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Coding Is the New Latin ?

BBC Technology , and with it the interwebs, has been buzzing with the realisation that Computer Science Education in English Schools is woeful, and that while in Scotland we have got as far as recognizing some of the deficiencies (see Ewan Macintosh and The Curriculum for Excellence) things are still far from rosy even north of the border. I profess to ignorance of the situation in Wales and NI.

The NESTA Next Gen report recognizes that Computer Science is intellectually fundamental, but spoils its point by focusing on arguing for very vocational “industry relevant” “specialist training”. In other words, it argues as a special interest group asking for public support to make its life easier.

What Computer Science (NOT just coding) is, is closer to physics or biology. It picks apart the fundamentals of how computing systems work, and builds a coherent theory of how they work, and what you can and can’t do with them. Once you know that, thehn you undertand what you can do by coding. For analogy, physics picks apart the physical universe and builds a coherent theory of how it works and what is or isn’t possible (well, it’s trying anyway). It also happens that Computer Science benefits tremendously from the underpinnings of diverse branches of mathematics to build its theories. And these theories aren’t just intellectual frippery. They allow us to build robust, large scale computing systems, and to demonstrate with confidence that they do what we say they do. That’s Software Engineering. A shout out here to Britain’s presiding genius of the 20th Century, Alan Turing, who basically figured all this out about computers as a thought experiment, and then set about inventing and building them.

Lest the NESTA authors get cross with me, I completely agree that the fields of computer science and art and design are complementary, and that building great products in the modern age requires enormous crossover between these areas. But the fact that art and design can be appreciated and understood by an educated lay person making an effort, makes it easier to promote and support than a field which demands that you go away and study some ostensibly pointless maths for a long time before coming back and understanding how it all connects together.

So to the extent that the Latin analogy has merit, it is that the rigorous study of the abstruse has ultimately unexpected and wide ranging benefits in the everyday. I’m not convinced that Latin is particularly special that way, but that’s the folkloric belief about it in the kind of places that study Latin.

Mathematics and Physics and Engineering. Oh my! Now we get it. These are subjects which in the UK are not fashionable. They are not the bread and circuses of X-Factor talent, nor the true routes to power and influence of The Law and PPE. So it’s perhaps not surprising that young people being asked to stump up large sums of money to purchase a higher education aren’t buying the rhetoric about how nice it would be for them to study very very hard to become trained workers with industry relevant expertise, when the rewards to them don’t quite seem commensurate with the effort required.

So if this country wants to take on Silicon Valley, and become part of a thriving knowledge economy, it’s going to need to rebalance itself in ways which recognise how important it is to support and sustain the people who find the subject sufficiently interesting to want to study it. That way at the margin it will produce sufficiently greater numbers of future generations of Computer Scientists and good Computer Science teachers (at all levels of the education system) which will make such a knowledge economy self-sustaining and self-replicating. And at present we are an awful long way from that societal shift.