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Monday, September 19, 2016

Is "learning to code" the new way to promote factory job-based education?

Recently, I happened to spend some time with the back office software development groups of two major financial institutions.This would have been unremarkable except that the same week, Tim Cook, of Apple, was busy announcing that schools would be improved by Apple’s  “everyone can learn to code” program. Now, at first I found Apple’s intention to teach every kid to code unremarkable. Apple can say it is doing something for education when it is really making sure it will be able to sell more MacBooks to all these coders. Nothing new here.

I was amused when President Obama said that everyone should learn to code, since while I am guessing that Cook can code, I am pretty sure Obama cannot, so why does he care? And, what does he actually know about coding?

Now, I confess to thinking 30 or 40 years ago, that learning to code helped one learn to think. The students in my AI classes who couldn’t code typically just didn’t get what we were talking about — kind of like the writers who write about AI today.  

I used to say that thinking algorithmically was pretty important for thinking in general. In my undergraduate classes I often had a graduate student play “robot” and told the students in class to give the robot orders. What happened was always pretty funny because the students (who could not code) never really understood that the “robot” couldn’t interpret what they meant. They would tell him or her what to do and they were orders that couldn't be executed because the “robot” took everything quite literally and would just “get stuck” with orders that were imprecise. What anyone who programs learns is that you can’t just say something nonspecific and then hope that a miracle will occur. You have to spell out every step and you have to think about the best way to say those steps. So, coding just enables clear thinking and precise communication.

Having said that however I am usually cynical about “everyone should learn to do this" statements and have been getting more and more cynical about this.

Then, last week, I got it.

In my most recent column I quoted this:

Edward Cubberly, Dean of the Stanford University School of Education around 1900):

"Our schools are, in a sense, factories, in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life. The specifications for manufacturing come from the demands of twentieth-century civilization, and it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifications laid down."

So, the quote was on my mind when I was visiting the software development groups of these companies. “Everyone should learn to code” is the new way of saying we need to create compliant factory workers and that the real purpose of school is to make sure that we are training people for the “factory jobs” of the future. 

While this is not a terrible idea, one has to see what the programmers at these institutions are actually doing. They are monitoring, responding to bug reports, and trying to update legacy code that supports the internal workings of their institutions. In other words, it is rather dull work. 

Now dull work is better than no work, but we have glamorized coding so that we imagine everyone who learns to code will be building the next great app. And some, no doubt, some will. I am sure that some of the people we trained to be factory workers actually learned to run the factory and some people invented new methods and tools and new factories as well.

My immigrant grandmother worked in a sweat shop on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I assure you this wasn’t the best time of her life. She was very bright, but as an immigrant a sweat shop seamstress was her only option. Eventually she opened and ran her own hotel, and as she used to say, it was all so that I could become a Professor. 

Many of the people programming in these institutions are from other counties where a job in the US programming seems pretty glamorous.

But, I just think it needs to be pointed out that the more things change, the more they stay the same. It is still the plan of CEOs and politicians to make sure that people will be able to do dull jobs. Maybe they aren’t wrong about that. Every job can’t be interesting, and every economy needs to be able to provide jobs for its people. 

But I am tired of this kind of stuff being promoted as a sign of how wonderful the people who are helping change education are. Tim Cook and President Obama are no different than Edward Cubberly. They are all trying to ensure that  “it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifications laid down.”

And school will continue to be an awful experience designed by people who really do not care if children are miserable and poorly served. Not everyone will become a programmer after all.