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Robin went to the school. The village had outgrown its one-room schoolhouse. Instead of building a larger structure next to the clinic as planned, they'd picked out a low hilltop, poured a new concrete slab, and had the kids help lay the dirt bricks of the walls. The new structure was bigger than it had to be, and strangely laid out. Instead of classrooms where Misses Grindle, Grendel and Grumble would run students through the assembly line of History and Math and Science, Grades One through Twelve, there was a giant square tent ringed by small rooms for music, quiet discussion or storage. The corners had reinforced walls and a second-story balcony each, giving the school the look of a castle.

This was not entirely for whimsical reasons.

When Robin arrived, most of the students were in the main room under the weatherproof canvas that let a hint of the sunlight through. On a big screen, a flotilla of boats was approaching an island with a gently-sloping beach.

A boy was standing in front of the class, holding a Talisman game pad and fiddling with the buttons instead of looking at anybody. "So, um, this is Sicily. 1944. And this is a transport craft." The camera view swung around to show a boat with a hinged jaw that fell open so that a tank could roll out -- but the tank crashed into the water and sank, making a sad trombone sound. "It was like this. They, um, the Allies couldn't get up there on the sand because it was shallow and the ships would get stuck at just the wrong depth. So what they did was like this."

The kid switched the game's view over to a boat with a bunch of metal blocks on its left like a motorcycle's sidecar. As it roared toward the island, there were men hanging for dear life onto the blocks, crashing through the waves. The contraption of steel rammed the shallow coast like a spear. The men whipped out axes and slashed through some cables, making the metal parts telescope out into a broad strip extending hundreds of feet from the sand to the shallows. Another transport ship zoomed into view and dropped a tank onto the new raft to scurry up to land. "Bam, instant bridge! So, um, that's how it worked. I'm done."

The schoolmistress, the lone adult running the place, clapped. The others followed suit. "Not bad, Carlos, but remember eye contact." She nodded toward Robin and said, "Sir."

The boy reluctantly lifted his gaze from the screen to look at the other kids. "Any questions?"

Robin was leaning back against the doorway. Another boy said, "Did they really have axes?"

"Yeah! They said it was to chop through the cables. You can cut steel like that if it's tight. But you have to be really brave to ride the thing in the first place because it was, um..." He looked back at the screen. "Can you show it again but turn on the gunfire and explosions?"

The animation replayed, but as the pier-building craft headed for the beach, machine guns rattled and kicked up bursts of water all over the coast. Robin wasn't the only one who winced instinctively. Artillery pounded the sand and made something explode on one side of the screen, but the men on the crazy raft kept riding until they rammed the beach.

"Oh come on, they didn't really do that!" a girl said.

"Totally! They were called Seabees. They knew how to build stuff while getting shot at and exploded."

The teacher smiled. "More questions? No? Then Carlos gets his badge in Modern Military Engineering." The big screen showed a glittering badge with crossed shovels.

Robin said, "Actually, I've got a question. What else did you learn to get that?"

The boy avoided his eyes. "I read about building airports out of coral, and sandbag walls -- I built one! -- and I did a written report about how airfields work. Here." He fiddled with the Talisman and the big screen flicked over to a grassland of stone spikes. This incarnation of the educational prototype Robin had seen, was much more filled out. A military fort was perched atop one spire, connected to a Roman camp and an airport.

"Looks like good work." Robin turned to the teacher. "Sorry to interrupt. You invited me to drop by sometime, though, and watch."

The teacher hesitated. "This might not be the best time, sir, but you may as well see this too." She clapped. "We have a duel. Stand up, Maria and Dawn."

Robin hadn't been informed about any duels. He hung back as one kid, a hulk of a girl, stood with clenched fists. "Yeah, we do. Dawn here called me a 'lezzy butch dwarf'."

The other girl was slender and smug. "Oh, did I hurt your little feelings? I didn't say anything and you can't prove it."

"It was behind my back, you little bitch."

The teacher barked, "Maria."

Robin had been a bit of a bully around age eight, being relatively big and tough for his age, but he'd gotten past that and tried to live it down. He felt like he should be interfering, but had no idea how.

The teacher said, "Dawn, are you denying you called her anything?"

"I can say what I want."

Maria glowered. "Uh-huh! And I can say, everybody ought to kick her our of our games for a week. I challenge her to a spell fight, standard Eden System rules. Take damage and you're banned for a week. From the message boards, too."

Dawn said, "This is stupid. You think you're the boss of me?"

"Gonna forfeit then, or shut up and apologize?"

"You shut up. You're on."

The students cleared a space in front of the big screen, where the dueling girls could sit far apart. Each focused on their Talisman pads while everybody else looked at the shared view of an arena. Maria's character was a warrior with an axe, versus Dawn who was a frilly magical girl with a black cat and a wand. Maria, though, swapped out her weapon for a wand of her own. They began doing some kind of incantations in secret.

On ten, Dawn fired off a bolt of lightning at the warrior. Maria's spell was just a wave of force that struck the incoming spell and negated it. Maria then tossed her wand aside. The game declared, "Draw!"

"A null spell!" said one boy. Another added, "She went pure defense?"

"Huh?" said Dawn.

Maria sniffed. "I know she's tough in a fight. I just wanted a shot at her." She faced Dawn down and said, "Next time, though, I will hurt you even if I take damage and get banned too."

"Hmmph. Showoff."

"Well!" said the teacher. "I think that's resolved, for the moment. Sir Robin has been waiting patiently to give a brief talk about the business we do by selling coffee."

After Robin spent half an hour lecturing, he headed out and contacted Ludo from his office. "When did the kids start dueling?"

"Last month. It was the idea of a young player in Italy, actually, and it's been spreading across all the schools I influence. I didn't even suggest the idea of a duelist holding back from attacking; that has re-evolved on its own."

"So long as they're not using real weapons, I guess it's not too bad. But what if somebody accuses another falsely and uses their magical pie-slinging powers to bully other students?"

Ludo said, "That's happened a few times. So far the data says that usually a cluster of other challenges breaks out, and after the teacher panics, I have some people talk them into a settlement of some kind. Sometimes involving a semester-long 'war' that conveniently makes the kids forget the original argument, and which ends."

Robin whistled. "What a mess."

"Were you ever a kid, Robin? From what I hear, this is an improvement over the usual mind games, humiliating nicknames, random beatings, cliques and other charming aspects of the early human experience. It hardly ever leads to actual violence, and I think it would've happened in those cases anyway. I'm able to mitigate it; I have a detailed social graph of who hates who."

"Well, great. We're going to get a generation that only knows how to solve problems by pretending to shoot spells at each other. Using your game. That isn't a skill that they can use in the future."

"Isn't it? A big part of what you watched was verbal argument and assertiveness, always good to learn. And if my game becomes more prominent, some version of Eden System rules will be available to them as adults."

Feeling troubled by the thought of where this hocus-pocus would lead, Robin dropped the subject and spent an idle hour helping some other adventurers fight a kobold army.
An excerpt from the upcoming novel "Liberation Game", in which students are using AI and an advanced game for a new sort of schooling. Presented to get comments. (And, oops, Sicily was '43.)

A duel system like this seems like it'd have problems, but it might be an improvement over the petty infighting I lived through, and I had it fairly easy. A real test of these rules would be what happens when an experienced duelist comes to another school where they don't have it. Do the assertiveness-training parts of the system carry over well enough for the kid to have a tolerable time, or are they like a Hogwarts student who's suddenly dropped into magic-free reality? And how well do the "wars" go? It's tough to gauge whether this situation would be better than we have now -- but hey, there's a story in that. One that can only be touched on briefly in this book.

As for the regular class instruction, I imagine students getting certified in narrow subjects and having to explain how they're related. You are never in "5th Grade". Two problems here are that it's then hard to crank out graduates as a factory-style product with an arbitrary "degree" that allegedly means they're educated, and that it probably requires some amount of AI to serve as every student's personal tutor. Considering the horror stories I've heard about classes of students who are utterly dependent on Father Government for every meal they eat and who show up abused, drugged and helpless, I suspect that this self-directed kind of education would help them very much.

If you have ideas I'd love to hear them! This setting is being used as a testing ground for new education technology among other things, so experimental class structures are allowed.
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April 22


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