Patrick J. Burns

Postdoc at the Quantitative Criticism Lab | Formerly ISAW Library | Fordham PhD, Classics | CLTK contributor

The Ancient Case Against 'Programming' Languages

The Ancient Case Against “Programming” Languages

Published in Eidolon, April 2017.


When Apple CEO Tim Cook addressed an audience of tech executives, venture capitalists, and policy makers at a “startup fest” event in Amsterdam, he took the opportunity to weigh in on the future of language instruction: “[coding] is just another language, and just like any other language it should be taught in schools.” Similar rhetoric can be heard in state legislatures across the country. The Florida senate passed Bill SB 468 last year allowing students to satisfy “language” requirements with coding classes, and similar measures have come up in Texas, Kentucky, and New Mexico.

Curricular decisions will always need to prioritize some subjects over others — there is a limited amount of instructional time available and choices need to be made. What is pernicious about this French vs. Python or Japanese vs. Ruby conversation is that it is based on a false equivalency hinging upon the slipperiness of a shared word: language.

Learning a second language and learning to code in fact play different roles in training a student to think critically. The first provides the basic building blocks of expression—that is, the construction and arrangement of words, sentences, paragraphs, and so on—while the second helps us to organize these raw materials sequentially as well as test premises and their consequences for validity. In antiquity, the former would be considered “grammar” and the latter “logic.” Far from equivalent skill sets and substitute goods in the educational economy, grammar and logic each contribute fundamentally to the development of a well-ordered mind.

Others have defended language instruction against incursions from the programming world. What I would like to add to the argument is the observation that we already have in the classical tradition a model for understanding how these two separate and different types of mental training can work together as foundations of a liberal arts education — the model of the trivium. …

Read the rest of the article on Eidolon.

Photo credit: Laurent de la Hyre, “Allegory of Grammar” (1650)

Patrick J. Burns

Patrick J. Burns

Digital Classicist

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