[Beowulf] (no subject)

Robert G. Brown rgb at phy.duke.edu
Tue Jan 31 06:03:21 PST 2006

On Mon, 30 Jan 2006, Jim Lux wrote:

>>   One has to FUND
>> systems management for an entire LAN.  One has to FUND software.  One
>> has to FUND teachers to teach computing, in the teeth of a 30% salary
>> differential available for the asking to anyone competent and willing to
>> work for IBM, or SAS, or Pfizer, or GE, or countless smaller companies.
> The 30%, realistically, is going to be paid by love.  Sort of like folks 
> working for NASA being paid in "space dollars". However, there does need to 
> be some sort of payment.

But love or not, you have to accept two things.

First, with fairly RARE exceptions, the really competent individuals in
sciences and technology are going to go into the private sector and make
a lot of money or go into the government sector where they can make a
lot of money and -- as in the case of NASA but also in the case of much
other govt funded research -- get some strokes for working for the
public good or go into academe where they make a bit less money than in
the private sector (and still significantly more than in most secondary
schools) but get to teach, usually teach students that are first order
filtered to be old enough, bright enough, dedicated enough to actually
be teachable 70% plus of the time.

Second, those individuals that DO go into teaching for love, who are
competent to teach young adolescents in all of the human ways, and who
are motivated and competent enough to teach computing need what I can
only call a "rich environment" in order to remain current.  Computing is
a field where if you blink the world has passed you by, you're a cobol
programmer in a java world, a mainframer trying to figure out DOS, a
DOSmaster puzzling out Windows registries, an older MCSE trying to for
the first time learn how a real operating system works with linux or
freebsd.  Even many of the languages are no longer stable -- we've
already discussed on this thread the dazzling array of choices and what
is or isn't the "right" thing for high school students to learn, and
even if we achieved perfect punditry and picked the right one for these
times, in three years chances are good it would be something else.

I remember well the times when Pascal was the darling of programming
classes because of a) $45 Turbo Pascal -- 'nuf said; b) Pascal wore
jackboots and carried a riding crop while telling the student "You vill
program with strucTURE, Yes?  Place the variables and prototypes FIRST
or you vill be punISHED.  Vat?  You want to do bottom up programming?
NO, NO, NO!" (Aside to an aide) "Shoot him..."  Ahh, Pascal (and topdown
programming in general) where are you today?  Now it is all OO
programming and C++ and java.  And java is showing some signs of having
run its course.  Etc.

The point of which isn't to argue that java is in or out, or that pascal
is a dark evil fascist language, it is to point out that it isn't just
the computer HARDWARE that has to be maintained in perpetuity in order
to sustain the teaching of computers in secondary schools, nor even the
SOFTWARE, but maintaining the WETWARE is more important still.  And this
is by far the most difficult.  Starting with a perfectly competent
teacher, without CONTINUAL maintenance many of their skills and much of
what they start out teaching will be obsolete within five years.
Starting with a motivated but untrained teacher the problem is even
greater.  And there is a tremendous void in mid-level teaching resources
to teach the teachers -- community college programs and the like.  And
there is resistance to the notion that (unlike teaching English or
Calculus) your learning process is never finished, being a competent
teacher of computing is totally unlike being a competent teacher of ANY
of the subjects that can be "mastered" because the fields themselves are
not really dynamic any more at any level relevant to high school.  And
BASELINE skills maintenance in perpetuity requires a peculiar sort of
person, time, and money (where by baseline I don't mean advanced, I mean
just being able to cope when Win 3.2 turns to Win 95 turns to Win NT
turns to Linux, being able to give up Basica and do Pascal, being able
to give up Pascal and do C++, being able to give up C++ and do Java,
being able to give up Java and do perl, or python, or matlab, ad nauseam
ad infinitum).

80% of the people I know who are computing professionals who DO this as
a matter of course are by nature introverted and slightly obsessed with
IT and group-maintain on lists like this, on IRC, by hacking and playing
with systems, by NON-academic activities that they spend what would
otherwise laughably be called free time on.  They tend to do this
instead of spending that time with humans.  This is the OPPOSITE profile
to that of a successful teacher -- outgoing and human oriented,
compassionate and committed, unlikely to find a lot of pleasure from
interacting with a computer just to see what it can do when this or that
button is tweaked, or to learn a new programming language just because
it looks cool or might be useful to do some particular thing that they
want to do.

I really do think that this is the fundamental source of the conflict.
The number of people who are BOTH obsessive and willing to train
"forever" AND outgoing and humanistic enough to be a really good teacher
is very, very limited.  Add to that the salary differential, the fact
that your whole career will be pushing rocks up hills formed of the
infinity of school administrators and bean counters, who don't
understand why teaching computing is different from teaching a subject
whose basic content was frozen out back in the 1800's or at the latest
early 1900's, the lack of anything like an organized track for training
in perpetuity or in most communities even the rudimentary resources for
obtaining that training except in industrial-job-oriented courses at
community colleges, and...

...I personally think it is a MIRACLE that we have high schools that DO have
moderately successful computing programs.  Usually driven by a mix of
the kids (some small fraction of whom are hackers born who "demand" it),
the kids parents, who recognize the importance of computing skills of
SOME sort or another without recognizing the depth of the problem, and a
few amazing, young, energetic, and dedicated teachers who are driven to
overcome the hills, who find some sort of mechanism for keeping their
knowledge adequately fresh (possibly by creating the right environment
AT their schools and using the kids themselves as foils and
co-participants), who manage to fight the budget dragons over and over
again as they rise from their own ashes -- and win, or at least win

Love indeed.  But few last.  This is a path to professional burnout, and
there is such a seductive, tempting path leading them astray...

>>> So, get that endowment fund going.
>> Interesting solution!  Of course this produces a sort of awkward
>> plutocracy as far as setting curricula is concerned, where someone or
>> some corporation (ahem, ahem) with lots of money (ahem) and an agenda
>> (ahem) can endow a fund with strings attached and arrange to shape those
>> young minds along the paths they select.
> But this happens anyway, just in other areas (athletics springs to mind).

Not the same model.  And there ALL the teaching faculty rebel against
it, and most higher level administrators have finally gotten it through
their head that the price of crossing certain lines is too great.

But who even blinks when an entire state (e.g. North Carolina) judges
computing competence on the basis of a demonstrated knowledge of a suite
of proprietary tools available only from a single vendor that just
happens to be the largest and most dangerous (from the point of view of
endangering our personal and political freedoms, not just fleecing our
pockets) monopoly the world has ever seen?

Nobody, of course.

>> optimization problem.  One might THINK that communities have the right
>> to determine what school size is best for their own community's needs.
>> Not according to the Gates foundation.
> Communities have decided to do things in the past that are demonstrably 
> inappropriate: segregated schools spring to mind. Local school boards are 
> typically not educationally sophisticated, and tend to respond to loud 
> voices, reasonable or not.  One hopes for a reasonably sophisticated 
> professional infrastructure at the county and state that provides a decent 
> framework within which a local school board can work. State textbook 
> adoptions are a good example.  If you use the state textbooks, you get money 
> to buy them.  (Mind you, textbook adoption is itself an interesting can of 
> worms.  Read Feynman's comments on the process in one of his books). 
> California, for instance, publishes "framework" documents that describe an 
> integrated K-12 plan for each subject (i.e. in Grade 4, we all talk about 
> California history, and cover the following areas)

I'm not at all arguing that local community school boards are perfect or
that democracy is some sort of anodyne for all human ills.  I'm arguing
that it is a Capital Mistake in human society to put Foxes in charge of
Henhouses.  As a fundamental principle.  Foxes come dressed in many
forms, as do wolves, e.g. in sheep's clothing.  In our communities we
regularly (for example) elect real estate agents to the city governments
as mayors or city councilpersons, and then wonder why zoning laws are
changed to wreck communities, why "growth" is valued to the point of
utter insanity, with a city adding still more housing tracts over yet
another patch of ex-farmland or forest when it already has water
restrictions every dry summer because its water resources cannot support
the population it already has.  We elect as president a man whose
primary business accomplishment is participating in two businesses in
the oil industry, both of which failed, both of which HE somehow made
money from even AS they failed and who has always been supported by the
oil business and wonder why "suddenly" Iraq is somehow responsible for
9/11.  We elect as vice president the ex-CEO of Halliburton and wonder
why it gets a no-body contract in a faraway country we've invaded where
graft is a way of life and where billions of dollars can disappear
without a trace with no questions asked.

Sigh.  Democracy isn't perfect, and "the people" can be complete idiots
with their heads up their arses, but they are at their MOST idiotic when
they give UP their power, by vote, to Foxes in their many forms, when
they accept bread and circuses and tax cuts in lieu of facing the real
costs and benefits of running a civilization sustainably.  In general,
it beats the hell out of the alternatives, and if nothing else,
maintaining the democratic form permits one to periodically clean house,
to "throw the rascals out", to create changes that do, slowly, improve

> Anyway, an excellent discussion.



> jim 
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Robert G. Brown	                       http://www.phy.duke.edu/~rgb/
Duke University Dept. of Physics, Box 90305
Durham, N.C. 27708-0305
Phone: 1-919-660-2567  Fax: 919-660-2525     email:rgb at phy.duke.edu

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