the Papal State of Mexico and the South American Sun Realm."

"Well, what do you know!" Frister thought. But all he said was: "Go on, Schwarz."

Schwarz went on with such a flow, that Frister hardly could follow his words: "Since it became possible to use solar radiation directly as working power, the technicians got to be the ruling estate, incorporating all the tools of mankind within their grasp, and they created a nation based on shares, by purchasing all available land in South America between the tropic circles. Because they derived their power directly from the sun, they called this nation the Sun State. Over the high mountains, and over the treetops and steppes of the wide plains, they pulled their radiation collectors -"

"But Schwarz, you are not moving your lips at all when you speak. And why do you play with your fingers all the time there on your desk? You are reading out loud, I assume?"

"Oh but please, Sir" - and Schwarz continued fumbling on his desk - "I am playing on the speech machine. You see, I can't speak by myself, because I have burned my tongue very badly."

”Oh but please, Sir" - and Schwarz continued fumbling on his desk - "I am playing on the speech machine. You see, I can't speak by myself, because I have burned my tongue very badly.”

"Well, please continue."

"That's how far we had come."

Frister was embarrassed when he turned to Voltheim. "Now what?" he asked.

"Let your phonograph do the talking."

Frister pressed on the appliance, and to his big surprise he now heard his own voice: "We will now take a look at the expeditions to the South Pole. Nowadays it is certainly easy for us to glide in flying machines over the ice desert, but consider the difficulties involved still one hundred years ago, such courage that was required, on those frail water ships and simple dog sleds, just to dare to proceed into inaccessible regions. If our ancestors had been as indolent as you are, we would never have reached the South Pole. They were a completely different type of people! It would never have occurred to a student of the nineteenth century to secretly eat synthetic asparagus during a lesson, as I recently had the misfortune of noticing, furthermore a pleasure bordering on gluttony. Just give a thought to the agonies of hunger those explorers had to endure sometimes! It happened that for weeks they had nothing but raw bird lard, but not even then did they lose their courage. Still while they suffered the most terrible hunger, one of those heroes wrote in his diary these words well worth considering -"

"Emil, would you like to have synthetic asparagus this evening? It is not expensive." A high-pitched female voice was suddenly to be heard between the words of the speaker.

This interruption was greeted with a peal of laughter from all of the students. In resentment Frister turned around to Voltheim.

"What was that?" he asked.

Even Voltheim was smiling. "I suppose," he said, "your lawfully wedded wife must have entered the room with that question yesterday, precisely while you were preparing for your lecture, and of course the phonograph reproduced those words faithfully."

"My dear colleague, there is still something ominous about this distance learning school -"

"Well now, there is also a good side to it. This laughter paroxysm exerted the students so much, that eight flaps fell down. These students are overtired. Three more, and you will have to end the lesson."

"Oh, that would suit me fine, since I am - as I believe I already told you - a bit exhausted myself. Now just listen, what is that again, that loud bell?"

"It is the signal from the director. He wants to speak with you."

Indeed, Frister now clearly heard an unfamiliar voice: "Excuse me, my dear Councillor, for intruding. But I just got to know that our colleague Brechberger has run into a chimney with his air bicycle and is somewhat shocked. You must be so good as to fill in for him the next lesson."

"Oh, I will be happy to -"

The director hang up.

"Now what can I do, my dear Voltheim," Frister complained - "the other students still seem quite amused, and I dare not touch the phonograph any more."

"Then, let them repeat what you have gone through."

Frister turned again to his class: "Now, please repeat what I said."

He could see how all of the students now, almost at the same time, pressed on their phonographs, where they had preserved the lecture. The machines started spinning. Lecture words from two dozen phonographs sprang to his ear in unsettled concord, and it buzzed and hummed ever faster and faster, he turned dizzy in this stunning confusion, he groaned, he stroke his brow and - - all at once it was quiet - - completely quiet - -

"Oh, the brain bind!" he thought. "Surely I am too tired, then teaching is automatically stopped - I am switched off. Thank God!"

Then suddenly he jumped to his feet. The frames before him had disappeared. His old books were back there again.

"But tell me now, what is this, dear Voltheim -"

His colleague Voltheim stood beside him and said: "Excuse me so much, professor - I hope I didn't wake you up. When I came in, you were sleeping so peacefully, that I sat down all quiet here on the sofa, so I wouldn't disturb."

"So, I was dozing? I could still hear you coming! Can you imagine, I dreamt something remarkable. A fifty thousand Mark salary. But at the end I was supposed to take the place of a colleague -"

"Yes, unfortunately that is reality, that is why I came - our colleague Treter -"

"You don't say! At what time then?"

"Early tomorrow, at eight o'clock."

"In the classroom?"

"Where else?"

"I thought, in the distance learning school. Are you surprised? Yes, if you only knew! I had a hundred years of vacation, you see! Well, please sit down, dear colleague. Tomorrow, then? I would prefer that, since today I really feel a bit used up."

(English translation copyright © Karl-Erik Tallmo, 2000.)

Note: Kurd Lasswitz (1848-1910), German philosopher and senior high school teacher, who wrote several books about physics and epistemology as well as about Kant. He also edited a critical edition of Gustav Theodor Fechner (the inventor of psychophysics).  Lasswitz wrote a number of modern fairy tales, illustrating various scientific concepts. The story "Distance Learning School" ("Die Fernschule") is  from the collection "Nie und Immer" ("Never and Always"), the second volume, titled "Traumkristalle" ("Dream Crystals"). The edition used here was printed in Berlin in 1928. 

Drawing: Picture telephone by George Roux, 1910. (Originally made for a story by Jules Verne, "La Journée d'un journaliste américain en 2889".) [Back]

[English Homepage]
[Svensk bassida]
[Origo menu]