May 20, 2018
by Sharon Moran
In the Education Briefing of this month’s issue of Fortune magazine, Andrew Nusca explained why teaching kids to code is overrated. He cautions that programmers are just as susceptible to joblessness via automation; programmers will be replaced with A.I. software that creates code.
From Nusca’s column, “The best lesson from that coding boot camp you signed up for? It’s the same one you’d learn in a liberal arts college: How to solve problems. We surely won’t run out of those.” As a liberal arts grad, it’s affirming to see his encouragement and endorsement of liberal arts. The essence of scholarly institutions is to teach students how to think, not what to think. Rigorous liberal arts courses achieve this goal.
In recent years, there has definitely been a push for making coding skills mainstream. Code.org is a nonprofit aimed at increasing access to computer science in schools. From their website, “Our vision is that every student in every school has the opportunity to learn computer science, just like biology, chemistry or algebra.”
From celebrities such as Will.i.am to politicians and prominent tech leaders to the emergence of STEM-specific schools, the push for implementing programming as a universal part of the curriculum has gained traction in recent years. Some advocates have dubbed coding as the new literacy.
No Starch Press even has a series aimed at teaching kids coding with titles such as Python for Kids, Coding iPhone Apps for Kids, and, more generally, Teach Your Kids to Code. Admittedly, when I’m trying to learn a new language, I supplement extensive reading on Safari Books Online with the fun, engaging, kid-friendly version from No Starch Press if there’s a relevant title available.
I’ve always been motivated by the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. As an undergraduate, I had difficulty picking a single college major. I changed my major multiple times due to this large range of interests. As a result, by the time I took my first philosophy class an undergrad, it was too late to change my major yet again and still graduate on time. So, I ended up with a minor in Philosophy. The never-ending quest for knowledge resulted in me graduating with an additional 21 credits beyond the minimum required for graduation, and I still completed all that within four years.
My interest in a wide range of disciplines followed me to grad school as well. In fact, I began grad school pursuing a master’s in liberal arts, making the switch to an M.Ed. in Urban Education program after becoming actively involved volunteering at a middle school homework center in a medium-sized city. Admittedly, that shift away from liberal arts proved to be immediately beneficial. It landed me a lucrative consulting gig gaining valuable experience helping to design the curriculum of an Executive MBA program geared toward physicians and other healthcare professionals.
I don’t think programming needs to be a foundational component of middle school and high school curricula the way that biology and algebra are. It’s preferable to have an Introductory Philosophy course available to all middle and high school students before an Introduction to Computer Programming course.
We need more liberal arts majors, not fewer. Roughly only 10% of the 5,300 colleges and universities in the U.S. are liberal arts colleges. Ask any adult who didn’t go to college the definition of a liberal arts college, and you’ll encounter a lot of stammering and confused responses. Actually, you’ll also likely get subpar responses from college graduates who didn’t attend liberal arts colleges. It’d be very similar to the experience Jimmy Kimmel recently had asking pedestrians to simply name the title of any book.
The Harvard Business Review published Liberal Arts in the Data Age in which they contend that liberal arts majors are the future of the tech industry. The article’s author JM Olejarz references a book by Scott Hartley to illustrate his point. In The Fuzzy and the Techie, Hartley cautions that the STEM-only mindset encourages students to approach their jobs vocationally. Hartley also argues that a wide range of education and interests prepares students to solve large-scale human problems.
Ultimately, I think better readers are better learners. And better learners are simply better off. Avid readers have a constant desire to learn new things. Technology is changing at a rapid pace. Approaching computer jobs vocationally leads to a brief window of employability. That short-lived career will end as the languages and technologies that were part of a vocationally-focused curriculum become obsolete. Liberal arts majors are the most reading and writing intensive majors that colleges offer. Liberal arts education results in learners who are well versed across the entire humanities course spectrum, and their quest for knowledge makes them ideally suited for the rapidly transforming tech industry.