From The Underground Grammarian
Vol. 8 No. 1 (Feb. 1984) pp. 6-8.

A Sense of Ease

Computer literacy doesn't require speaking a computer language, nor does it require programming skills, nor does it even require extensive knowledge of already- written programs. All it requires is a sense of ease around computers, and the knowledge that personal computers are powerful tools, and not menacing characters from science fiction.
Peter McWilliams

The advanced [ETS] placement course in computer science includes such topics as recursion, operations on stacks, lists, and trees, and the heap sort. These are complicated, machine-independent abstractions that are not learned while sitting at a terminal. They are learned by hearing competent lectures, studying a textbook, and by sitting alone gleaning insights from drawing diagrams and walking through prospective codes.... Replying to the question, What is the best single indicator of an applicant's programming ability, one of today's most respected computer scientists, Edsger W. Dijkstr, wrote ' absolute mastery of his native tongue.'
Merrit & Stix

Here's what we wish: We wish that we were running a very expensive private school for little children, and that McWilliams wanted us to take his six-year old daughter and provide her with a good dose of literacy, the antiquated kind, 'book literacy,' they probably call it nowadays.

First we'd take his certified check for our standard, large, unrefundable deposit, and then we'd tell him about our real neat, absolutely painless, and invariably effective Book Literacy Education Program.

The yoke of book literacy is easy, we would tell him, and its burden is light. Quitecontrary to the foolish notions of self-appointed reformers, book literacy does NOT require reading and writing in book language. Nor does it require any noticible knowledge of already-written books. All it requires, as you would surely be the first to understand, McWilliams, is a sense of ease around books!

Little children, you see, are afraid of books. Yes, afraid. They see them as menacing characters from the walls of doctors' waiting rooms and quiet, dreary libraries, where fun is not allowed. Our program teaches children that books are powerful tools, good for building walls and castles, and for keeping drawings from blowing away, and even for standing on to reach the good stuff that grown-ups like to keep to themselves. Why we actually let our young scholars PLAY with books, open them, close them, even turn some of the pages, and all by themselves. That's the REAL education, you know, learning by doing. You just leave your precious little tyke with us, and in no time at all-- say ten, twelve years max--she will be the most book-literate kid on the block, chock full of a sense of ease. And all of that for a measly fifteen thou a year!

And may the future bring you a million RETURNs without GOSUB, buster.

We are, you see, ready to consider 'computer literacy.' We suspected, mostly because the educationalistic faddists were so enthusiastic about it, that it was all bunk. Now, having done some homework, we can reach a better informed opinion: It IS all bunk.

To begin with, it is not 'literacy' in any reasonable sense of the word. 'Literacy' has become nothing but a pretentious title for an 'awareness' conjoined with any modicum of acquaintance. If you know that slide-rules exist, you have achieved slide-rule awareness, which is already quite enough to earn you a splendid grade in a mathematics education course. If you can actually use a slide-rule, or even if you have just slid one a bit, you have slide-rule literacy.

(That's just for now of course. The school people have obviously not yet received the pedagogical doctrine of Peter McWilliams, who is a 'syndicated computer columnist,' just the kind of expert they take from. When they hear the word, they will discover that slide-rule literacy calls for nothing more formidable than a sense of ease around slide-rules.)

And then there's all that bunk about computer 'languages,' which are languages in just the same way that the 'language of the flowers' is language--not at all. They are codes, ingenious and elaborate codes, which is what they must be if they are to work. Computer languages provide the possibility of an exact and precisely limited correspondence not only between what is said and what is meant, but also between what is meant and what is so in the strictly defined system about which, and ONLY about which, statements can be made.

For computing, that's good, and it works. But those same attributes are characteristic of the very least of the powers of language, communication, a power also wielded by wolves and crows. If wolves and crows do not devise computers and computer 'languages,' it is because they have none of the higher powers of language, especially meatphor and discourse. It is in those powers that we grow whenwe study language, and to pretend that the study of computer language is the study of language is primarily a convenience for those who pretend that they teach the powers of language.

And then there's another thing--that bunk about 'fear of computers.' It is, of course, possible that there are certain people who do fear computers, even asthere are probably people who fear shredded wheat or party hats. They are loonies. Computers are no more likely than rulers, or even sextants, to provoke fear in people who are not loonies. What we see at work here is a longstanding educationalistic con job that has been eagerly adopted by peddlers as well as politicians, who also make their livings by preying on emotions.

It is the pose of the big-hearted giver, who so charitably understands your shortcomings, and so selflessly seeks only your good. He kindly tells you that there IS a little something wrong with you, maybe just a little learning disability, or an unraised consciousness, or this irrational fear of computers, that you can't seem to overcome all by yourself. But don't worry. Your deficiency is 'perfectly natural' in one who has not yet had the inestimable benefit of his ministrations, which he will be only too happy to provide.

And there is yet one more thing--the pernicious notion that learning to work a computer has something to do with education. One of its versions suggests that no one can be educated without learning about computers, which confuses training with education and information with knowledge, as is the custom in the schools. An alternative version pronounces, as is also the custom in the schools, that NOW we know what to do. NOW we can teach those students who have stubbornly refused to be taught by 'traditional' methods, i.e., the LAST few paroxysms of innovative thrusts.

The other quotation is from a letter to the NYT by Susan M. Merritt and Allen H. Stix, members of the computer science department at Pace University. When they say 'science,' they seem to mean SCIENCE, which is neither a pleasant feeling nor a vocational skill, but a discipline in the mind. It is to be learned just as they say, which is just as ANY mental discipline is to be learned, by hearing competent lectures, studying books, and sitting alone.

Those things are not allowed in the schools. Competent lectures are elitist and authoritarian, books are just NOT experiential, and sitting alone is aberrant behavior. The schools will have to teach computer science in THEIR way. Spending somebody else's money brings a great sense of ease.

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