Teaching Magic
"Witchcraft to the ignorant, …. Simple science to the learned." - The Sorcerer of Rhiannon, by Leigh Brackett

Happy New Year everyone! Before reading further, you should check out this encouraging article on US computer education and at least some of the discouraging comments that follow it. Discouraging because they reinforce the notion that we have a "shop class" mentality in this country when it comes to education (and not just computer education, though that is what I'll focus on).

Comparing the US primary and secondary computer curriculum to "shop class" is an insult to shop classes - not just because computer curriculums aren't any good at teaching a trade (though that's part of it), but also because "learning a trade" should not be the goal of teaching computers in school anyway.

Tellingly, the phrase that drew the most negative comments was the quote from Janis Cuny, program director from the NSF, stating that the goal is "to teach the magic of computing." That line is what gave me hope that curriculum planners might finally be getting it; because those who really know computing know that this stuff is magic - the kind you can actually do.

However a world with too much magic and not enough knowledge is very risky and dangerous - ask anyone who weighs the same as a duck.

This isn't specific to computers of course. As has been said before, Magic is simply craft from the perspective of the ignorant. The concept of magic can't exist without ignorance. That's why encountering something magical evokes two otherwise opposite reactions in us: A sense of newness and wonder and a sense of dread and fear. When you consider what technology is, both reactions seem so natural as to be almost biological.

Technology (craft/science/etc) is leverage - it is fundamentally the knowledge of how to do something that before was difficult or seemingly impossible. Its not the goal that's new, its the technique or the mechanism. We ate before fire, we moved before the wheel, we killed before we invented swords. But we ate better after harnessing fire, we moved faster with the wheel, and we killed... well we seem to always have been good at finding ways to kill, but nonetheless, its not the what: the eating, moving or killing that's new, but the how.

And doing things more efficiently (essentially what leverage is) confers a survival advantage for those who have it - they can do things better, faster, cheaper, etc. This makes it is easy to see how those ignorant of new technologies would find them magical and both terrifying and wondrous at the same time. "They do the impossible! Run! (But, wait I want one...)"

There is another sense where technology is leverage: It can result in a tool (talisman) or technique (incantation) that others can use to gain the benefit without requiring all of the knowledge needed to create it in the first place. This is efficient because many individuals in a population gain the benefit of a small number of individual's effort - and its been a key fuel in the rise of various cultures and societies. But there are limits to this second form of leverage: If the talisman (tool) breaks, or the incantation (technique) is used in a different context, the benefit is lost, and the user - not having the actual knowledge - is stuck.

So, as long as there has been technology, there has been those who can create it and those who can only use it. And as this is an inherent benefit of technology, it is not something to be done away with, but to be balanced. We in the US are woefully out of balance.

Which brings me back to the article. Computer technology is a lever that allows us to accomplish goals that were previously very expensive, difficult or seemingly impossible. To those ignorant of how it works (all of us at some point), it is truly magical and that either frightens us or fills us with wonder (or both).

The time has come to stop quietly accepting the mistaken - yet popular - notion that education is primarly about getting jobs. The purpose of education is to make us better at using the collective knowledge of the human race in all areas of life. Yes, this includes our jobs, but it also includes raising our children, being informed citizens, managing our households, enjoying our leisure time, and just being good neighbors. Education should be to make us more effective at life. And as a powerful, new and poorly understood technology, computer education should be central to our learning experience, not relegated to some goofy-ass 'business education' electives that look like rehashed typing classes or arcane math electives that only nerds would sign up for.

Instead, we should be nurturing that sense of wonder - and lowering the fear. Explaining the basics (its what BASIC was created for in the first place) so that computers aren't mysteries but tools. To do this, the direct goal of primary computer education can not be seen as preparation for an IT-related job, but lowering the average amount of ignorance regarding how computers work so that in every facet of life where the talismans and incantations of computers are present (most everywhere) there is less mystery and more knowledge of how they work. The result is more appreciation for their capabilities (and their limitations) so that everyone can use the technology to do whatever task they are doing more efficiently.

That some will get the bug and want to create those talismans and incantations themselves is certainly a worthy secondary goal, but (and in this I speak from experience) we don't need to make that an explicit goal. For those who are willing to put forth the effort, the lure of working magic is its own goal - it doesn't need to be imposed on them. That's not to say that teaching computing (esp. programming) as tradecraft is a bad idea, but it shouldn't be the focus of general primary and secondary computer curriculums. Everyone needs to learn the fundamentals, right in the core curriculum along with math, science, reading and history.

We remain a culture of ignorance at our own peril. History shows us what happens when knowledge retreats and we become content to simply use the magic: first the few begin to control the many; then the many begin to first fear and then hate the magic and those that understand it; fewer and fewer know the technology and so it is lost as the talismans break and the incantations are forgotten. We have a term for this process: its called entering a Dark Age. Here's to hoping that in 2010 we move toward the light.