Short stories I wish I had written: “The Fun They Had” by Isaac Asimov

By Mike Nardacci

One of the fascinating things about reading older science-fiction stories is discovering that their authors predicted often years or even decades in advance things that came to be: Jules Verne’s lunar travel vehicles, Czech writer Karel Capek’s robots, Arthur C. Clarke’s communication satellites.

Sometimes, of course, science fiction gets it wrong: the classic 1956 film “Forbidden Planet” has a voice-over at the beginning predicting humans would not land on the moon until the end of the 21st Century and Stanley Kubrick’s mind-boggling “2001: A Space Odyssey” assumed we would have cities on the moon in its eponymous year.

But in this pandemic year it is interesting to note the eerie resonance of Isaac Asimov’s 1953 short story “The Fun They Had,” written at a time when computers with far less memory and speed than those of today took up huge rooms and the notion of a computer in every home would have drawn laughs.

Set in the year 2155, the short tale opens with two pre-adolescent children, Margie and Tommy, examining a book that Tommy has found — its pages “yellow and crinkly” in his attic. The children marvel at the fact that there was a time when “all stories were printed on paper.”

In their century, there are “teaching machines” that can hold millions of books and display them on a screen. If this description sounds prescient of a Kindle, it should be noted that micro-circuitry was unknown and undreamed of in 1953 and the story’s “teaching machine” — “large and black and ugly with a big screen” — apparently takes up a good bit of space.

Children such as Margie sit before the computer screen for hours at a time being lectured to by a robotic voice and submitting questions and tests “in a punch code they made her learn when she was six years old.” Shades of Fortran — for anyone today old enough to remember laboring over those punch cards!

But, on this particular day, a man with the Orwellian-sounding title of “County Inspector” has been called in by Margie’s mother because the teaching machine has apparently been operating at an overly-accelerated pace that has left Margie far behind in the area of geography and the little girl now hates both the subject and the teaching machine.

While it would be nice to think that in 2155 geography will again be part of the curriculum in our schools — it went the way of the dodo some time ago along with the teaching of grammar and cursive writing — it is also obvious that the two children in “The Fun They Had” learn in isolation from other kids.

If this sounds similar to what young people from kindergarten through college experienced this spring — and will continue to experience through the summer and apparently the fall as well — Asimov’s prescience becomes eerily clear. Although each “teaching machine” is programmed to fit the individual needs of students, it also can be relentless and cold.

Margie is disappointed that the “County Inspector” has been able to repair and adjust her machine — she had been hoping that it would be taken away altogether for repairs. Lucky Tommy had once been without his for a month.

Woven throughout the simple action of the story are the children’s memories of things they have been told by their grandparents — who heard the stories from their grandparents —about how “centuries ago” school was conducted: “All the kids from the whole neighborhood came, laughing and shouting in the schoolyard, sitting together in the schoolroom, going home together at the end of the day. They learned the same things so they could help one another on the homework and talk about it.”

And the story ends when the mechanical teacher begins a lesson in fractions, but the distracted Margie is thinking about kids of former times “and the fun they had.”

Anyone with an acquaintance or family member who is a teacher has undoubtedly heard horror stories about the educational state in which this country now finds itself. For one thing, it is common to hear a teacher who has been doing lessons online complain that a large percentage of his or her students — anywhere from a third to a half and in some cases far greater — have simply not participated at all.

And this is true in both affluent and non-affluent districts alike. (There is also the question of whether work being submitted online was actually done by the student or someone else — but that is a whole different issue.) And while Zoom has allowed the creation of at least a semblance of an actual classroom, the give-and-take and the personal relationships among students and between students and teachers is glaringly absent.

In “The Fun They had,” both Tommy and Margie have parents who are making sure their kids are sitting at their machines, whatever their kids’ own preferences.  But from anecdotal evidence gathered from across the country, some parents are either unable or unwilling to take on that responsibility — and the results will be dire: Potentially millions of students will be promoted to the next educational level without having the requisite knowledge or skills. 

Indeed, if most educational levels from elementary school through college will again be taught online in the coming fall, the result will be that, by 2021, vast numbers of students will be nearly a full year behind in their knowledge and skills. 

The practice of “keeping a student back” ended decades ago, though in Asimov’s story, the “teaching machine” can simply be adjusted to a student’s level and proceed from that point: Like it or not, Margie will eventually acquire the knowledge the machine demands of her.

But think of the challenge facing teachers when the pandemic subsides and instruction is again taking place in classrooms and lecture halls: having to deal with some students who have regularly been completing required assignments and participating as fully as possible in online instruction, and others who are woefully behind in the required knowledge and skills.

And, for over a year, none have been subjected to the discipline required to sit in a classroom, take notes, and participate. Teachers of all educational levels are faced today with issues undreamed of a generation ago. Now they must find ways to deal with this potentially disastrous situation.

It is sobering and of course ungrammatical to say so — but they ain’t going to have fun.

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