Computer Programming for Everybody!

Marvin Ammori’s article on The Atlantic, How America Can Get More Start-Up Talent, posed the hypothesis that America can become more competitive as a nation by having its children grow up with a foundation of computer coding. Besides the obvious problems with implementing such a fantastic change (where are these teachers to come from?) it was disheartening to have to read, yet again, that the arts and humanities are of no value to a population in the 21st century and beyond. His suggestion that computer coding be introduced to the curriculum at the same grade that students are learning simple mathematics, and that this new course ought replace any one of the social studies or language arts programs, was a sad reminder that some people continue to fail to recognize what these programs mean to a functioning society, and, more importantly, to a functioning democracy.

As was pointed out in the comments, a measly 5% of jobs in the States require coding skills, with growth estimated to be only around 0.3% over the next five years. Computer scientists are currently no more among the employed as those of any other discipline, and it was pointed out that, at least in some cases, they are *worse* off than the other skilled positions. One person even suggested that this proposal had an associated ulterior motive, which may indeed have been the goal of the original author – teaching could then be a backup plan for otherwise unemployed programmers, much as it seems to be for arts and humanities graduates of the present day.

For some reason, Ammori ignored the basic problem that continues to plague the American economy. Financial profit is the highest goal in a capitalist society. In a global economy, where rich employers are compelled to hire people at the lowest rate of pay for the greatest amount of work, and where they are capable of outsourcing everything that can be done offsite, there is nothing to prevent them from hiring technically skilled people in third world countries for a quarter the cost of local citizens. Adam Smith’s concept of the “invisible hand” of the economy, as was interpreted by Noam Chomsky, essentially posits that it will be the guilty conscience of a rich business owner that will ensure that he keeps company jobs local to his own place of residence. This has not been true in America for at least 30 years, and perhaps quite a long time before that. Some of the people commenting on Ammori’s article were dumbfounded by his belief that the technology sector would somehow be immune from this alteration in corporate policy. Indeed, the majority of computer science and technology careers are far from stable, and even while continuously updating their skills, older workers are still chronically neglected as potential employees. “17% of computer programmers over the age of 50 are unemployed” was a statistic cited (unsourced) by one seething commenter.

Among Bertrand Russell’s unpopular critiques of education was the following, from “The Impact of Science on Society” (emphasis mine):

It is to be expected that advances in physiology and psychology will give governments much more control over individual mentality than they now have even in totalitarian countries.

Fichte laid it down that, education should aim at destroying free will, so that, after pupils have left school, they shall be incapable, throughout the rest of their lives, of thinking or acting otherwise than as their schoolmasters would have wished. But in his day this was an unattainable ideal: what he regarded as the best system in existence produced Karl Marx. In future such failures are not likely to occur where there is dictatorship.

Diet, injections, and injunctions will combine, from a very early age, to produce the sort of characterand the sort of beliefs that the authorities consider desirable, and any serious criticism of the powers that be will become psychologically impossible.

Even if all are miserable, all will believe themselves happy, because the government will tell them that they are so.

What I would hope to see in a young person’s education is one with a well-rounded foundation, to encourage them to explore and learn and participate in society in the best way that they can. The intention is not (or ought not) be to create citizens whose sole goal is to serve government and/or corporate masters, but to assist them in developing the skills to critique these and other forces for the betterment of society as a whole.

The world of computer and information technology changes at a rapid pace. There have been many people asking for the next Facebook, and others that expect its demise well before the end of the decade. Back in my own high school in the mid-90’s, computer programming was an optional course in which I learned Turbo Pascal, rather than HTML (which was then not exactly stable) or C++, or even C itself. Never have I seen Turbo Pascal outside of my high school.

An argument made in the original article is that by teaching students how to program computers, they will learn critical thinking and logic, perhaps far more than they might in any other program. Especially, one supposes, the arts and humanities. While true in a limited sense (that is, from a programming perspective alone), it neglects the issue that only a broad education can ensure that critical thinking on complex topics is even possible. Programming often requires breaking problems down into smaller, simpler steps that can then be set into subroutines. Pure logic. But real world problems, such as economic, political or philosophical issues, cannot always be broken down into simplified questions without committing any number of logical fallacies along the way.

Most people are not destined to be programmers. Nor are they destined to be historians, mathematicians, poets, musicians or scientists, yet I support the teaching of all of these topics and more. As such, I am not opposed to the teaching of computer programming in the K-12 curriculum, but with one major caveat: programming is best taught as an optional course after an initial introduction. It would do no favours to future Americans to make everyone a C programmer, any more than it would be to have every person an accountant. Those who love it will gravitate toward programming, regardless of a forced education on the subject, while others will find their own paths through life. K-12 programming classes will be no silver bullet to finish off the vampires draining America’s wealth.

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