Commentary

Build To Code?

This is National Computer Science Education Week. But you know this. You must know it because it's been front and center on Google.com. That drawing of a Univac-type computer? There was a link below the search box that takes you to a Web site embracing a social media campaign. The maypole of the campaign, which has at least 40 partners including every digital company you’ve heard of including Google, has a theme around learning an hour of code and how many lines of code you, the student, can write. It has tutorials by luminaries like Gates and Zuckerberg on the fundamentals of computer coding and language, and advocacy for a national high school computer sciences and coding curriculum. 

An impressive effort, it includes selfie videos by celebrities bubbling about they are learning to code, too; even President Obama, who says "Don't just play on your phone … program it." 

My first reaction to all of this was, "My God, I must go home immediately and cancel my daughter's Urdu classes and sign up to study Fortran right now. We can do father and daughter bonding over outdated programming." 

My second reaction is that this project is disingenuous and, prima facie, not a little specious. First of all, the contention that teaching kids to code will make Americans better able to compete in the global economy suggests, optimistically, that there’s a firehose of coding jobs out there, an endless gusher forever outstripping supply. At what point does coding become a dime-a-dozen job? Yes, there are far more computer science jobs people to fill them. Today. When will that change? I’m recalling “The Graduate”: “Plastics, my boy, plastics.”

And if telemarketers can be outsourced, at what point will coding become a job that can be done from a place where the exchange rate makes way more sense. At least one of the videos unintentionally made that very point: it featured kids in Africa and other southern hemisphere countries saying, "I am learning to code." 

The other problem, to my thinking, is that schools don't have a bottomless bag full of cash waiting to be spent on coding classes. And students don't have an endless volume of sand in their hourglasses. What gets cut? One might argue that teaching coding also teaches grammar, critical thinking, and logic. Sure, but in a completely microcosmic way. Coding is the language of computers. But math is the language of nature. English, rhetoric and history are the tools of debate, participation and citizenship. Remember that word?

One cyber area that should be mandatory in school is digital citizenship and reputation. Communications exec Jonathan Gardner wrote a column about that last week. He said, in effect -- and I agree -- that the Web's implications for personal privacy and power are too serious not to deal with early on; that your social contrail will never evaporate; that while the Web is a great tool, it’s a bit like a Ginsu knife without a handle.     

And do you think your kids are spending too much time staring at screens now? Wait until they graduate. Then their lives will become entirely pixilated. School is the last best place to learn about the world from actual people. Can’t we spare them the digital Oracle at Delphi for a couple of years, for God’s sake? They should experience real faces before those visages become avatars and ampersands.

And, yes, I know playing bassoon won't get you a job. Nor will a spot on the volleyball team, or the chess club, or the glee club, or chorus or band, or the community service club or classics, or literature. What they will teach you is to think beyond the footpath, work with people as a team, win with humility and lose with grace, how to harmonize with the greatest and the least around us and how to respect each other for our many differences. And how to be a human being and (not to be too maudlin) an American citizen, and God knows we need those more than we need more coding experts who come out of high school knowing how to write C++. Oh, and for the hell of it ask a guy who runs a software company what he or she really needs. I’m guessing it will be a good plumber.

Tags: education
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