And the teachers were people. Reflection on Asimov’s “The Fun They Had”

My sixth grade language arts teacher told us we were welcome to take as many copies of the classroom set of magazines as we wanted. It was the end of the school year, and of course, that meant it was time to clear the shelves and close the room for summer cleaning.

We’d only managed to read a few READ magazines in class. The rest, with their mini plays, writing prompts, and stories, were shrink-wrapped gifts, waiting to be opened. I don’t remember how many students took her up on the offer, but I was there, poised like a yard-sale bargain-hunter, examining the literary buffet spread across the table in the back of our classroom, waiting for the moment I could get my hands on them. I took one of each, clutching a fist full of those pulpy paper magazines and slipping them into my deep, purple back pack on the last day of school.

The unclaimed copies probably wound their way to the landfill. 1992 was still too early for a dedicated paper recycling program in my elementary school, though we’d been intoning “reduce-reuse-recycle” for two years.

READ magazine covers, as I remember them.

I don’t recall a single story or poem from any so-called literature book I read in grade school, but I do remember the stories, poems, and ideas from READ, even long after the tissue-thin pages of the issues I brought home had fallen apart. The stories were provocative in ways our regular classroom reading wasn’t. These stories were suspenseful, witty, and sometimes dark, but always challenged my view of the world and myself. They were stories that kept unfolding and presenting me with new ideas that seemed to lie between the lines and beyond the pages.

In Stephen King’s “Battleground” a man fought to the death against a murderous army of sentient G.I. Joe-style toys. Donald E. Westlake’s story “The Winner” forced me to contemplate power and powerlessness, torture, human dignity, and the cost of doing the right thing in the face of oppression or authoritarian rule. A dramatization of the events at Pearl Harbor led me to ask questions about war and suffering in situations that had seemed so cut and dried in social studies class. Hardly fluff fiction.

My one of my favorite stories, and the one that sent me straight to the public library to mine the shelves for more, has been on my mind more and more as I approach the end of my first decade as a teacher. The story, by Isaac Asimov, is called “The Fun They Had.”

“The Fun They Had”: Imagining the Future of Education

Asimov’s story was first published in 1951 when computers were the size of rooms and a computer bug could quite literally be an unfortunate moth or spider that crawled across the circuitry and shorted something out among vacuum tubes, lit bulbs and relays. Yet in less than 1,100 words, Asimov predicted personal computers, ebook readers, the death of print (though not the end of hand writing), one-to-one computer-based education, differentiated instruction and Khan Academy.

The story (set in the distant year 2157) focuses on Margie and her friend Tommy, who finds a yellowed and crumbling bound book. Margie is fascinated at the sight of a printed book where the words stand still and don’t vanish when a page is turned. when she learns the book is about school, she wrinkles her nose in disdain and wonders why anyone would want to write about something as boring as school. For Margie, school is torturous. She goes to the school room in her home five days per week and a faceless machine delivers instruction. Margie listens, completes assignments, and inserts them into the teacher-machine for instant grading. The reader learns, however, that Margie’s teacher is broken and requires a checkup from the local inspector who adjusts the teacher to Margie’s level of readiness.

Tommy explains to Margie that long ago, schools were places where children gathered to learn from one another and teachers were men. Margie exclaims:

“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.”

“Sure he is. My father knows as much as my teacher.”

“He can’t. A man can’t know as much as a teacher.”

“He knows almost as much, I betcha.”

In Margie’s world, people don’t teach, machines do. Students work in isolation, though their progress is monitored closely through frequent computerized assessments. Margie longs for the old days and imagines how much fun it must have been.

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 teachers were people…

The Transformation Generation

In my lifetime, I have witnessed the shift in classrooms, culture, and information. In elementary school, I still visited the public library and made ten-cent photocopies of pages from the encyclopedia to use in school reports. I was taught to use our school library’s physical card catalog and to use a book’s index to find topic-specific information. I hauled piles of books onto broad tables, bookmarking and making index card outlines. By the time I was a sophomore in high school I was accessing the Internet but didn’t really use it for research. By 1998, I used my savings from birthday money and babysitting to purchase my first internet-ready personal computer to ensure I would be ready for college.

As the gap closes between Asimov’s world in 1951 and his imagined future in “The Fun They Had” I find myself a little breathless to be part of the Transformation Generation who have lived through the changes as students. My students have never known a world without the “net.” They don’t remember all the innovative leaps from floppy disks and 3.5 inch disks to zip drives and thumb drives to the cloud. For them, photographs have always been digital and subject to manipulation. Their PDFs are editable; I still used a typewriter and correction fluid to complete my college applications. I got my first cell phone after college–and it was an insurance policy, not a ubiquitous mini-computer.

I think about this narrowing gap and the adults who have lived the adventure, now in our 30’s. We have a unique perspective on this slice of history as the landscape has shifted beneath and around us. I feel personally compelled to defend my profession against attempts to turn teaching into fact-cramming, where people are robots and education is nothing more than a series of inputs and outputs.  Asimov’s caution is still relevant if our culture is willing to heed it. In his story, children like Margie create nothing, design nothing, question nothing. They merely receive instruction and give back what is expected to the computer “teacher.”

There is more to teaching and learning than knowing facts and passing exams. I refuse to let go of the art of teaching and submit to the data wall; I don’t want the children of 2157 to look back on 2011 and wonder how we could let education reform go so terribly wrong.

Click here for the full text of “The Fun They Had”.

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