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Independent School Magazine

 Vantage Point

Coding in the classical liberal arts education

  

Winter 2015


  Singular Plural
1st amo amamus
2nd amas amatis
3rd amat amant

I did it! I conjugated a Latin verb from memory! That’s not surprising because I taught Latin for 10 years before moving into technology. But I still get a little tingle in my brain when I do it because I am composing it anew.

More challenging was making the table you see above in HTML. I composed it without the help of an HTML editor. I had to write it all out of my memory, where it lies jumbled together with other programming languages: SQL, Basic, ASP, Scratch, and PHP. Just like my Latin, it fades but never goes away. Here’s a sampling of what I really wrote:

< table border=“1”>
< tr>
< td></td>
< td>Singular</td>
< td>Plural</td>
< /tr>
< tr>
< td>1st</td>
< td>amo</td>
< td>amamus</td>

Classic HTML, readable in any browser including Netscape 1. See how different it looks from the finished product? The mind must twist itself into knots to compose in HTML in the beginning; later, it becomes second nature. Just like Latin.

When I began teaching at The Episcopal Academy (Pennsylvania) in 1990, seventh- and eighth-graders were scheduled into beginning coding classes where they learned LOGO on Apple IIe’s. BASIC was offered as an elective in high school, and a few students continued on to AP Computer Science. Latin was required in seventh and eighth grades.

In the mid to late 1990s, our students got excited about building web pages and learning to program. It was fun, HTML was very accessible, and there was money to be made with coding skills. Enrollment swelled in high school computer science classes, but interest was still limited. Latin was still required.

In 2014, our students are coding around the edges of the curriculum in grades K-12. We have a high school robotics team and a middle school robotics club. A handful of kids take the programming course, now offered in Java, and some go on to AP Computer Science.

The classical liberal arts education claims to transcend vocational trends and to develop minds with timeless skills, flexibility, and resilience. Learn how to learn and the world is your oyster. Indeed, the best preparation for the next economy will be a classical liberal arts education. In attempting to future-proof the curriculum, schools may be imparting skills that will be obsolete soon. Even coding skills are not immune to the vagaries of the job market.

We must add code to the K-12 classical liberal arts education not because of its utility, but because of its intrinsic intellectual value. While code is a relative newcomer, logic - the matrix that spawns programming languages - permeates all aspects of the curriculum while adding its own unique intellectual rewards.

Every coding curriculum you could possibly imagine for a K-12 education already exists and is in use somewhere. If we could measure the amount of computer science that is being studied in the world, it would probably dwarf efforts spent in any other discipline in schools. The world of K-12 education is ignoring a sleeping giant.

I am a self-taught programmer. There was a need in the school where I worked and I filled it. I built a small database application and it grew and grew. I learned whatever I needed to learn. In the haze of raising a young family, I lulled myself to sleep thinking in code. The stark beauty of algorithmic thinking began to vie with the beauty of Ancient Greek poetry in my heart.

Computer science might prepare students for joining the globally competitive workforce, or it might not. But it isn’t a fad. It has taken its place in the pantheon of the arts and sciences. It is a discipline. It is a classic. It can be tedious and frustrating to learn. But when a complex piece of code executes perfectly after hours of hard work, the satisfaction and exhilaration is intense, unique, and lasting.

Kindergartners should write code as they are learning to read English; teenagers should be griping about their code homework. And all our students should secretly love it, even when it frustrates them, because it gives them that tingly feeling. It is time to thread it into the curriculum from kindergarten through high school, along with language arts and mathematics.

Type my html into a text editor, save the file as a web page and double-click it. Your default browser should show the table pictured above. Whether your code works or not, you will feel it: that tingle in your brain as you compose. Frustrated because it didn’t work? That’s good for your brain too. Failure is a mighty teacher. Keep at it. Don’t stop. Give in to the feeling.

Alex Pearson is director of technology and a classics teacher at The Episcopal Academy (Pennsylvania).

 

 
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