teaching everyone to code is a fine idea


I often find myself defending Sam Biddle’s brand of Silicon Valley nihilism to Matt, so I’m sort of surprised to see us switching sides: today Matt joins Sam in deriding President Obama’s calls to teach schoolkids to program. He’s not alone! I think Matt’s specific objection doesn’t get us very far — some students’ failure to attain basic skills doesn’t really tell us all that much about what should be included in a general curriculum, just as the continued existence of murder doesn’t tell us much about the wisdom of enforcing speed limits.

But it is worth spelling out the case for teaching people to code. It’s not because we expect them to become programmers. We don’t expect every student in English class to write a novel or every student in Trigonometry to wind up manipulating triangles for a living. We certainly don’t expect every kid in music or art class to carry those skills beyond the classroom, or even to achieve proficiency within it.

Rather, we teach those skills because they are varyingly enriching and instructive windows onto reality and culture. They help kids navigate the world. In a few cases they’ll wind up being of practical value or make for a fulfilling hobby. But mostly they’re about building competent and intelligent human beings.

Coding qualifies. I still distinctly remember programming my grandparents’ VCR for them — a cliche of childhood technical affinity, yes. But also an instructive experience! Why was the schedule set with a 24-hour clock scheme? Why were the on-screen fonts the same across different brands of VCR? What the heck was the difference between SP, LP and SLP? The answers involve the nature of modulo arithmetic, the electronic industry supply chain and electrical engineering practices, and some pretty fundamental concepts from information theory. Some of these revealed themselves quickly; others came decades later. Gaining that simple, unimportant technical skill gave me a window into how engineers’ minds work and how the constraints imposed by physical reality shape the systems they build.

Without realizing it, the simple daily use of technology imparts lessons about data normalization, computability and signal processing. Stitching these hunches together with a light classroom introduction to the procedural nature of Turing-style computation is not a bad idea. It’s also not a trivial idea — some people think this perspective has enough explanatory power to describe the entire universe.

Nor is it of merely intellectual interest (though I’ll happily admit that I do find it deeply intellectually rewarding). In the same way that the economic perspective has largely triumphed over other dialectic forms in our culture, our physical environments grow ever more engineered. And engineering grows ever more digital in nature. Understanding how those processes work at a fundamental level is an increasingly necessary precondition to deciphering our deeply unnatural world.

Do you want to be able to quickly use a new product? Or organize a spreadsheet so that it will be useful later on? Do you want to know why your partner missed that SMS, or why the football broadcast looks blocky? Do you want to know what to fear, and when you’re being lied to, and how?

Learning to code “hello world” won’t guarantee you those answers any more than it’ll guarantee you a job at Facebook. But it isn’t a bad place to start.

About the author

Tom Lee

1 comment

  • I agree that working coding into the U.S. curriculum is ultimately a good idea, but I think Yglesias’s basic point that we need to recommit to teaching critical reading, writing, and rhetoric before we take on anything else stands. I have taught freshman composition at several highly selective colleges and universities, and my students are often angry that they have gotten to college without really being taught how to write lucid and sustained prose, or how to analyze even basic aesthetic and political texts. And these are very bright, mostly well-heeled kids. What is going on down the economic ladder is painful to think about.

    If we can teach kids to really read and write, they’ll have an easier time learning to code, whenever they try to learn.

By Tom Lee