Standard business practice for the less scrupulous correspondence courses.
One step above "Do-It-Yourself For Dummies"
but a long, cavernous leap below an actual education (at least in Trope Land) is the Correspondence School, an educational institute that forwards all its courses by mail.
Course offerings are many and varied. You'll be amazed by what you can learn by mail— magic powers
, hero training
, how to talk to girls
... everything you could possibly want to know and more, all for the price of postage!
Due to the distant and anonymous nature of these schools, quality varies wildly. But every once in a while (well, more often in fictionland), the heroes discover a correspondence course that actually works— usually to the amazement of the professor teaching it!
A common plotline in comedic mystery stories is the kid who's taking a correspondence course in detection— usually getting in over his head because he hasn't gotten important lessons yet. Another common gag is for the course to be in something you probably shouldn't learn by distance— like scuba diving or hot air ballooning.
A more modern version of this are online courses, which replace the mailed lessons by lessons downloaded from a website. Now that every major university has a distance education department, simply saying that somebody got her degree online isn't enough; modern examples drive the point home by giving the school a shady name like "Cayman Islands Internet University".
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- Ah! My Goddess once featured an exorcist named Shiho who was learning exorcism from a correspondence course.
- One of the Super Mario Bros. comics had Toad become a reporter via one of these. Wooster, in something of a Deadpan Snarker moment, points out that the entire curriculum consisted of sending them a check.
- One Aniceto comic book story has the titular brujo awaken an ancient Egyptian mummy...which speaks fluent Mexican-dialect Spanish. When asked how, "Simple. I took a correspondence course."
- Donald Duck's cousin Fethry swears by various correspondence courses and often shows up at Donald's house in order to either practice his newly acquired skills on a "volunteer" or persuade Donald to start a business with him based on whatever he's been taking a course on. The results are predictable. One comic revealed that apparently the "university" responsible for the courses advertises on the back of a cereal box, so we can probably conclude it is not exactly a highly respected institution.
- Superman exposed the crooked correspondence school depicted in the trope image. Naturally, the plan for catching these ordinary criminals involved Clark Kent engaging in art forgery, Time Travel, and Superman unwittingly providing the inspiration for masterpieces by Rembrandt and William Gainsborough. Oh, comics....
- A major plot point in Bedknobs and Broomsticks: Eglantine learns all her magic from a correspondence course, but the school folds before she can learn the final and most important spell. During the first half of the movie, she hunts down the headmaster, Professor Emelius Browne, who, it turns out, doesn't know magic at all (and more importantly, doesn't know the final spell. The second half of the movie is spent recovering it and then using it against the Nazis).
- This was used in the live action adaption of the Discworld novel, The Colour of Magic, to Hand Wave the problem of Twoflower, a tourist from a Fantasy Counterpart Culture of Imperial China with bits of Japan thrown in, not speaking much of the local language and Rincewind having to act as interpreter. This was fine in the book, albeit handled rather inconsistently, but would have got rather annoying on screen.
- Both The Muppet Movie and The Great Muppet Caper feature this exchange:
"Where did you learn to drive?"
"I took a correspondence course."
- Old movie, The Fuller Brush Girl:
Sally Elliot: "It only took you a year to finish that correspondence course."
Humphrey Briggs: "Yeah, but that was a six month course."
- Waiting for Guffman:
Clifford Wooley: I had a... hankerin' to be an actor when I was a young feller when I got out of the Coast Guard, but I... I went to taxidermy school instead... well, I took a correspondence course.
- In Harry Potter, Filch is a Squib (a Muggle Born of Mages) who attempts to learn magic by following a correspondence course. Because of the nature of magic in the HP world, we know it's a fraud, but it's all played for laughs.
- The Discworld novel Sourcery features a young man named Nijel who's taking a correspondence course in being a barbarian hero.
- In P. G. Wodehouse's short story "A Voice from the Past", Sacheverall Mulliner becomes a domineering Strong Man by taking a correspondence course on
scientific agriculture developing an Iron Will.
- Harry Dresden at one point took a correspondence course in Latin, the language official White Council meetings are conducted in. It was... less than successful.
- Taken by Edward Bloor takes place Twenty Minutes into the Future in Florida, where the main character Charity goes to school at a variant of this. It is school broadcast through webcams.
- The titular character in Jean Robinson's The Strange But Wonderful Cosmic Awareness of Duffy Moon attempted to make up for his perceived shortcomings by taking "Dr. Louis Flamel's Home Study Course in Cosmic Awareness". Due much more to his can-do nature and knowledge of gardening than to the course, he actually managed to start his own plant-service business and gain the respect of his aunt and uncle and the other kids in the neighborhood.
- Correspondence Course by Raymond F. Jones in 1945. A disabled American war veteran tries to better himself through a correspondence course that teache how to build and maintain something called a 'power coordinator'. Only there is no such thing, at least not on Earth...
- In A Confederacy of Dunces, Mrs. Levy took a correspondence course in psychology and failed abysmally. ("The correspondence school had even refused to give her an F.") Nonetheless, she constantly tries to apply her "knowledge" to her Henpecked Husband and his senile employee Miss Trixie.
- Most of Sophie's World revolves around the correspondence course on philosophy Sophie takes from Alberto Knox.
Live Action TV
- In the absurdist song "Yo-Ya" by the Israeli rock group Poogy, a man takes a correspondence course in swimming from a "famous lifeguard". When he finally enters the water, he immediately drowns.
- Fairly popular at Whateley Academy in the Whateley Universe, since a lot of the students look too weird to be out taking regular courses, and at least one student may never be able to leave her room again without being a biohazard threat for everyone around her. Then there's Timeless, who simply doesn't sleep anymore and needs something to fill in the hours.
- Dr. Zoidberg from Futurama once claimed to have taken correspondence courses on Murderology and Murderonomy.
- In the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1987) cartoon, Donatello used one to further his education beyond super genius, only to run into problems with getting the degree itself: he has to pick it up in person, and the university mistook him for "Miss Dona Tello". It turns out the owner of the university was looking for a mate as part of a Genius Breeding Act, which is why he wanted "Dona" to appear in person.
- These obviously exist in real life, although the choice of lessons tend to be a lot less colourful here. Famous distance schools include the Art Instruction School (see below) and the Charles Atlas exercise routine. Nowadays, a lot of them are available online. Chances are this page's ads are of them.
- Charles Schulz, the creator of Peanuts, took an art course from Art Instruction School. He later became an instructor there.
- Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield took an ice cream making correspondence course from the Penn State Creamery which enabled them to start their ice cream business.
- The Open University subverts most expectations by being one of the UK's largest and most well respected universities (no Oxbridge, but far from embarrassing either)
- In the United States, MIT has its OpenCourseWare project, the goal of which is to make all of the school's graduate and undergraduate offerings available online. The program was the first of its kind and has since been copied by many other institutions.
- Almost every major university in America now has a distance education department, some offering full degree programs. Some of these are extensions of mail-based services that date back to the 60's and earlier, but widespread Internet access and standardized platforms for content deployment have made classes much easier to manage. While primarily-online schools like the University of Phoenix still carry a stigma in some circles, their perception is improving as graduates enter the workforce and prove themselves. Of courses, the diploma mills have modernized as well; for a few hundred dollars, you too can earn a Ph.D. or a black belt.
- That being said, however, it is easy to be scammed with these types of institutions. Make sure you're getting your online degree from an actual accredited institution, and not a diploma mill.