Coding & The Liberal Arts

17 Aug

DSC00155Up until the early 20th Century Latin formed the basis of the Liberal Arts curriculum, not because everyone would be a Latin scholar, but because it was seen as something which taught one to think, because it was a rigorous discipline requiring accuracy and ability to master a logical system. It formed an excellent indicator of academic potential, and thus persisted in the educational system well beyond its usefulness as a lingua franca. In the 1900s it was largely replaced by History as a preparation for public life, politics and the civil service.

I would argue that the decline of History, and of Latin, has left a crucial void in the Liberal Arts. In a sense it has robbed the Liberal Arts of their importance in the overall scheme of things. When the main purpose of Education was to fuel the bureaucracy of the empire, the need was for individuals possessing the skills to administer vast tracts of foreign soil, far from home with a sense of duty and the ability to remain unflappable under enormous pressure. The study of Latin or History provided a sense of place and importance – it underlined the belief in the superiority of Western culture, and gave the colonial bureaucrat, trained at Harrow or Eton, a sense of their moral and cosmic worth.

The relativism and post-modernism of the last hundred years, along with the decline of the empire, has stripped away all sense of worth and purpose, and left only naked materialism. In Education, the Liberal Arts have been eaten away by the ascendency of Mathematics and Science. Now, I have nothing against the Sciences – they are absolutely vital in any education, but I believe that critical thinking needs a balance, a grounding in the Arts. I’ve just seen some research suggesting that good English teaching improves Mathematical ability. And I have a gut feeling that music is also vital. Drama too – hell, all the Arts are important, but I can’t help feeling that something is missing at the core of our curriculum: a humanistic study which is grounded in rigour and trains critical thinking.

Those of you who are still with me will be surprised now to hear that I am going to suggest that coding, computer programming fills this void. Is coding an Art? Surely it should be lumped with the Sciences. How can it fill that need for a rigorous study which simultaneously fuels a sense of moral worth and makes sense of the Universe? It is undoubtedly rigorous, and I would argue is an excellent training ground for rigorous thinking, so vital for critical thought. There is nothing quite as exacting or as unforgiving as a computer program. One comma out of place, a forgotten semi-colon can negate an entire endeavour. Programmers need to be able to conceive of the purpose and function of a program, design its outline and implement its details in ways which enhance user experience and maximise functionality. Game design, in particular, needs to engage on many levels at the interface between humans and machine. In a sense, like music, it combines creativity with mathematical precision.

I have a sense that the 21st Century is going to be all about how we manage our relationship with machines. The factories of the Industrial Age were one kind of machine, but the digital interfaces of the Information Age are quite another, and I have a feeling that the ability to hack one’s machines is what will define our ability to rise above mere consumerism. What the digital natives of the digital generation seem to lack is that ability to hack their machines. When I think back to what I did with my first computer, a ZX Spectrum, it involved almost only programming! There was precious little else you could do with it. Kids today experience computers almost entirely as platforms for products they download. Very little is done even to tweak these programs. Computing has become an act of consumption first and foremost.

We have a duty to teach kids to code so that people have the ability to act as agents of their own destiny in an increasingly complex digital world. Coding is therefore a humanistic project, perhaps the most vital expression of our humanity in a world where we are relying on our machines more and more.

What should replace History at the core of the Liberal Arts curriculum? Why, coding of course!


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