This opinion editorial first appeared in Context Florida on February 18, 2016.
“You, who are on the road, must have a code that you can live by.”
When Crosby, Stills, and Nash penned the opening line to their classic song, “Teach Your Children,” they weren’t thinking about how to prepare students for gainful employment in the Computer Age.
But if the Florida Legislature adopts a forward-looking proposal now under consideration, students will soon enjoy the opportunity to learn a computer code that may help them earn a handsome living some day.
Championed by Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, the proposal would require Florida public high schools to offer computer science classes — and to allow these (online or in-person) courses to fulfill the foreign language requirement for an advanced diploma.
This last provision, allowing computer coding to count as a foreign language, has some traditionalists crying “Oy vey.” But Ring’s proposal isn’t actually as radical as it may seem.
Indeed, both of Florida’s flagship universities allow students majoring in communications to substitute “business language” courses (such as economics, statistics, or computer science) for “modern languages” like Spanish or French. And at both Florida State and the University of Florida, even liberal arts majors can fulfill their foreign language requirement by learning American Sign Language instead of German, Italian, or some other tongue.
To be sure, traditionalists are right to say that being conversant in more than just English is important to many Floridians in our global economy. And the hope should be that many of the students who opt to take computer-coding courses will also pick up a foreign language like Hindi (so that they can one day provide computer tech support to people in India!).
But we aren’t just living in an increasingly global economy; we’re also living in a technological age where computer-coding skills are greatly prized. And we’re living at a time in which growing specialization in the labor market means that the language training that one student most needs isn’t necessarily the language training that would most benefit another student.
Put another way, we are living in an age where the educational zeitgeist calls for customizing instruction to the unique needs, interests, aptitudes, and learning styles of each student. And while this appreciation for diversity may sometimes challenge those who cut their educational teeth in an era of uniformity, it’s important to remember that schools exist for the benefit of students, not educrats.
This last point is the lesson we most need to learn today. For many of our most-contentious education debates today pit the diverse needs and interests of individual students against an increasingly sclerotic “uniform system” controlled by teachers’ unions, bureaucrats, and central planners.
In that sense, then, the debate over computer-coding courses is emblematic. For it represents a clash between those who want to limit student opportunities versus those who want to expand them.
Hopefully, Florida lawmakers will come down on the side of those who want to make it possible for students to receive a “customized” education.
For the best way to “teach our children well” in the 21st century isn’t to insist that they all take courses that might help them become a diplomat instead of a software engineer. The best way to prepare Floridians for economic life in the 21st century is to recognize that students aren’t all cut from the same cloth — and that we should vive la difference!