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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

Title

The Course Everyone Needs (Not Coding)

According to powerful people, kids must learn to code. I'm wishing for different lessons.

October 8, 2017
 
 

 

 

 

Ivanka Trump, advisor to the president, believes we need to get kindergartners coding.

Writing in the New York Post she says:

“Our nation’s schools and workforce-training programs need to align the skills they teach with the jobs that define the modern economy. A cornerstone of our administration’s approach is the integration of coding and computer science into the fabric of not just what we teach, but how we teach.

It’s not simply about learning to use computers, but about the problem-solving skills that come with it.”

Ms. Trump will be making the integration of “computer science” into education in order to “close the growing gap between the skills our children and workers need to succeed and the education they are getting” a focus of her White House duties.

As an artifact of tech boosterism, the brief op-ed is unremarkable, filled with boilerplate phrases, advancing a well-trod argument without adding a single original idea or insight, as is common in politics.

Here’s another plea from a group established by the president called the National Commission on Excellence in Education:

These deficiencies come at a time when the demand for highly skilled workers in new fields is accelerating rapidly. For example:

  • Computers and computer-controlled equipment are penetrating every aspect of our lives--homes, factories, and offices.
  • One estimate indicates that by the turn of the century millions of jobs will involve laser technology and robotics.
  • Technology is radically transforming a host of other occupations. They include health care, medical science, energy production, food processing, construction, and the building, repair, and maintenance of sophisticated scientific, educational, military, and industrial equipment.

I forgot to mention the National Commission on Excellent in Education was established by President Ronald Reagan, and the quoted text is from their 1983 report “A Nation at Risk.” 

At the time, Facebook Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg was minus one year old.

Somehow, despite the country facing a “rising tide of mediocrity” in 1983, over the last almost thirty-five years, the U.S. has managed to spawn and nurture a technology industry that has become so important, we apparently need to be teaching Kindergarteners to code.

Mark Zuckerberg is worth over $70 billion. No mediocrity him.

Though, I do believe that the frequency with which this narrative of desperately terrible schools that need retooling to meet the needs of industry recurs does suggest we could use some improvement in our collective critical thinking abilities.

Or perhaps our memories.

I’d like to offer a different subject that I believe needs to be introduced with all possible urgency in our school systems and even beyond:

Ethics.

An understanding of ethical behavior strikes me as something in short supply, with Silicon Valley perhaps being most parched when it comes to drinking from this particular font.

A culture where six in ten women report having been subject to unwanted sexual advances and predatory behavior is excused with “boys will be boys” defenses that read like outtakes from Mad Men seems like it could stand a little booster shot of ethical instruction. 

We could add Hollywood to the list, as the recent outing of Harvey Weinstein as a serial sexual harasser indicates. Maybe Weinstein’s problems are more a problem of morals than ethics, but in that case, journalism could also use a refresher course on ethics given the role some members of the press appear to have played in covering up Weinstein’s behavior.[1]

Facebook finds itself either unable or unwilling to cope with the increasingly apparent fact that its platform was/is being used as a vehicle for propaganda through the use of fake accounts, by a hostile foreign country seeking to destabilize the country. Warned of the problem by no less than President Barack Obama, Zuckerberg reportedly shrugged it off. 

Facebook is just a platform, don’t you know. Not Zuckerberg’s problem. Zeynep Tufekci, associate professor at N.C. State and an expert in information security declares Zuckerberg’s responses to the potential dangers of the misuses of his platform that have both made him unfathomably rich and given him an apparent hankering for a run at public office, “preposterous.” 

As published at Wired, Siva Vaidhyanathan of the University of Virginia “describes Zuckerberg as a bright man who would have done well to finish his education.”

Quoting Viadhyanathan directly, “[Zuckerberg] lacks the historical sense of the horrible things humans are capable of doing to each other and the planet.” 

A lesson in ethics might’ve also prevented Zuckerberg the embarrassment of having an entire movie structured around him being a conscienceless a-hole.

We may as well include the White House in our push for greater ethics education. Instead of MAGA, we’ll call it MGEUYCUCAOTTDA, which doesn’t roll of the tongue, but stands for Make Government Employees Understand You Can’t Use Chartered Airplanes On The Taxpayers Dime…Again[2].”

Perhaps Ms. Trump would also benefit as it was recently reported that she and her brother Donald Jr. narrowly avoided a criminal indictment for lying to buyers and investors in a real estate deal. While there is apparently some gray area as to whether or not their conduct was criminal, there is no dispute she told and admitted to serial falsehoods. https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/how-ivanka-trump-and-donald-trump-jr-avoided-a-criminal-indictment

And we all know lying is wrong, or used to be anyway.

Most of us could use an ethics booster shot from time to time. There’s two reasons I teach ethics in every course: 1. Writers should be consciously aware of the ethical dimensions of their work, and 2. Discussing ethics with students reminds me of where and why I’ve been falling short in my own ethical beliefs.

What troubles me about all the above examples, and many others I’m sure you could think of like them, is the degree to which access to power has the potential to overwhelm one’s ethics. This is, of course, nothing new.

What does seem new in the defenses of all of the people above is that this power also excuses the ethical lapses. It’s like a Bizarro World where Uncle Ben’s admonishment to Peter Parker (Spider Man), “With great power comes great responsibility,” has been changed to “With great power comes the right to do whatever the hell you want.”

Maybe I’m off base, but I think we have bigger problems than not having enough grade schoolers learning coding.

 

 

 

 

[1] As one example, compare the differences between the New York Times write up of a public confrontation between Weinstein and two journalists,  which makes Weinstein the aggrieved party versus an account by one of the journalists herself. 

[2] Previous administrations apparently knew this, but it has been forgotten.

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