English majors should learn computer science

At church tonight, we learned about missions in China. It was a very insightful experience, and I’m glad I got to be a part of it and have some fun with my church family. Near the conclusion of our time there, we passed around photos while praying to learn about some of the issues in China and address them. On the back of one of these photos was written:

Sensible curriculum

  • Requiring English majors to learn computer programming for national test

I think that was meant to imply that English majors should not have to learn computer programming. Well, I respectfully disagree. Computer science is quickly going to become a crucial part of life in the modern age. No matter what you’re doing, computers are going to be involved.

This is an interesting post, in my opinion. I came up with these ideas myself, as far as I know. So please: if you have time, read on; and leave a comment if you have any response.

Whether for communication, learning, computation or just entertainment, computers are going to be at the center of people’s lives. Your cell phone is a computer in your pocket. You phone calls probably route through computers and satellites, and certainly the international ones do. Your kitchen appliances, your photo albums, your video tapes/discs; everything is going to be computerized, and you’re going to need to understand at least the basics of how it works. And this is definitely an advancement, a step in the right direction.

Don’t worry that computers “aren’t your thing.” That may be true in the same way that reading can be “not your thing.” Less than a thousand years ago, the ability to read, much less even write, was extremely rare. Most people lived their entire lives without reading a single word. Reading was not a necessity for life in those days. This resulted in miscommunication, inefficiency, political instability, dictators, wars, a lack of written records, and on and on. Democracy would never work in a society like that. People lived in poverty, were at risk of starvation, had short life spans, led relatively uninfluential lives, and died without a trace.

Today, reading is more widespread. Nobody would disagree that every single person should be taught how to read. No matter where they live, what their economic status is, what their job is, what their lives are meant for. Reading is  basic skill, and we strive to make sure everyone can do it. Why is this now possible? Gutenberg’s printing press, invented in 1445, which led to the development of writing and the alphabet. Along with manufacturing/book binding processes, modern papers and inks, writing utensils and other technologies, the printing press made access to reading and writing possible. We have public education, we have reading programs, we try to encourage literacy, we measure literacy rates in third-world countries as a way to gain insight into their development and how close they are to becoming a modern nation. Reading is undeniably critical for every person, and it’s at the center of life today: most people’s desks are filled and topped with papers covered with words and writing! Not to mention street signs, billboards, advertising, television, pamphlets, letters, catalogues– basically everything. You can hardly do anything without knowing how to read.

I argue that, within a short time, the exact same thing will be true of computer science. As soon as computers become as widespread as paper, pencil, and ink, the world will be totally revolutionized in much the same way. You will not be able to avoid interacting with computers on a level that’s much, much more technical than what most people are doing today. Like learning to read, learning computer programming will be essential for life in the digital age. Computer science has been around for easily 50 years now. The time is quickly approaching when the technology becomes cheaper and mass-produced so that everyone can benefit.

Like the printing press before it, the computer is going to change the way people live for the better. And make no mistake. I firmly believe that every person will need to know the basics of computer science and computer programming in order to be a functioning member of society. China understands this. I think India does, too. If the U.S. misses the point, we’ll all suffer for the shortsight. There is evidence showing that the U.S. is indeed missing the boat, but that’s for another post.

I’m not sure what the resistance to literacy was like in the time after the printing press was invented, but I suspect it was something like the way today’s English majors may resist learning computer programming!

3 Responses to “English majors should learn computer science”

  1. I agree with you, but on a different level.
    I co-teach a computer class with the real computer teacher. He has two classes. Basic and Advanced. When I came to my middle school last year, I was still farther along then the Advanced. Now, when I came to that school, I wasn’t a programmer or anything. I just used Photoshop elements 2 for a few months. I wasn’t anything different then anyone, I read a few books about different things. I think there is a problem with reading a few books, and being far ahead of two years of basic and advanced.
    Together, that computer teacher and I updated his classes. We teach Flash now, and offer basic Action Script learning. (And in basic, he teaches BASIC.) We teach more Photoshop oriented lessions. I pressured him to do this, although his reasoning was that most of the kids will never use it after this year, unlike lessions with paint.
    I guess all I can say is that, when I ask someone to do something outside of school, one of the regular students, they can learn it, do it, whatever. But, when you try to teach them something in the class, for a grade, generally, they don’t care. You watch them do it once or twice. But a week later, they have no idea.
    There are so few people who want to just learn everything they can. I wish there were more.

  2. TJ says:

    This is very ambitious. Many many people are terrified of anything not touchy-feely. You mention a word like “quadratic” or “coordinate system” or even “fraction” and they freak out. Making change is a source of serious confusion for many people. Getting them to learn even the most basic elements of Java or something like that? Forget it. You might be right that they SHOULD but don’t think they WILL anytime soon.

    On a different note, I could do with less boldface.

  3. Elliot Lee says:

    Thanks for the input, TJ. I felt the boldface made things more exciting, since I can get a little bored and miss the point when just reading through paragraphs of plain text without images or diagrams. But I’ll avoid it a bit next time :)

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