Hope, scarred and bleeding

“The Heavens burned, the Stars cried out. And under the ashes of infinity, Hope, scarred and bleeding, Breathed it’s last.”

Ulatempa Poetess
Elegy for the Commonwealth

The International Lisp Conference is on right now and one of the interesting things that happened is that MIT’s Gerald Sussman talked about why MIT’s famous 6.001 course uses Python instead of Scheme. I hadn’t known that MIT had switched to Python from Scheme, and I must say that I’m very sad (as the dramatic opening quote makes obvious).

Truth be told, MIT has always been something akin to Holy Ground to me. It is deeply involved with computer science history and lots of great discoveries have come from there and from the people who worked there. 6.001 has to some extent become famous as MIT’s hallmark course. It’s the course that spawned the wonderful Structure and Implementation of Computer Programs, a book that I think all serious programmers should read at some point in their careers, preferably sooner rather than later. Since the 80’s 6.001 has used the Scheme programming language, a lightweight version of Lisp which is itself one of computer science’s shining accomplishments. Now it uses Python.

So what’s the big fuss about? Well there are a number of different reasons. 6.001 has always been meant to be a hard course, designed to fundamentally change the way students think. It’s not a simple programming course. If you read the introduction to SICP (and then the rest of it), you’ll see that 6.001 is more of a course in engineering philosophy and techniques which only incidentally uses computers and software. I’ve been reading SICP in bits and pieces for about a year and half and the things I’ve learned have made me a much better programmer, engineer and thinker. Is it possible to have the same sort of teaching and learning experience with Python instead of Scheme? Perhaps. I’m not sure. But that’s the tip of the iceberg.

Reading the reasons Sussman gave for replacing Scheme with Python is very distressing. Basically it comes down to the admission of the fact that the software industry is for the most part, one giant mess. Software isn’t well documented and the interfaces are inconsistent. As a result  you spend a lot of time tinkering with 3rd party libraries to figure how they work as opposed to how they are supposed to work. All this flies in the face of what 6.001 was supposed to teach: great engineering works are built out of simpler, smaller components that are well understood and encapsulated. I’ll be the first to admit that what Sussman says is completely true, I’ve experienced it myself more than once. This hasn’t been helped by the proliferation of CS courses that teach that students to be dependent on frameworks and third libraries without teaching them about how those frameworks work or what to do when they break. It’s part of the game and something you have to learn to deal with.

But it seems to me that Sussman’s statement is like throwing in the towel. If you can’t beat them, join them, that sort of thing. I’m sure there’s more to the argument than just that, but it would be hard to avoid the fact that 6.001 has been substantially toned down. There is no way students are going to learn what good software is unless they have some experiences of making it, themselves. There’s a reason why math students still work on problems even though Mathematica is a great tool.  Python is a great beginner’s language, but 6.001 wasn’t exactly made for beginners. Referring back to the preface to the first edition of SICP, the author says that many students have had experience of computers. Let’s take some time to remember that when this was written decades ago, ‘experience of computers’ didn’t mean playing games, using Office or browsing the web. It probably implied a general understanding of how computers work and some amount of programming. Times change and one could say that 6.001 is just adapting to the times. That could certainly be true and if it is, it’s a sign that the change isn’t good.

If students are starting programming at a later age, and hence aren’t accustomed to the very demanding logical thought required by 6.001, then it’s a sign that the software industry is in grave danger. Let’s face it: 4 years are not enough to learn how to be a good programmer or software engineer. 4 years working full time at it wouldn’t be enough. Now throw in the typical trappings of college life: other courses, sports, parties, relationships. The time most CS students spend actually practicing their skills go down dramatically. And it’s not like computer science is easy, we all know that. After graduation a job means that you have even little time and inclination to improve yourself. CS education needs to start early. The best programmers I know (both personally and otherwise) are the ones who started young, in their mid-teens mostly. The industry depends on mediocre programmers who are then most likely doomed to stay mediocre because they missed the time of their lives where they could have learned the most.

You see, the problem and feelings of hopelessness go beyond 6.001. Being a student myself, I see a vast disparity in the skills of my fellow CS majors. What’s more terrifying is how low the low point is.  A freshman I know is currently building a web framework for automatically converting Java object models to visual representations which can be manipulated. Think of it as interactive UML on steroids. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say he’s probably the only one in my school who can do that, me included (though our CS department is probably under 75 students). In one of my 300-level classes, a student claimed he didn’t know what a binary representation of an integer is. How can you be in a sophomore CS major without knowing what a binary integer is? And my CS department is one of the more rigorous ones I know of. We use a wide variety of languages and tools, have a separate curriculum for non-majors and the requirements for graduating with honors are pretty strict. The professors routinely give students experience out of class by involving them in research projects.

In some respects, you could say I don’t need to care. I get good grades and I’ve seen and know more than most of fellow students. But it’s not me I’m worried about. Not yet at least. I’d like to make a lasting contribution to computer science at some point in my career, but equally importantly I’d like to work with people who love computer technology as much as I do and are also skilled and dedicated enough to work on something that could be groundbreaking. I’m really afraid that there might be fewer people like that in my age group. Perhaps that’s just because I live in a small school, but if there aren’t going to be any more 18-year olds spinning Scheme abstractions with ease, then my fears seem terribly close to justified.

I’m going to stop now because I feel like I’m screaming at the top of my lungs in an empty room. And I have to call home. I’m willing to believe that the picture isn’t as bleak because I see people like my freshman friend. But it’s takes a good amount of will to keep it up. If you’re in college (or know someone in college) who would like to get together and maybe reverse this trend of approaching mediocrity, please get in touch with me. I could really use a hope infusion right now.

PS. On an equally terrifying note, there’s only one girl in my software engineering class of 27, but that’s not something I’m going try to explain any time soon.

5 thoughts on “Hope, scarred and bleeding

  1. You have said (read ‘ranted’) as much about mediocrity previously. I suppose the 6.001 change triggered it off again.
    Some courses are there to basically separate the grain from the chaff – like fast-learning BSTs or circular linked-lists.

  2. you are right. sicp is a wonderful, enlightening CS text which every serious programmer must read and keep in touch with.

    but i would like to see sicp taught in language other than scheme, say c++ .

  3. s/Is it possible to have the same sort of teaching and learning experience with Scheme instead of Python?/Is it possible to have the same sort of teaching and learning experience with Python instead of Scheme?/

  4. Being in the Computer Science for the past 29 years, I completely agree with most of your views. Glad that I did some programming in LISP in my college days and it does needs different kind of thinking (functional programming). Even it pains me to see that software industry is heavily depends on the mediocre programmers as people from other disciplines are given the task of writing programs that become part of a software.

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