I recently found an article on the BBC website about an campaign to get kids to study computer science called “Coding is the new Latin”. This made me ponder, as I studied latin in high-school. I think this slogan is quite correct, and probably very bad.
Computer science increasingly underpins all forms of communication in our societies, so did latin in the past. For a long time, learning latin was considered the basis of a proper education, and its proponent argued (and still do) that this is necessary because latin is a basic building block of our culture.
While learning latin gave me a better understanding of the french language, and was probably a good mental gymnastic to learn both programming and foreign languages like japanese, it was also quite boring and sterile. Latin is a dead language, so you basically spend your time translating stuff that has been translated by millions of students before you, you learn a lot of words, none of which will ever be used to even order a beer. Although some part of my latin courses might have paid off later, I did not enjoy them, nor was I very good, I had pretty bad grades. I also cannot pretend that I have a better understanding of culture and society around me than people who did not study latin.
What is the relationship with computer science? For most of my life, the world of computer science was full of dilettante, people who did no formal studies in that field. In fact, most of the famous people in the world of computers fall into this category: Bill Gates – studied at Harward, Steve Jobs – dropped out of College, Steve Wozniak – dropped out of Berkley, Mark Zuckerberg – dropped out Harvard, Tim Berners-Lee – studied physics, Grace Hopper – PhD in Math, was rejected from Vassar College because here latin scores were to low. Basically, once you get to the names the general public knows less or not at all, you get computer scientists: Vint Cerf, Linus Torvalds, James Gosling, etc…
Our cultural landscape is dominated by people who have never read a line of latin, the computer science landscape is dominated by people who did not study it. Sometimes the reasons are different, i.e. the people studied before computer science existed as a field of study, but one core similarity remains: both culture and computer-science have a low barrier to entry – although this might be changing.
Another similarity is in the study: studying latin is two things: understanding the grammar, memorising lots of vocabulary and then banging your head on how the various grammatical rules were abused in practice. Computer science is two things: mathematics, and coding. Everybody knows and fears maths, but coding is in my opinion closer to playing a musical instrument: there is a bit of theory, but it is mostly practice, you need to discover how the various computer science concepts were abused by frameworks and libraries.
There are marginally more chances of becoming rich or famous in studying computer science than latin, but the social stigma is also higher, when did you last see a stereotypical latinist in a hollywood movie?
Image: Lupa Capitolina – ⓒ Óscar Palmer – Creative Commons