By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Fun They Had’ is a short story by the Russian-born American writer Isaac Asimov (1920-92). Like Asimov’s novel The Naked Sun (which we have analysed here), this story is one that has taken on new significance in the wake of 2020 and the shift to remote learning and working, and the themes of this 1951 story are as relevant to our own time as they were over seventy years ago when Asimov wrote it.
In the story, which is set in the year 2157, two children find an old paper book and reflect on how quaint it is, when compared with television screens on which they read in their own time. ‘The Fun They Had’ is included in The Complete Stories: Volume 1, which we highly recommend to anyone who is a fan of classic science fiction.
The story begins with an eleven-year-old girl named Margie writing in her diary about how her friend, a thirteen-year-old boy named Tommy, found a ‘real’ book: that is, one made out of paper. She recalls her grandfather talking about how his grandfather used to talk about books being printed on paper. They reflect on how strange it is that the words remain the same on the page.
Tommy concludes that the book is a ‘waste’ because, once you’ve read the words on the page, you presumably just throw the book away – whereas on their television screen they can read a million different books. Tommy tells Margie that he found the book in the attic of his house. The book is about the topic of school.
Margie doesn’t think much to this, as she hates school. She has a mechanical teacher which has been giving her test after test in geography.
Things had got so bad that her mother had sent for the County Inspector, who took the machine apart and fixed it, explaining that the machine had been pitching its test questions at too high a level for Margie. Margie was disappointed with this outcome because she’d hoped they’d take away the teacher from her home altogether.
She and Tommy discuss the book he found and it is revealed that it’s about the way school used to be, hundreds of years ago, when teachers were men rather than machines. Margie scoffs at the idea of a man being a teacher, because men aren’t clever enough.
She is also surprised to learn that teachers used to teach children all together in one school, since in her own time, children are taught individually in their own homes. Intrigued, she wants to read the book and learn more about the ‘funny’ old schools of the past.
However, at that point, Margie’s mother summons her to ‘school’, which involves stepping into the room next door to her bedroom where the mechanical teacher is switched on and ready to teach her.
She arranges to meet up with Tommy again afterwards so they can read more of the book, and throughout her maths lesson, Margie finds herself thinking about how much fun children of the old days must have had at school.
Although not as famous as his story ‘Nightfall’, ‘The Fun They Had’ remains one of Asimov’s most popular and widely anthologised stories (and as with ‘Nightfall’, Asimov was rather baffled that the story turned out to be so popular).
Stories about school, especially very short stories that are just a few pages long, lend themselves to study at school, and Asimov’s tale is light enough and brief enough to fit the bill, while also carrying some intriguing commentary on education and technology, among other things.
The technological advancements which Asimov depicts in ‘The Fun They Had’ seem less outlandish to us in the 2020s than they would have done to Asimov’s original readers of the 1950s.
Nowadays, we are used to the idea of reading on a screen (though it’s more likely to be an e-reader or a laptop than a television: even the most prophetic SF writers of the twentieth century, such as J. G. Ballard, tend to view the television as the future medium which will come to dominate future entertainment habits).
What’s more, since the events of 2020 the idea of remote learning has become commonplace in many countries. And even before technology allowed for this possibility, children’s learning could be geared to their particular level of ability by putting them in particular ‘sets’ depending on their reading age and so on.
The notion of personalised teaching which allows the lessons and tests to be tailored to an individual child’s attainment level represents, in many ways, an improvement over the one-size-fits-all approach of traditional schooling, and so the developments in education which Asimov delineates in the few pages of the story strike us as credible and reasonable.
But ‘The Fun They Had’ might also lead us to ask what has been lost. Margie and Tommy are clearly more enthused by their social interactions over the old book Tommy has discovered than they are by their lessons.
Indeed, when Margie returns to ‘school’ at the end of the story, she is unable to concentrate on the lesson in fractions which the mechanical teacher is delivering because she is imagining what life must have been like in one of the old schools. It appears like ‘fun’ to her when contrasted with her solitary time spent in front of the automated teacher. She can’t wait to meet up with Tommy again so they can talk more about the past.
Of course, younger readers in particular who read ‘The Fun They Had’ in 1950s America would have smirked at the ending of the story. To them, their time spent in school would have been anything but ‘fun’ (especially if we reflect that many readers of science fiction magazines in the early days of the genre tended to be the less socially outgoing or popular kids at school, and perhaps more likely to be the victims of bullying as a result).
To many of Asimov’s original readers, the future world inhabited by Margie and Tommy would probably have seemed like a vast improvement.
And perhaps this is one reason why ‘The Fun They Had’ is the perfect science-fiction story about school to teach in school: children will find in the story two contrasted visions of schooldays, and can decide which of the two versions – the old or the (imagined) new – they prefer.
This discussion has undoubtedly become more animated since so many schoolchildren had a taste of the future version of schooling Asimov describes in the story, thanks to the response to the recent pandemic.