Whither High School Computer Science?
Last year, when I finally decided that I wanted to pursue a career in computing and programming, I decided to take the AP Computer Science class my high school offers (skipping Computer Science I, which uses Visual Basic 6). Though I had heard bad things about Java in the past, I figured it couldn’t be all bad – after all, in order to get kids excited about CS, they wouldn’t teach in a crappy and flabby language, would they?
Well, they did.
Now, I could launch into a rant about how CS doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with programming languages, how all that’s really important is algorithms and big-O efficiency, how aspiring CS students need math more than anything else, and so on and so forth in the vein of Knuth and Dijkstra. But I don’t believe it in the slightest. Sure, CS doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with any particular programming language, as shown by the decades of computer scientists who made stunning achievements simply through logic, mathematics and perseverance; however, CS is only interesting as an academic field because there are things which computers can do and humans can’t (and vice versa). A CS student trained without a knowledge of programming languages is nothing more than a mathematics student.
But I also believe that languages shouldn’t interfere with learning through syntactic or design flaws. Java is a major sinner in these regards. We spent several weeks going over (in excruciating detail) the difference between an
int and an
Integer – what, exactly, does that have to do with CS? Sure, we learned something about OOP – except for all the interesting things, such as the history of OOP, the reasons behind encapsulation, the uses of multiple inheritance (and the problems and solutions therein), and how OOP has changed from its pure Smalltalk roots to its bastardized Java form. We learned that we need to predeclare variables in a statically-typed language, but not any of the reasons why static typing may or may not be a good thing (speed, type safety, robustness, etc.).
And there’s so much we didn’t learn. We spent maybe a week on sorting and searching; never mind that the truly remarkable thing about computer-based algorithms is that they can search, sort, and process data in ways that no dead, ink-based y=mx+b equation ever could. We didn’t look at Nextstep’s use of object-orientation to power an entire operating system, quite possibly the most concrete use of OOP ever. If we wanted to focus on practical uses of Java, why didn’t we learn how to use Eclipse, the best Java IDE out there? Why did we use Java 1.4 instead of Java 1.5 or 1.6, thereby abandoning templates, primitive autoboxing and helpful classes such as Scanner?
If we truly wanted to learn about writing good code and learning the fundamentals of computer programming, we should have used Smalltalk. Using Squeak or VisualWorks or Cincom, we could learned how a truly, 100% object-oriented programming language works, the history of the GUI, how to create an intuitive GUI without endless Swing components, how to program in a robust, intuitive and simple language free of warts, and, most importantly, how to use computers to do things and solve problems that only computers can do.
Instead, we learn Java.
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