Rushkoff: Why Johnny Can’t Program

ComputerkidsDoug Rushkoff bemoans the lack of programming in education, at Huffington Post:

Ask any kid what Facebook is for and he’ll tell you it’s there to help him make friends. What else could he think? It’s how he *does* make friends. He has no idea the real purpose of the software, and the people coding it, is to monetize his relationships. He isn’t even aware of those people, the program, or their purpose.

The kids I celebrated in my early books as “digital natives” capable of seeing through all efforts of big media and marketing have actually proven *less* capable of discerning the integrity of the sources they read and the intentions of the programs they use. If they don’t know what the programs they are using are even for, they don’t stand a chance to use them effectively. They are less likely to become power users than the used.

Amazingly, America – the birthplace of the Internet – is the only developed nation that does not teach programming in its public schools. Sure, some of our schools have elected to offer “computer” classes, but instead of teaching programming, these classes almost invariably teach programs: how to use Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop, or any of the other commercial software packages used in the average workplace. We teach our kids how to get jobs in today’s marketplace rather than how to innovate for tomorrow’s.

Just last year, while researching a book on America’s digital illiteracy, I met with the Air Force General then in charge of America’s cybercommand. He said he had plenty of new recruits ready and able to operate drones or other virtual fighting machines – but no one capable of programming them, or even interested in learning how. He wasn’t even getting recruits who were ready to begin basic programming classes. Meanwhile, he explained to me, colleges in Russia, China, and even Iran were churning out an order of magnitude more programmers than universities in the US. It is only a matter of time, he said – a generation at most – until our military loses its digital superiority…

[continues at Huffington Post]

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  • Butter Knife

    The author was wrong twice: the first for misunderstanding how people relate to technology, the the second for misunderstanding what greater competence actually looks like.

    Of course kids weren’t going to magically grow up to understand the deep inner workings of software, or even necessarily care about them. How many people know how TVs work, or cars, or microwaves, or electricity? All of these things have been ubiquitous in American life for longer than decades, and all of them are more fundamental to our lifestyles as well. People have universally learned how to use them, but relatively few actually have a good idea of how they work, and even fewer are actually able to build or service them in any meaningful way (most people can’t change their oil, and many people from New Jersey are legitimately baffled by the mechanics of pumping their own gas… how many do you think really know the purpose and operation of a transmission, or have any clue what the fuck an alternator is other than expensive?). Expecting that computers and software would or should be any different is, to put it mildly, a bit naive.

    That said, the younger generations have the same familiarity with computers that most Americans have with indoor plumbing: they understand the conventions and basic usage, and take it for granted that it is simply how things are done. Anyone who has ever had the experience of teaching computer use to an older purpose probably knows that many (not all, mind you) simply don’t have a firm grasp on things are supposed to happen. They require tutorials on how to use each new piece of software, or even each new website. They click on random things and get confused when “random” things happen, or develop bizarre and unnecessary rituals to perform simple tasks, or simply declare that they’re “old fashioned” and therefore can’t do some specific thing or use some specific service without ever trying or even looking at it. The younger generations, even the individuals who are not very tech-savvy at all, simply don’t have those issues. Having had the experience of spending some time in an area where many of the technologies above were similarly new, I’m aware that this simply part of the adoption process.

    The prediction that kids would grow up knowing the details of computing is just as false as the assertion that, because they do not, they are not intimately familiar and acclimated to it as a technology.

  • Butter Knife

    The author was wrong twice: the first for misunderstanding how people relate to technology, the the second for misunderstanding what greater competence actually looks like.

    Of course kids weren’t going to magically grow up to understand the deep inner workings of software, or even necessarily care about them. How many people know how TVs work, or cars, or microwaves, or electricity? All of these things have been ubiquitous in American life for longer than decades, and all of them are more fundamental to our lifestyles as well. People have universally learned how to use them, but relatively few actually have a good idea of how they work, and even fewer are actually able to build or service them in any meaningful way (most people can’t change their oil, and many people from New Jersey are legitimately baffled by the mechanics of pumping their own gas… how many do you think really know the purpose and operation of a transmission, or have any clue what the fuck an alternator is other than expensive?). Expecting that computers and software would or should be any different is, to put it mildly, a bit naive.

    That said, the younger generations have the same familiarity with computers that most Americans have with indoor plumbing: they understand the conventions and basic usage, and take it for granted that it is simply how things are done. Anyone who has ever had the experience of teaching computer use to an older purpose probably knows that many (not all, mind you) simply don’t have a firm grasp on things are supposed to happen. They require tutorials on how to use each new piece of software, or even each new website. They click on random things and get confused when “random” things happen, or develop bizarre and unnecessary rituals to perform simple tasks, or simply declare that they’re “old fashioned” and therefore can’t do some specific thing or use some specific service without ever trying or even looking at it. The younger generations, even the individuals who are not very tech-savvy at all, simply don’t have those issues. Having had the experience of spending some time in an area where many of the technologies above were similarly new, I’m aware that this simply part of the adoption process.

    The prediction that kids would grow up knowing the details of computing is just as false as the assertion that, because they do not, they are not intimately familiar and acclimated to it as a technology.

  • Liam_McGonagle

    I have a respect for Rushkoff bordering on awe.

    But I have to admit that I think there are other, more glaring and pressing educational deficits in the U.S. Basic old-fashioned pen-and-paper literacy, for starters.

    Though your typical Disinfonaut is head-and-shoulders more critical and aware a reader than the general public, there are still more than a few examples of buffoonish failure-to-read-the-basic-text to be seen here.

    I must end on a positive note, however. Disinfo rules!

  • Liam_McGonagle

    I have a respect for Rushkoff bordering on awe.

    But I have to admit that I think there are other, more glaring and pressing educational deficits in the U.S. Basic old-fashioned pen-and-paper literacy, for starters.

    Though your typical Disinfonaut is head-and-shoulders more critical and aware a reader than the general public, there are still more than a few examples of buffoonish failure-to-read-the-basic-text to be seen here.

    I must end on a positive note, however. Disinfo rules!

  • emperorreagan

    The US gave up the ghost on scientific & engineering prowess a while ago. We will, however, probably lead the world in worthless MBAs for the foreseeable future.

    • Haystack

      We’re too busy producing the world’s foremost homeopaths and creation scientists.

  • emperorreagan

    The US gave up the ghost on scientific & engineering prowess a while ago. We will, however, probably lead the world in worthless MBAs for the foreseeable future.

  • Haystack

    We’re too busy producing the world’s foremost homeopaths and creation scientists.

  • Haystack

    I grew up programming in Basic, and took a year of Pascal in HS. I guess it’s good to expose kids to that stuff so they can see if they like it, but otherwise there’s really no value in learning an old-school programming language unless you want to become an engineer.

    On the other hand, HTML, Java, and php would be great for HS courses because there’s real practical value to that stuff. I would also add, it would be nice if schools also taught *design* rather than just studio art, so we can get away from all the rotating skulls and embedded MIDI. *g*

    • Ironaddict06

      I agree. You should be able to atleast have the option of taking a programming class as an elective in H.S.

  • Haystack

    I grew up programming in Basic, and took a year of Pascal in HS. I guess it’s good to expose kids to that stuff so they can see if they like it, but otherwise there’s really no value in learning an old-school programming language unless you want to become an engineer.

    On the other hand, HTML, Java, and php would be great for HS courses because there’s real practical value to that stuff. I would also add, it would be nice if schools also taught *design* rather than just studio art, so we can get away from all the rotating skulls and embedded MIDI. *g*

  • Ironaddict06

    I agree. You should be able to atleast have the option of taking a programming class as an elective in H.S.