Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Teach U.S. kids to write computer code

By Douglas Rushkoff, Special to CNN
December 10, 2012 -- Updated 1343 GMT (2143 HKT)
Douglas Rushkoff says computer class must be about teaching kids to make tomorrow's software.
Douglas Rushkoff says computer class must be about teaching kids to make tomorrow's software.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Douglas Rushkoff: It's Computer Science Education Week, aimed at promoting digital literacy
  • He says we live in digital age but computer science not priority in schools; U.S. is lagging here
  • He says digital literacy helps us see that kids are not Facebook's customers, but the product
  • Rushkoff: Critically thinking about digital media environments is a liberal art, teaches about world

Editor's note: Douglas Rushkoff writes a regular column for CNN.com. He is a media theorist and the author of "Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age" and "Life Inc.: How Corporatism Conquered the World, and How We Can Take It Back." He is also a digital literacy advocate for Codecademy.com. His forthcoming book is "Present Shock."

(CNN) -- This week is Computer Science Education Week, which is being observed around the United States with events aimed at highlighting the promise -- and paucity -- of digital education. The climax of the festivities, for me anyway, will be the opportunity to address members of Congress and their staffers on Wednesday in Washington about the value of digital literacy. I've been an advocate of digital culture for the past 20 years, and this feels like the culmination of a lifetime of arguing.

Yes, I was once the one getting laughed out of both cocktail parties and editor's offices for suggesting that someday people would be using word processors to send one another messages over telephone lines. But the vindication I feel for being right about our digital future is tempered by an equally disheartening sense that we are actually missing an opportunity here.

I have never been as enthusiastic about the promise of digital technology itself as about the human potential unleashed by these new tools. Yet I fear this promise is increasingly undermined by our widespread unwillingness to seize the abilities they offer us. Although we live in a highly digital age, digital literacy is not a priority among us. And as a result computer science is not a priority in our schools.

Douglas Rushkoff
Douglas Rushkoff

My talk to Congress may not change this overnight. There are many structural impediments to bringing any new curriculum into America's public schools. The multi-year process through which school district decisions are made is incompatible with the development cycles of the Internet startups hoping to meet the demand for digital education. Teachers fear their own inexperience with code may disqualify them from becoming competent instructors. And there's not enough money for the education we already have, much less the education we would like to offer.

But I'm hoping we can get motivated enough to catch up with, say, Estonia (where they teach code to kids) and begin developing a society capable of thriving and competing in a digital world. So to that end, here are the 10 things I plan to say in my 10 minutes on Capitol Hill:

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



1. When we got language, we didn't just learn how to listen, but how to speak. When we got text, we didn't just learn how to read, but how to write. Now that we have computers, we're learning how to use them -- but not how to program them.

2. Programming a computer is not like being the mechanic of an automobile. We're not looking at the difference between a mechanic and a driver, but between a driver and a passenger. If you don't know how to drive the car, you are forever dependent on your driver to take you where you want to go. You're even dependent on that driver to tell you when a place exists.

3. Not knowing how our digital environments are constructed leads us to accept them at face value. For example, kids think the function of Facebook is to help them keep in touch with friends. Even a bit of digital literacy helps us see that Facebook users are not its customers, but its product.

Female programmers few and far between
Where 94% of grads get jobs

4. "Computer class" can't be about teaching kids to use today's software; it must be about teaching kids to make tomorrow's software.

5. The failure to teach computer science isn't just impeding kids' understanding of the digital world, but also crippling our nation's competitiveness in business. We outsource programming not because we can't afford American programmers, but because we can't find American programmers.

6. America's military leaders are scared: They have no problem finding recruits who want to fly drones, but have few who want -- or are ready -- to learn how to program them. One Air Force general told me he believes America's competitive advantage on the cybermilitary frontier is one generation away from being lost.

7. We are putting in place a layer of technology, culture, and economics that we'd darn well better do consciously. The technology we build today is the operating system of the society of tomorrow. Right now, painfully few are participating in this -- and usually the choices are made by the highest bidder.

8. Computer Science is not just a STEM -- science, technology, engineering and math -- subject, but a liberal art as well. Being able to think critically about digital media environments means being able to think critically about our world.

9. Kids are already doing algorithms, the basic building blocks of computer programming. Once they learn long division, they are ready to start programming.

10. The resources are out there: Codecademy.com is just one of many free tools (including CSUnplugged.org and Scratch.org) that any teacher can pick up and implement -- if he or she can muster the autonomy to do so. It may just happen that computer education, like the Internet itself, will depend on distributed authority and the bottom-up, enterprising nature of human beings working together.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Douglas Rushkoff.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT