Last week I shared a link on Facebook – Why Johnny Can’t Program: A New Medium Requires A New Literacy – that makes that case that everyone should learn how to program. Philip A DesAutels, my good friend and one of the smartest people I know, replied in Facebook with a long well-though out reply. With his permission I copied it below as a sort of guest post. I would love replies either to the origional article or to Philip’s reply. Who is right? Philip or Douglas Rushkoff? Should everyone learn to program and if so how much? Or should we only push a few into programming? [EDIT: The ACM and CSTA have a new report out about computer science education in the US. I blog about it here.]
I truly understand the place of CS in HS and so, I feel the need to rail against this article… Let’s start with a line that sums up the central premise – “Digital tools are not like rakes, steam engines, or even automobiles that we can drive with little understanding of how they work.” Ummm, hello Douglas, first each of these technologies – hand tools, steam engines and automobiles transformed humanity, each had a very dedicated training program for professionals and users and each was encapsulated to the point where it the technology (or its meta-equivalent – is now so well hidden that only a few experts need the professional design skills while the mass of users can apply the technology with some technical skills and deep domain skills. Let me explain.
Rakes, aka hand tools – I am trained at the nation’s premier craft school, the North Bennet Street School, in the art of using hand tools to build wood structures. I was in a class of 12 Preservation Carpenters who know how the make (not buy) moulding, who can build a timber frame and who can carve a Corinthian Column capital with an appropriate acanthus spinosus leaf detail. And if I continued in that profession, I would have been in a minority of carpenters, practicing an art form. Our chief competition and the reason most in the ‘real carpentry’ trade can’t charge someone the $80 an hour is what I would term modernization… aka the Big Box and the lumber yard. Sally homeowner can run to Ikea and buy cabinets that she can put up herself, she can go to home depot and buy wood flooring that is prefinished and a sink that requires no open flame to install. Why would she call me unless she lives in a period house and wants to preserve an art form? Technology has encapsulated my skills (learned in two hard years of apprenticeship) and made them available to the masses. Is there still a need for real carpenters, not just assemblers as I call what most ‘pros’ and homeowners are (intentionally derogatorily since I am a real carpenter…)? You bet! But we do not have nor need tens of thousands of students studying the fine art of carpentry in its Vetruvian classical form. We need students studying modern building codes and sustainable building practices for the modern age. If they can’t shoot a moulding by hand or tell you the appropriate ratios for moulding in a room, does it matter? NO… If these modern carpentry students can’t use that encapsulated technology to build modern structures that are safe, energy efficient and stylish then we and they have a problem. Even if a few very skilled in the carpentry profession are creating the encapsulated components, there won’t be anybody to apply them.
I could make the same ranting point about steam engines – not many of us firing up the coal boiler to make steam to open the garage doors today…or the automobile – when was the last time YOU even checked you oil let alone adjusted the timing or valves… The points I make here are that 1.) Technology encapsulates, 2.) Encapsulated technology requires domain skills combined with a new type of technical skill to apply encapsulated technologies to modern problems. And.. herein lies the problem with the argument presented in this article and the call for more CS programs in High School. To what end? Is this like a call for more carpenters to learn how to make mouldings by hand? More HVAC professionals to learn how engines are designed? I THINK SO.
There are students for whom programming is a desired skill. They want to be developers. Great for them. The giant hole in our workforce isn’t entry level developers who can hash out c code and write a compiler from scratch. It is for people with combined skills who can APPLY encapsulated technology (lots thanks to companies has been encapsulated) to specific domains.
So I offer up a different call. In high school, teach students how to apply technology. Teach them how technology fits with their domain of interest. Teach them how to use the components not how to build them. Those students that want to become more technical can choose to learn down the stack to real engineering (aka CS, CE, EE) or up the stack to become expert in technical domain applications (IS, CIS, Project Management, Bioinformatics).
There are FAR FAR FAR more jobs out there today for someone with the technical skills to build a SharePoint portal, or light up a CRM instance or build a bioinformatics database than there are for someone who can build the next Python compiler. Let’s stop trying to train the mass of high school students to become preservation carpenters, and instead make them very good contractors.