On the page dated May 17, 2157, Margie writes excitedly in her journal about an amazing discovery: “Today Tommy found a real book!” The book is exceptionally old—Margie remembers her grandfather telling her once about how his grandfather used to tell him about a time long, long ago when stories were printed on paper with ink. Margie and Tommy flip through the book, fascinated by the “yellow and crinkly” pages. The children can’t believe that the words don’t move like they do on a computer screen.
The story is set in the future, in a world where e-books (“telebooks,” in the world of the story) have completely replaced print media. An actual antiquated book holds a special fascination for the children as a relic of the past, and their amazement is ironic considering the reader is likely encountering the story on a printed page. Whereas the children’s telebooks are technologically advanced, this analog book holds unique value: the ability to preserve the past, unchanged by any outside influences.
It’s especially bewildering to Tommy and Margie that when they turn to back to a page that they’ve already read, it still has the same words on it as when the children read it the first time. Tommy believes that the book is “a waste,” and that people must have thrown the books away after reading them. Tommy marvels at the fact that his television at home has at least a million books on it—“and it’s good for plenty more”—and he would never dream of throwing it away. Margie echoes in agreement. She’s 11 and hasn’t seen as many “telebooks” as 13-year-old Tommy.
The children live in a world which is saturated with information, and as a result they find the idea of a book containing only a limited amount of information to be silly and old-fashioned. Rather than appreciating the book as something valuable in and of itself, they are quick to dismiss it as something disposable since it is limited in its scope. This reaction suggests that, in Tommy and Margie’s futuristic reality where information changes constantly, the notion of preserving anything for posterity is completely foreign.
Margie asks Tommy where he found the book. Engrossed in his reading, Tommy points to his house without looking up, and tells Margie that he found the book in the attic. Margie asks him what the book is about, and Tommy answers tersely: “School.”
The book’s location in the attic indicates that it is considered by Tommy’s family to be old and largely worthless. Books are seen as antiquated relics, rather than educational resources that can help people learn about history and apply those lessons to the present day.
At first, Margie can’t imagine anyone wanting to write a book about school because she hates it so much. A while back, her mechanical teacher was constantly testing her in geography, but Margie just kept doing worse and worse. Upset by her daughter’s poor performance, Margie’s mother finally called for the County Inspector, a mechanic, who came to fix the mechanical teacher. The County Inspector was a small, plump man with a red face and a toolbox filled with dials and wires. When he came to fix Margie’s mechanical teacher, he smiled pleasantly at Margie and gave her an apple before taking her mechanical teacher apart.
In the world of the story, classroom schooling has been completely replaced with individualized mechanical instructors that teach each child separately at home. Although this system is designed to provide personalized education for each student, the fallibility of the machines and their reliance on human mechanics to fix them shows how people are still an essential part of the computer-driven world. Though things books and teachers have been discarded in favor of digital alternatives, there is no replacement for human expertise.
At the time, Margie had hoped that the County Inspector wouldn’t be able to put her mechanical teacher back together again; however, after an hour, Margie was once again faced with her teacher’s large, black, and ugly screen where it displays lessons and questions. What Margie hates more than anything is filling out her homework in punch code and having to put her homework and tests into the slot that allows her teacher to grade all her work instantly.
Margie dislikes the lessons provided by the teacher, as she finds the machine impersonal and unfriendly, and the work to be repetitive and taxing. Whereas the mechanical teacher is designed to be more efficient and personalized than a live teacher, and therefore to provide a better educational experience, it has clearly has the opposite effect, leading to more boredom and a lack of personal connection with the teacher and other students.
When he was done fixing the mechanical teacher, the County Inspector smiled at Margie again and patted her on the head. Understanding Margie’s trouble with the lessons, the County Inspector told Margie’s mother, Mrs. Jones, that wasn’t Margie’s fault that she was doing so poorly, and that the geography lessons were geared a little too fast for Margie. The Inspector changed the lessons to a 10-year-old level and told Mrs. Jones that Margie’s overall work was satisfactory. He patted Margie’s head one more time before leaving. Margie was extremely disappointed—she was hoping that the County Inspector would take her teacher away altogether, just like they had taken Tommy’s teacher for almost a month when its “history sector had blanked out completely.”
The kindness of the County Inspector shows how important supportive human contact is to a child’s development. His treatment of Margie creates an ironic distinction between the smiling human and the emotionless computer, and Margie’s disappointment after he leaves shows just how much she dreads the drudgery of learning without other people to join in the experience with her.
Margie asks Tommy why anyone would want to write about school. Tommy calls Margie stupid and arrogantly explains that it’s a different kind of school: “the old kind of school that they had hundreds and hundreds of years ago.” Margie’s feelings are hurt, and she admits that she doesn’t know what kind of school existed so long ago. Reading the book over Tommy’s shoulder, Margie says that the only thing she knows about school in the old days is that they also had a teacher. Tommy explains to her that of course they had a teacher, but that it wasn’t a “regular teacher,” but a man.
Having lived entirely within a society where mechanical teachers are the norm, Margie has no conception of how schooling might have been different in the past. Not only has the mechanization of learning made traditional classroom learning obsolete, it has effectively erased the record of alternative methods that came before it by rendering physical books irrelevant. Thus, the book offers a rare glimpse into a past way of living and learning that has been thoroughly devalued and eradicated by Tommy and Margie’s society.
Margie is baffled and doesn’t understand how a man could be a teacher, believing that a man could never be smart enough. Tommy insists that his father knows nearly as much as his teacher. Margie doesn’t want to argue, but she also doesn’t comprehend why anyone would let a strange man come to their house and teach. Tommy shrieks with laughter, mocking Margie for how little she knows. He explains that the teachers didn’t live in the house, but rather all students went to a “special building” with all the kids from the neighborhood.
As with the book, Margie’s confusion over how a human could be a teacher demonstrates how she has grown up in a world where machines can provide virtually unlimited information. It also suggests that Margie doesn’t believe she herself could ever have enough knowledge or wisdom to teach someone else better than a computer could. The mechanized education system in the children’s world has not only robbed them of fun, but of their full potential to collaborate with others and develop intellectually.
Tommy explains that students in the old days learned the same things if they were the same age. Margie finds this confusing because her mother always tells her that “a teacher has to be adjusted to fit the mind of each boy and girl it teaches, and that each kid has to be taught differently.” Annoyed, Tommy snaps at Margie that schools didn’t work that way back then, and if she doesn’t like it, she doesn’t have to keep reading the book. Margie quickly replies that she never said that she didn’t like it—she wants to keep reading about the strange schools.
For Margie, school means individualized instruction, and she finds it difficult to imagine the possibility of going to school with other children but is nevertheless fascinated by the idea. This takes on an ironic note, since readers of the story are likely well-acquainted with physical books and traditional classroom learning. And whereas these elements of education are often viewed as mundane and commonplace in everyday life, they are completely foreign to these children.
Before Tommy and Margie are even halfway through the book, Mrs. Jones calls her daughter inside for school. Margie doesn’t want to go to school, but her mother insists that it’s time for Margie and probably for Tommy too. Margie eagerly asks Tommy if she can read more of the book with him after school. He replies, “Maybe,” and he walks away with the old book beneath his arm.
Margie and Tommy go their separate ways to go to school, further highlighting how this mechanized method of schooling isolates children from one another. While their education system encourages rote memorization and completing assignments on punch cards rather than reading and writing, Margie clearly longs for more free-form, collaborative learning.
Margie goes into her schoolroom, which is right next to her bedroom. The mechanical teacher is already waiting for her—Margie has school at the same time every day, apart from Saturday and Sunday, because Mrs. Jones believes that “little girls [learn] better if they [learn] at regular hours.” The mechanical teacher lights up and begins a lesson on fractions, asking Margie to first insert yesterday’s homework into the slot.
An interesting feature of the mechanical teacher is the ability to deliver lessons at any time of day for their particular student, again showing how schooling has become more individualized and distinct from the archaic method of classroom teaching. With every student learning a different curriculum on potentially different schedules, it is likely that they have less in common with their peers and less time to spend with them than children of the past enjoyed.
Sighing, Margie puts her homework in, but she isn’t thinking about fractions at all. She’s too busy imagining the old schools from the book, wondering what it would have been like to attend school back when her grandfather’s grandfather was a small boy. She daydreams of all the kids from the entire neighborhood going to school together, working together, and playing and laughing together during recess. She longs for the ancient schools where the teachers were real people and all students learned the same thing and helped each other with their homework.
During the repetitive and emotionless lesson, Margie finds herself pining for the kinds of schools that used to exist, where she could learn from human instructors, and, more importantly, be with her friends. Again, this passage is significant because it holds the reader’s present experiences in a positive light—rather than having a critical view of the traditional education system, it encourages reverence and gratitude toward more simplified ways of learning and preserving the past.
Meanwhile, the mechanical teacher drones on about fractions, but Margie still isn’t paying attention—she is too busy “thinking about how the kids must have loved it in the old days. She [is] thinking about the fun they had.”
The story ends on an ironic note: for Asimov’s audience, children in the 1950s, it would likely seem laughable to call their schooling “fun.” Yet, “The Fun They Had” shows the dark consequences of a futuristic world that has forgone books and traditional group learning for a more mechanized and individualized system. Margie’s longing for the “olden days” of the 20th century encourages young readers to view their own education with gratitude, since Asimov’s alternative proves to be isolating and unfulfilling.