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The blogged wandering of Robert W. Anderson

Perils of a poor Computer Science Education — Part I

Joel Spolsky recently wrote about what he calls The Perils of Java Schools.

His main point is that Computer Science departments have dumbed-down their curriculum to increase their enrollment and graduation rates. One way this has been done, he argues, is by replacing the teaching of multiple languages with Java. Instead of teaching functional languages (think Lisp) and using a low-level languages (like C or C++), the student does all coursework in a managed object-oriented language. Not only does this mean that students aren’t as well educated, but that is harder to interview new graduates to find the really good ones.

Some people have bridled at the article because they see it as slamming Java. Others suggest that he should update his interviewing style because he says it is harder to evaluate people. These comments miss the point of his article.

I agree with him fundamentally that learning with a high-level language is just not enough. Kang Su Gatlin has a post about this as well: What Should Change in Comp Sci Education. I agree with him too (though would like to hear more from him regarding MapReduce).

I went to UC Berkeley when Computer Science departments were primarily interested in training Computer Scientists. No language courses were included as a part of the required curriculum — it was expected that we would learn the required languages on our own time (note: I’m sure the teachers-assistants must of helped students with languages and environments, but I either skipped those sections or have blocked it out because it was no help to me). In our classes, we used Scheme (to learn functional programming), assembly, and primarily C.

One of Mr. Spolsky’s main points is that routinely using a low-level language (like C) provides the student with critical experience. C is closer to the machine than Java or C# and forces the programmer to work harder. C forces the programmer to use pointers. Programming and debugging pointer-based programs develop and hone debugging skills. The experience of using these over my years in school was quite beneficial. Better to learn that at school than in industry.

So without fully condemning nor claiming to even grok what is motivating the universities to this end, I will say this:

I have heard from many people over my life that “pointers are hard.” If you have a Computer Science degree and you think pointers are hard then one thing is for sure: your Computer Science program failed you.

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3 Comments »

    Jim Benson wrote @ January 8th, 2006 at 11:59 am

How timely, we just had a big pointer bicker fest at our office yesterday.

[…] In Perils of a poor Computer Science Education — Part I, I said that I basically agree with Joel Spolsky in his post, The Perils of Java Schools. I do, but I can’t give the impression that this is the only path to being a great developer. […]

    Expert Texture » Blog Archive » And now we scheme wrote @ May 22nd, 2006 at 8:02 am

[…] It was used as a teaching language at Cal. Scheme was, without a doubt, the only mind-expanding programming language I’ve ever had the pleasure to ingest learn and use. Tags: Programming, scheme, Software Development ProgrammingschemeSoftware DevelopmentProgrammingschemeSoftware Development […]

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