Ivanka Trump recently announced that she will be attending a coding class this summer with her five-year-old daughter. “We’re excited to learn this incredibly important new language together,” Trump said, speaking at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. “Coding truly is the language of the future.”
Like Ivanka, many tech gurus have been telling us that coding isn’t just the new “it” language; it is the “new reading” of the twenty-first century. The hype about coding happens to come in an era when fewer and fewer kids attain mastery of basic reading in schools.
But the truth is coding is coding—and reading is reading. They are separate skills and most Americans will always have a far greater need to read than code. As a recent Bloomberg article about tech entrepreneurs noted, “Most successful entrepreneurs seem to have one thing in common—they read.”
Still, Trump isn’t alone in seeking out coding and STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) classes for her kids. Parents everywhere are bombarded by marketing for coding classes in places like the toy store, online, and at their local libraries and middle schools. Google has announced a new initiative called the Libraries Ready to Code project. The project is directed by the American Library Association and encourages librarians to inspire kids to “explore computer science” and “expose” them to the resources they need to learn how to code.
Some campaigns target kids as young as three, assuring parents that although their child might not be able to read or write or use a toilet, they can still earn an “I can code” badge. This is the message behind one of the latest coding toys, the Cubetto. Fashioned to look like a wooden block playing set, the Cubetto targets “really young children” and teaches them to “code.” The CEO of Primo, the company that developed Cubetto, said, “We believe that coding is the new literacy, and therefore should be prioritized from an early age.”
Well-educated people today generally can’t fix their coffee makers, cars, microwaves, printers, or anything else, yet we are transfixed by the idea of teaching our children to tell another object what to do without speaking or reading. As Matthew B. Crawford wrote in The New Atlantis in 2006, in an article titled, “Shop Class as Soulcraft”:
An engineering culture has developed in recent years in which the object is to “hide the works,” rendering the artifacts we use unintelligible to direct inspection. Lift the hood on some cars now (especially German ones), and the engine appears a bit like the shimmering, featureless obelisk that so enthralled the cavemen in the opening scene of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Teaching our young ones to code seems, in part, a response to feeling like we can train the next generation to be more “technical,” and therefore more in control of the devices around them that increasingly fill their lives. It’s pitched as an update of high school shop class but with a touch screen instead of a drill press. These efforts are also aimed at convincing parents that coding classes in childhood will somehow lead to in-demand careers for their children later, although so far there is little evidence that this is the case.
Go back through history and read about the lives of famous inventors, businessmen, or scientific luminaries and you will often find running through their stories a common thread: dynamic, self-driven reading from an early age, which opened their minds to the wonders of the world and helped them make connections that others could not.
The great inventors and technologists of previous generation (and many of the current generation) would be surprised to hear anyone advocate the building of technical skills before achieving basic literacy, in part because so many of the great technical minds began as voracious readers. Technology for them was not an either-or proposition (“I’ll experiment with science because I hate to read”). Experimentation and scientific interest came alongside reading.
One of the most anticipated posts by Microsoft founder Bill Gates is his end-of-year book recommendation list. Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla, reads books voraciously and has pointed out the impact books had on him as a child. He read fantasy, science fiction, and biographies (of great inventors of course). Benjamin Franklin, who had little formal education, was a self-professed bibliophile from a young age and traded the works of John Bunyan for a series of cheap, slim history books by R. Burton.
Later in his life, inventor Nikola Tesla told Mark Twain that the author’s writing saved his life when, as a boy in Serbia, he spent extensive time in bed suffering from malaria and with little else to do but read. Thomas Edison also was an avid reader in his youth, consuming Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason, two particular favorites.
Coding is indeed a useful skill for anyone who wants to enter the fields of computer science or computer engineering. But coding will never replace reading, nor should it. After all, before you write the code to change the world, you have to understand that world – and there is still no better way to do that than by reading.