My name is Spencer Lazar. I am a venture capitalist at General Catalyst. I grew up with the internet, spend my life thinking about how it can make our lives better, and work with world-class entrepreneurs to affect that chanage. NYC is my home. This is my blog.

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Computer Programming as a Foreign Language

I went to The Laboratory School on the South Side of Chicago in Hyde Park.  It is a progressive K-12 institution established by John Dewey as a forum for University of Chicago researchers to explore innovative teaching techniques.  Grades K-2 involved puzzles, playing, gym class, and homeroom.  But come 3rd grade, kids were faced with two meaningful choices that combined would account for more than 25% of their classroom time: music and language.  While I have serious doubts about the value of learning to play the clarinet in a school band, I am a fan of mandating that students spend time exploring creative outlets.  The decision that pains me was my commitment to study French.

When I was selecting my language, I remember my father telling me that the most useful language one could learn was Latin.  Latin is the foundation of the most dominant Western tongues. It is extremely helpful in fields such as medicine and chemistry, where Latin roots help us categorize and ultimately understand the taxonomy of the natural elements around us.  To an 8 year old, Latin always seemed a funny choice though. While the language seemed everywhere, it was at once nowhere - as it is really no longer spoken.  Alas, my school did not offer Latin, so I chose the next best language - what I thought to be "the language of love" - French.  20 years later and many fantastic teachers & classes along the way, I consider it a huge waste of time.  Sure slipping a few words to a cab driver or business contact every now and again puts a smile on my face, but all in all, my having learned to speak French (as I assume would have been the case had I learned German, Spanish, or Italian or really any other Romance language) has added very little value to my life or those of others.  The Lab School is a great institution.  But, I think it, and frankly most general preparatory schools should enjoy a moment of introspection and consider the following proposal for reforming their approach to language arts in the 21st century: offer computer science as a foreign language.

Everyone should have a basic understanding of code.  When I was growing up, laptops did not exist.   Monitors were rarely capable of displaying more than 256 colors.  Number Munchers ruled all.  More kids knew Latin than knew how to read or write html.  Today, we cannot escape 1s & 0s.  In what Jim Robinson IV at RRE calls the great horizontalization, information technology is no longer an industry unto itself, but a necessary part of the DNA of every vertical on the planet.  Like other foreign languages, computer science follows a set of logical and linguistic properties.  It can be used as both a medium for communication and an outlet for creative expression.  Like Latin, it remains unspoken.  Unlike Latin, its centrality to our daily lives is growing - at a seemingly non-linear rate.  

My desire, however, is not to impose my own set of values on others.  For those language lovers out there, please continue to pursue your passions.  My proposal is specifically to give parents & students the option to count courses taken in computer science for a foreign language credit.  Students should be enabled and to some degree encouraged to pursue coursework that renders them relevant to the challenges and opportunities of the world that they will grow up to face.  They should not have to cram web design into an after-school activity or take an inappropriately large course load.  They should not only get curricular credit, but were should make it easier for them to do so.  My gut tells me that this is the type of progressive experiment that Dewey would have been in favor of. With all due respect to each of my adored French teachers, if I could turn back the hands of time, I would have pursued computer science given the option - they might even have too.

I will be contacting the Lab School about this issue.  If you agree, ping your alma mater.  I would be curious to hear what kind of experiences people have in challenging the status quo.

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    Advancement and technological inroads are very important and considered tools for the study and academics. It is beneficial and advantageous the knowledge and skills are implemented and organized. Its facts and significance is utilized and opened for the betterment.

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