Tuesday, 17 January 2012


The Fun They Had

Here’s another depiction of children’s education in SF.  Once again, schools have ceased to exist:


This is a short-short by Isaac Asimov, written in 1951.  Margie’s mechanical teacher, an educational computer which covers the entire school curriculum, has broken down and she has found a paper book.  She and her friend Tommy are surprised that the text on the pages of the book doesn’t move.

Unlike the previous example, this version of a world which has superceded schooling has replaced it with school at home, which is unpopular with the children and Margie wishes she was still able to go to a physical building where teaching takes place.  Nevertheless, various comments are made which suggest the inefficiencies of schooling as practiced in the 1950s, and possibly until the present day.

“How could a man be as smart as a teacher?”  It’s implied that individual human beings can’t possibly have enough knowledge to teach subjects properly, which is similar to the internet today.  The knowledge of a mechanical teacher is seen, at least by the children, to be superhuman.  This suggests certain things about the nature of education and knowledge, such as the idea that a child’s mind is an empty vessel waiting to be filled with objective knowledge, and that this is the activity of children’s education.

It’s also considered remarkable that all children at the same age are taught the same thing.  Margie says, “But my mother says 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."

Education for children is still referred to as “school” and children are generally isolated from each other while education takes place.

This particular picture of future education is more like the stereotype of education otherwise than at school involving social isolation, which however in this case takes place because children are seen as having individual needs which cannot be served simultaneously.  However, children do socialise outside school hours.  Education also seems to take place at home rather than more flexibly, for example in the neighbourhood, the wider community or other “educational” venues such as schools or museums.  Nonetheless, it is still assumed that information technology would make schools obsolete as institutions.  There is also an element of irony because children in 1951 were clearly about as reluctant to attend school as they are today.  The lives of children, however, seem to have gone downhill as a result of the change, since they are able to socialise less.

Again, the assumption is that computer-aided learning replaces the kind of learning which is part of the explicit curriculum, and that other functions of school are subsidiary.  One of these functions, socialising with other children, is fulfilled in different ways and not so well by the system which replaced schools.  This has become a stereotype of “homeschooling”.

Hthe childcare function of school is fulfilled is not explicitly resolved in this story.  Two answers to this are suggested by the time of publication and other Asimov stories, and i would also suggest a third, which may answer the question in this and other stories.

The first answer is the ascribed gender roles of the ‘50s, where it can be presumed that women stay at home and men go to work outside the home.  This is not universal in Asimov’s stories by any means, though it does sometimes happen, for example in ‘Satisfaction Guaranteed’.  In the Robot stories, however, Susan Calvin is clearly a career woman with no interest in children, though it is hinted that she has a nurturing instinct which moves her to care for robots instead.  The robots are a second answer:  Asimov’s robots are safe and care for children elsewhere, such as in ‘Robbie’.  Therefore, we can probably conclude that the childcare function of schools has been superceded as well as their educational function, though in a different way.

The third reason childcare may not be an issue here or in other SF stories where schools have been technologically superceded is the nature of work in such a world.  Either there is such a high level of automation that society is now based on leisure, in this situation perhaps similar to that of the Ancient Greek or Roman slave-owning class, or because working from home is now more feasible.

So again, i would ask the question:  why the discrepancy between futuristic SF depictions of children’s education and those of the real present day?  What functions are schools now performing given that the extent of advance in the educational use of IT is, as before, probably underestimated in these stories? Though an argument could be made for socialisation in this particular story, it doesn’t seem to be childcare in this case, given the wider context.

And again, why is school education still a majority activity?