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Everyone should learn the basics of coding

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I was 12 years old when I wrote my first computer program. It was a simple little thing that computed whether a given year was a leap year. I wasn’t particularly interested in calendar computations, and it took me longer to write that program than it would have to just compute it by hand. 

My formative moment came when I realized that this computer language wasn’t just good for computing leap years, but it could compute anything that could be computed. Instead of spending hours solving routine math exercises, I could just write a single program to solve it all for me. I didn’t have to take what my physics teacher taught us about how objects move and what happens when they collide as a given, because I could create my own world and see for myself what happens. I could make up my own experiments and find my own answers. Nothing was beyond my grasp. 

I’ve always felt lucky to have found something I was so passionate about – and that was also quite lucrative – at such a young age. More importantly, it felt empowering. I grew up surrounded by technology that I knew was programmed by people. 

I had agency in affecting this world through writing code, and a voice through publishing the small video games I made online and watching hundreds of thousands of people play them. Seeing how profound of an impact learning to code had on my life made it very difficult to ignore the fact that most of my peers have never had this opportunity. It felt like a moral duty to spread this gospel. I went on a personal crusade to teach anyone who was willing to listen how to code. These were the same tools that NASA engineers used to put a man on the moon. The same tools that scientists used to comb through gene databases and unravel the building blocks of life. The same tools that made your favorite video games. It was the future, and I didn’t want anyone left behind. 

When the movement to teach coding to everyone began in the U.S. I was fully on board. The mantra was that “coding is the new literacy.” Just like being able to read and write human language, the promise was that being able to read and write code would open up doors to more opportunities, lucrative careers and a deeper understanding of the modern world. I fully believed in this, so I spent the last 4 years volunteering to teach kids how to code and running the annual “Hour of Code” to introduce students in all majors to coding. 

My disillusionment with this mission happened when talking to an alum at Ole Night Out. The topic of computer science education came up, and I was about to proudly proclaim that I had cofounded the Northfield chapter of CoderDojo, an organization that offers free code mentorship and guided lessons to the community, when he said that he found this craze about teaching everyone to code baffling. “We’ve come a long way since the days of typing code on a terminal just to get your work done,” he said, “the whole point of creating software is to allow people to do the things they need without having to know how to code. Why are we going backwards now?” I couldn’t answer that question, and that was a crisis to my world view.

It seemed ironic that I was pushing everyone to code in my free time, when my career was all about creating tools so that people don’t need to code. I realized that most of these kids I was mentoring, if they chose to pursue a career in writing code, would likely end up creating or maintaining websites since that’s what a vast majority of the software jobs end up being. Even the task of creating websites is starting to involve less and less code as the tools get better. 

Trying to teach code in schools nationwide might end up having the same effect forcing math on everyone currently does: it would just turn an otherwise fun and creative pursuit into an irrelevant set of skills that most people will never end up using in their adult lives. 

It’s important to remember that code is often a means to an end. We don’t need more code in the world, for code’s sake. We need people who know how to use computational tools to solve their problems. So instead of providing a computer science class for everyone, perhaps we can add a computational component to the standard biology, math or art class. Perhaps we can train a generation who see computers not as a threat to their jobs, but as tools that allow them to do far more than is otherwise possible. 

Omar Shehata ’18 (shehat1@stolaf.edu) is from Alexandria, Egypt. He majors in computer science.