When I was in 7th grade, my junior high school had just set up a “computer lab” with Tandy/RadioShack 80s known as TRaSh80s by classmates who were already personal computing buffs. My own computing experience was limited to a Commodore 64 system which I remember fondly today but mostly used to play Zork back in 1982. The lab in school was set up as part of a new curriculum meant to ensure that we all learned how to program – in BASIC.
This being the early Reagan administration, there were two social trends at work. First, a deep and hurtful recession at home and international anxiety about the rising star of Japan on the world economic stage. Competition from Japanese manufactured automobiles and consumer electronics were damaging American industry, and an increasingly anxious public worried about our national future. In a year’s time, “A Nation at Risk” would be unleashed on the public arena and a 30 year narrative of how our schools have failed us as a nation would take off. Learning computer programming was adopted by our suburban school district as response to that.
As I sat in front of a TRS-80, unhappily learning how to write lines of code that code could make my name scroll diagonally across the screen (I would have much rather have been in study hall re-reading “The Hobbit”), I commented to our teacher how useless this seemed. I was then given a short lecture on how in the future EVERYONE who HAVE to know how to program computers. If I wanted any chance at a productive life I would have to learn as well. In fact, it was my patriotic DUTY to learn how to make my name scroll diagonally across the computer screen. For a final rhetorical flare, I was asked if I really wanted Japan to take over everything?
I gave my teacher a good hard look. Then I looked around the lab, and I could see that a few of my classmates were intensely interested in what they were doing and appeared to be, absent his guidance, experimenting with their programs to see what they could make them do. I looked at him again.
“That’s not true,” I said. “In the future, there will be people who program computers and people who use computers, and they don’t all have to be the same person.”
We didn’t get along. Luckily, it was only a half year class. Ironically, the argument for more people learning to program is finally making a bit more sense with the advent of mobile computing platforms that allow people to design their own apps. Assuming that they want to. I’d still rather reread “The Hobbit”.
But the moral sticks with me today: be on the lookout for people telling you what “everyone” will need to do in the “future”. The odds are very good that they are trying to sell you something today.