In “The Fun They Had,” Asimov constructs a futuristic world in the year 2155, in which traditional school has been replaced with a computerized homeschooling system. The story follows an 11-year-old girl named Margie who is mystified by the “very old book” about school that her friend Tommy found. With young and curious Margie as the story’s protagonist, Asimov allows questions of technological progress to be filtered through a lens of innocence. Although treated with naiveté and frankness, Asimov’s story is a warning about the power of technological progress. In detailing this futuristic, computerized, and highly individualized educational system, the story suggests that technological progress can have major drawbacks, especially in the realm of education and social development: such a system is impersonal and minimizes human connection, which can be isolating and unproductive for students.
For Margie and Tommy, going to school means sitting alone in a room in their respective houses while staring at a television screen that mechanically transmits information at a computer-set pace—a system that is meant to be individualized and efficient. However, by contrasting human teachers with computers and artificial intelligence, Asimov suggests that such high-tech learning isn’t so efficient after all. In the story, students are taught individually by machines that can be adjusted by a human mechanic to meet each child’s specific learning needs. However, while the computers are individualized, they aren’t very personal; the robotic teachers lack human emotion and the ability to connect and support the student on a personal level. Instead, they’re just “big screen[s] on which all the lessons [are] shown and the questions [are] asked.” For instance, when Margie begins “doing worse and worse” in geography, the mechanical teacher can’t sit down with her and talk candidly about what she’s specifically struggling with or what other learning techniques might be helpful for her. Instead, it just gives her “test after test,” all of which she does poorly on. It gets so bad that Margie’s mother has to call the County Inspector, who is the mechanic that manually reprograms mechanical teachers and sets their pace for each individual student. Although Asimov constructs futuristic education as being based on artificial intelligence, it is paradoxical that a human must come and fix Margie’s computerized teacher. Because the technology itself—the mechanical computer—doesn’t have the ability to personalize itself to each student in the way that the human Inspector can, it seems that technological progress doesn’t necessarily lead to the more efficient and individualized education it strives to create.
However, when talking to Tommy about the kind of old-fashioned education that’s detailed in Tommy’s “very old book,” Margie expresses disbelief that a human could ever effectively teach students, saying bluntly, “A man can’t know as much as a [mechanical] teacher.” This is an important part of the point that Asimov is making: although it is true that a human being could never store and be able to recall as much raw data as a computer, a mechanical teacher lacks the ability to interact with students in the way that someone like the County Inspector can. With this, Asimov is providing an early but now familiar critique of the computer age: in exchange for a wealth of knowledge, society has traded more familiar and nourishing forms of human engagement.
The old book about school also pinpoints the lack human connection in computerized education when it comes to relationships among students. In contrasting the way students used to engage with one another versus the way they do in the story’s futuristic setting, Asimov emphasizes how technological progress can isolate humans from social interaction and replace fun and curiosity with efficiency and detachment. In the story, Margie’s interaction with other children is limited to occasionally playing with her friend Tommy. While discussing Tommy’s old book, Margie finds it difficult to believe that there could have been a time where children were taught in groups, because this contrasts so heavily with the individualized learning, she is familiar with. Asimov is suggesting here that although computers can present more information more quickly, such an approach perhaps deprives children of the important social experience of school. At the end of the story, Margie daydreams of the fun that her grandfather’s grandfather had when he was a boy, back when “all the kids from the whole neighborhood” flocked to the schoolyard every day, “laughing and shouting”—a situation that couldn’t be more different from the lonely way in which Margie learns. In this old-fashioned education, children “learned the same things, so they could help one another on the homework and talk about it.” Even though school in the old days is not individualized, students had the ability to learn from each other, which is another—perhaps richer—layer to education that Margie’s current system lacks.
On the surface, “The Fun They Had” is a simplistic, children’s story, yet Asimov also provides a serious warning that technological progress is not always social progress. The story clearly indicates the problems with computerized educational systems, including the lack of social interaction with other children, impersonal teachers and learning environments, and the inability for artificial intelligence to actively engage students in the learning process. Although the reader might imagine computerized learning to be more fun than traditional school, Asimov’s story critiques this notion by illustrating the downsides of such an approach.
Technological Progress and Education ThemeTracker
Technological Progress and Education Quotes in The Fun They Had
They turned the pages, which were yellow and crinkly, and it was awfully funny to read words that stood still instead of moving the way they were supposed to—on a screen, you know. And then, when they turned back to the page before, it had the same words on it that it had had when they read it the first time.
“Gee,” said Tommy, “what a waste. When you’re through with the book, you just throw it away, I guess. Our television screen must have had a million books on it, and it’s good for plenty more. I wouldn’t throw it away.”
“School? What’s there to write about school? I hate school. Margie always hated school, but now she hated it more than ever. The mechanical teacher had been giving her test after test in geography and she had been doing worse and worse until her mother had shaken her head sorrowfully and sent for the County Inspector. “
The Inspector had smiled after he was finished and patted Margie’s head. He said to her mother, “It’s not the little girl’s fault, Mrs. Jones. I think the geography sector was geared a little too quick. Those things happen sometimes. I’ve slowed it up to an average ten-year level. Actually, the overall pattern of her progress is quite satisfactory.”
Tommy looked at her with very superior eye. “Because it’s not our kind of school, stupid. This is the old kind of school that they had hundreds and hundreds of years ago.” He added loftily, pronouncing the word carefully, “Centuries ago.”
“A man? How could a man be a teacher?”
“Well, he just told the boys and girls things and gave them homework and asked them questions.”
“A man isn’t smart enough.”