Latins: Computer Science in Schools

Earlier this week, 2-17-2014, to be exact, I heard a piece on NPR, “A Push to Learn Computer Science Learning, Even at an Early Age,”  The import of the article laments that Computer Science is paid scant attention in the nation’s schools. This is not a matter of just putting computers in every school, or even giving every student an iPad. A spokesperson for the Computer Science Association says that “too many parents and administrators conflate gaming and basic point-and-click literacy with computer science — the principles and practices of computing and coding.” “’I think that they just don’t understand that having access to a computer isn’t the same as learning computer science any more than having a Bunsen burner in the cupboard is the same as learning chemistry,’” she says.

This report cites, as an example, how few students nationwide take the Advanced Placement test in Computer Science. “The ‘guesstimate’ is that only 5 to 10 percent of schools teach computer science, based largely on data on students who take the in computer science annually. The real percentage may be lower. Nobody tracks the figures nationally.” A linked article, “Why Programming Teaches So Much More Than Technical Skills,” praises the benefits of teaching programming. Not least among these is Systems Thinking, for example: “Whether writing code to lead a player through a game or a robot up a pyramid, the programming process requires an understanding of how possible inputs and outcomes effect one another.”  After all, “… computer programming is a study of languages more than of technology or mechanics. And command of those languages allows programmers to control the functionality of anything that is driven by a computer.”

To me, this is richly ironic. Let me explain why. In the early 1970s, I taught English at Payette High School in Idaho. A colleague and friend one summer participated in a National Science Foundation institute, The Man-Made World, at the University of Idaho. The institute consisted of three courses: an introduction to engineering concepts; an introduction to computer logic; and basic programming (FORTRAN).  Primary purposes were to promote a new course of the same name for high school students and to prepare science teachers to teach it. Out of curiosity, I signed up the following summer, and can attest that it was a firm and fully-packed few weeks, but then, I was the only humanities-type there.

Jim Johnson, my colleague, taught Chemistry, Physics, and related subjects at PHS. Now, with a new course in his repertoire, he offered TMMW as a science elective. The programming in FORTRAN proved an engaging and popular, if frustrating part of the course.

In 1972, our little school did not have any computer of any sort. At that time, there were the big mainframes and the PDP-8 (which used Basic as its programming language), and IBM smart terminals. If we could have gotten a grant to buy one of those, we would have thought we’d died and gone to Heaven. The personal computer was still some years off. We didn’t even have a card-punch machine.

Our students wrote their programs on coding sheets. We sent them by post to the EE Department at U of I, where they were punched and run on the university’s big IBM 380 mainframe. We got our printouts and punched cards back by post. If it hadn’t run successfully, we de-bugged the program (or hoped we did), re-wrote it, and sent it back by post. We spent hours writing a simple program to do an operation that today could be entered into an EXCEL spreadsheet in minutes. It was a painfully slow process, but the best we could do. Surprisingly, the kids didn’t lose patience.     All this seems remarkably stone-age, but it was years ahead of where most schools were then.  And these NPR articles make me wonder if we weren’t years ahead of where most schools are even today. Now, for the irony…

We had a Superintendent who thought of himself as very progressive, new-wave, cutting-edge, a real paradigm shifter – you get the idea. He was a student advocate who would protect students from us dastardly teachers. This is the guy who loved to show that horrid short movie, Cipher in the Snow. After young Cliff has gasped his last, after it turned out that none of his teachers knew him well enough to write his obituary, the Superintendent would turn on the lights and mount his virtual pulpit. “See! Can’t you teachers see what you do to your students every day and in every way?  Oh, if only you teachers could find it in your hard hearts to care, even a little!” On and on. It was as if he were running for office or trying for an Oscar.

He fancied himself a forward thinker who was going to revamp the curriculum for the third quarter of the Twentieth Century, something we teachers lacked the ambition or wit to do. He would drag us kicking and screaming. First, he would tell us, we need to get the LATINS out of education. To him, a Latin was anything outmoded, useless, irrelevant. And what was his poster-child Latin, his idea of a perfectly irrelevant course?  Why computer programming, of course! Ironic, is it not?  And it is instructive, I think, concerning Reformism and Reformists, their motives and methods.

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