Education: looking back, the “coding” wave

Illustrating the proverb that schooling means teaching the children to meet the challenges of the grandparents’ generation, President Obama has advertised a new initiative: teach “coding.” The President, who has many admirable qualities, is leaving a shabby heritage as an educational fool. His Department of Education proved, quite remarkably, coarser and meaner than the one butchered by his predecessor.

Teaching “coding” today has even less promise than teaching “auto mechanics” and “new math” in the 1960s or teaching “leather working” and “machine shop” in the 1940s. It is an invitation to become a victim of outsourcing. For most, it would be more helpful to teach the durable skills of plumbing and carpentry. The President invites comparison with Mao’s Great Leap Backward.

Arts of “coding” became highly valued in the 1960s and 1970s, during the second-generation of mainframe computers–with transistor logic and magnetic core memory–and the first generation of minicomputers. Over the next decade, ordinary “coding”–writing lines of programs–soon took a back seat to the higher arts of project management, software organization and reliability testing. That was an age when complex products of mere “coding” began to crash and burn on an epic scale. Now “coding”–within the industry–has become a low-level skill.

During the late 1970s, Brookline was romanced by “coding” visionaries–including disciples of the late Marvin Minsky at MIT–to buy into long-forgotten “Logo” technology. They promised to teach youngsters computational thinking by having them move around “turtles” on a display screen. The Advisory Commmittee discovered that more than a million dollars, in today’s money, would at best instruct a few dozen students. A potential for public embarrassment erased “Logo” from the budget.

Today, even the higher and practical arts of software development provide good jobs for only small numbers of industrial workers. The vast majority who work with computer technology engage with intermediates: software and Internet sites that are dedicated to specific tasks. A tiny population writes the software for Excel or other spreadsheets, but millions use spreadsheet technology to solve or manage business problems. Applied skills, rather than “coding,” remain broadly useful job qualifications.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, January 31, 2016


Valerie Strauss, All students should learn to code. Right? Not so fast, Washington Post, January 30, 2016

Toluse Olorunnipa, Bloomberg News, Obama: Every child must learn to code, Bangkok Post, January 30, 2016

Tania Branigan, China’s great famine: the true story, Manchester Guardian (UK), January 1, 2013

Robert L. Glass, Software Runaways: Monumental Software Disasters, Prentice Hall, 1997

One thought on “Education: looking back, the “coding” wave

  1. Ulrich Mok

    Comparing Obama’s suggestion to Mao is quite a leap for yourself. And to think that software development is ‘just for a tiny poplulation’, so is English literature and many other topics taught in school. Nobody expects students to become all professional writers – nevertheless it teaches them valuable skills.
    However, if the author values none of the skills in formulating a problem, devolping an algorithms to solve it and implementing it y use of a formal language – I am not sure who has it backwards. Also today’s approach to ‘coding’ is quite a bit different than it might have been in the early days of mainframe programming. Time has moved on.

    Editor’s note–
    It can all sound terrific, until you go looking for a real job.

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