No, Mr. President, Not Everyone Needs to Learn How to Code

President Obama doesn't specifically tell America that every kid should learn how to code in a video released on Monday by the White House, but he comes close enough that we must interject: No, everyone does not need to learn to code.

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President Obama doesn't specifically tell America that every kid should learn how to code in a video released on Monday by the White House, but he comes close enough that we must interject: Everyone does not need to learn to code, any more than they need to be able to rebuild a car engine.

With his statement, Obama is hoping to bolster Computer Science Education Week (this week) during which kids are encouraged to learn computer science. Or, more specifically, to "code," as week sponsor puts it in its descriptor the video at right: "President Obama calls on every American to learn code!"

That's not exactly what Obama said. In the video, he asks young people to "get involved" with code. "Don't just buy a new video game," he suggests. "Make one. Don't just download the latest app. Help design it. Don't just play on your phone. Program it." The blog post published by the White House doesn't say that specifically either, but in Obama's words, he asks that kids "give it a shot."

Code is only the latest in the classic American / Horatio Alger dream that hard work and the right education will by the golden key that ensures everyone has a job. Go west, get a farm. Learn chemistry. Become a mechanic. Learn how to fix computers. So on and so on and so on. Now: Learn to code! It fits very nicely with the current disruption/app/techie focus of the economy and suggests that the companies and donors that comprise it are necessarily the country's future. They're not.

The mania for pushing people to learn to code, spurred in part by the legitimately well-intentioned efforts of groups like Code Academy, has by now reached the point of being an online joke. That's mostly thanks to software engineer Patrick McConlogue, who earlier this year decided to change a man's life by teaching him to code. McConlogue offered Leo Grand, a homeless man in New York City, either $100 or the chance to learn to code; Grand accepted the latter. The pair made it to the Today show before Grand was arrested for trespassing, because actually there are huge structural problems that make homelessness a far deeper problem than simply the lack of a job or home — problems that McConlogue never even had any idea existed before he offered the condescending moralistic choice between cash or "a future." Now "teaching someone to code" often means, in Internet parlance, "offer an idealistic solution to a deeper problem."

Which is more than apt for this Obama situation. There's no question that learning to code offers benefits. I know how to code; I've written about how a little more tech familiarity would do Congress and journalists some good. But there is a long, annoying path from "regurgitate code examples for an hour this week" to "'program' your phone" — one which bears far more limited rewards than coding advocates would have you believe.

When we say we want kids to code, we're saying one of two things. Either we're saying that we want them to learn a skill that will offer them employment, or we are saying that we want them to become familiar with the logical constructs that go into coding. In the case of the homeless man, McConlogue was aiming for the first goal. What the president is hoping to do isn't clear. He states both as goals; "Computer literacy is important," he writes, but then also says that thing about making video games.

Here's what the president should advocate. Every American should know basic math. Every American should understand the logical underpinnings to coding, the way conditional clauses work and the cyclical way in which systems are constructed. Americans should know that the way a website works isn't the way a video game works which isn't the way a bank's database works, but they don't need to learn to "code" all of those things. Just as every American doesn't need to get certified as a mechanic, but should know how to change a tire, every American should know how computer systems work in the abstract but doesn't need to code.

Maybe that's what Obama is saying, but it doesn't sound like it. It sounds like he's plugging the Hot Career of the Moment, blowing air into an economic bubble and suggesting that there's a new golden key. It's very, very similar to the insistence that everyone must go to college, which is much farther down the path toward becoming self-fulfilling. You don't need to go to college. You don't need to know how to code. You just need to have a diverse education and a willingness to expand upon it.

Oh, and it very much helps if you have the enormous advantages that result from being a member of certain class and demographic communities. This, at least, Obama is very clearly speaking about.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.