Lynda Barry, Cartoonist Turned Professor, Gives Her Old Fashioned Take on the Future of Education

With college tuitions ballooning to the point of implosion, and free educational content proliferating online, the future of education is a scorching hot topic.

So where are we heading?

Coursera and Khan AcademyVideo game-based curricula? Experience-driven microlearning?

Or school buildings that moonlight as candy?

So suggested one of the younger participants in a workshop led by the University of Wisconsin’s Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Creativity, cartoonist and author Lynda Barry (aka Professor Long-Title).

Barry’s messianic embrace of the arts has proved popular with students of all ages. When the university’s Counterfactual Drawing Board Project invited faculty, staff, and others to consider what the “appearance, purpose, atmosphere and community of the campus” would be like in 100 years time, Barry deliberately widened the pool to include children.

Yes, their innovations tended toward volcano schools that erupt at dismissal, but presumably some of those same children will be in the vanguard when it’s time for initiatives that seem unimaginable now to be implemented. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and all that.

Or as one gimlet-eyed youth put it, in a hundred years “the teachers will all be dead.”

No wonder few adult participants can see past a button-driven, hermetically sealed, digital future wherein every student has a chip implanted in his or her head.

Barry, no stranger to depression, manages to laugh such gloomy forecasts off, despite what they portend for the tactile, handmade ephemera she reveres. A sense of humor—and humanity—is at the core of every educational reform she practices.

Rather than rip each other’s writing to shreds during in-class critiques, her students call each other by outlandish pseudonyms and draw meditative spirals as each others’ work is read aloud. Every reader is assured of a hearty “good!” from the teacher. She wants them to keep going, you see.

Surely there are institutions where this approach might not fly, but why poo-poo it? Isn’t fueling the creative spirit a practical investment in the future?

“It’s there in everybody,” Barry believes. “You have to give people an experience of it, a repeated experience of it that they generate themselves.”

Maybe someday, some kid who hasn’t had the love of learning squelched out of him or her will apply all that creativity toward curing cancer. That’d be great, huh? At worst, that carefully tended spark can give solace in the dark days ahead. As fans of Barry’s work well know, art exists to carry us through times of “sorrow and grief and trouble.”

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