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
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1146 GMT (1946 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
April 13, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1906 GMT (0306 HKT)
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1649 GMT (0049 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1416 GMT (2216 HKT)
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
April 12, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 2128 GMT (0528 HKT)
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1640 GMT (0040 HKT)
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1839 GMT (0239 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1143 GMT (1943 HKT)
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 2057 GMT (0457 HKT)
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1926 GMT (0326 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT