Literacy is obsolete
The idea that being literate is essential to success in life is deeply ingrained in Western culture and democracy. Today people intimately expect that everyone around them can read and write to a certain high communication standard. The foundational tenants of all basic Western education are the three R’s, Reading wRiting and aRithmatic. We believe that this basic level of literacy is also essential to the success of democracy and the high standard of living in Western civilizations. One of the great achievements and measures of human progress in the 21st Century has been the tremendous leap in literacy rates around the world especially among emerging economies.
Our education systems, our values, our entrée into office jobs and the information age has always assumed literacy as its foundation. Literacy is so fundamental to everything we do today that we don’t even think of it as a job skill anymore… reading and writing constantly isn’t just what we do all day at work, it’s what we do all evening at home on social media sites, on twitter and on chat. In an era when 100% of the world’s population is essentially going to be completely literate the “special” career advantages traditionally associated with literacy alone are vanishing. One might reasonably observe that the internet age itself has broadly assured that everyone around the world that has any form of access to the Internet will quickly become literate with little or no traditional educational support. So if literacy education has taken on a life of its own and is no longer a competitive advantage in life, what is?
Coding is the new literacy. The ability to communicate with computers and teach them to think is the key educational differentiator for almost all jobs in the future. If you can’t code in the year 2020, you have as much career potential as any peasant serf in the 1500’s. This is especially true for engineers and scientists. We have discovered and studied almost everything in math, astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology, archaeology and physics that is approachable within the limits of human intelligence and manual tools. Anybody who lacks the ability to harness increasingly powerful and intelligent computation to explore further will find themselves working in tomorrows VCR and typewriter repair shops.
Computing and mathematics is the new literacy, the fundamental differentiator between those who will have all of life’s opportunities and a red carpet rolled out for them and those who will make the Happy Meals and do their laundry.
I point this out because there are a lot of technologically illiterate people in the world who would adamantly deny and object to being called functionally illiterate in the information age. They would say that they don’t need to learn to read and write because they have tools like radios and record players that can do it for them! Our educational systems are abysmal at teaching technological literacy, even in the best educational environments the idea of teaching computer science is an option introduced late in children’s development, long after they have learned to speak and write in their native tongues. People who are educated enough to be able to code are so valuable that you seldom if ever find a dedicated sole working at the youngest tiers of our educational systems.
Computing and mathematics is just another kind of language, the kind we learn best and most intuitively as infants. One of the major reasons that the language of computing is spoken so poorly by so many is that we take it up as a vocation so late in life. By the time most people learn to code for the first time in their college years, they are well past the age of mental plasticity that makes new language acquisition easy. As a consequence most of what we consider our best educated programmers today can only speak to computers with the thickest and most guttural accents for the duration of their careers. Coding is so strenuous for them that they can only endure it at work for a few short hours before needing to revert to a more natural communication medium. We casually take for granted that when people go home from work they continue to engage in literacy for most of their waking hours because communicating in their native tongue and in text is not considered a “taxing” activity. The effort to translate between a fuzzy, emotional, ambiguous human thought and structured, flawless, mathematically rigorous computer thought is so unnatural to most of the new generation of software engineers that many feel compelled to complain that doing so (in text on their mobile phones at dinner with their families) is too hard or stressful to do all the time… a sentiment they don’t express about speaking and writing in say English.
Rapid and accelerating advances in computing and automation are making many traditionally human jobs obsolete very quickly. Our next generation of kids had better be raised fluent in the language of computing and mathematics from their earliest age if they are to have any hope of employment or competitive career differentiation in a world populated by 9 billion, 100% literate people. Paradoxically one of the jobs that will be consumed by automation is human supervised teaching itself. The internet is already teaching kids to read and write faster than their schools can manage it. Even the old world of teaching primary math and arithmetic is obsolete in an era when calculators can be taken for granted but algorithmic thought and problem solving is highly valued. The value of a programmer is already so great that anybody who has mastered coding well enough to teach it has exponentially better paying career opportunities available to them than teaching.
“We’re at the point where the Internet pretty much supplies everything we need. We don’t really need teachers in the same way anymore.”
It’s clear that we’re at a point in human history when traditional schools and teachers are going the way of libraries and post offices. The challenge is finding ways to quickly move education online and to create better tools to automate teaching early coding skills and mathematical intuition. The traditional roles of teachers are already evolving towards becoming a strange combination of baby-sitter and IT administrator.
*Parents’ if I’ve alarmed you enough, start here:
**Also note that MIT’s entire curriculum, course materials and notes are online for free as well… because they see the future closing fast on them too…