Learning to code is not enough
The very existence of these training efforts reflected a mixed set of motivations on the part of the organizers, who were mostly wealthy white volunteers. These volunteers tended to confuse living in an urban area with living in poverty, and to assume that people living in these conditions were not white, and that all such people could be lumped together under the heading “disadvantaged”. They imagined that learning to code would provide an easy way out of poverty for these participants. But their thinking demonstrated little understanding of the barriers imposed by centuries of slavery, unpaid work, Jim Crow-style violence, wage discrimination, and separate and unequal education, health care and housing. Largely with their own interests in mind, they saw these upgrading programs as a panacea for racial inequality and the social instability it fueled. A group from an ACM chapter in Delaware, a conference report suggested, felt that “in these days of urban crisis, the data processing industry offers a unique opportunity for disadvantaged people to get involved in the current dominant in the American way of life.
If success is defined as getting increasing numbers of black and Hispanic men and women into good jobs in the IT profession – and, by extension, giving them the ability to shape and inform the technologies that would reshape the world – then these programs failed. As researcher Arvid Nelsen has observed, while some volunteers “may have focused on the needs and desires of the communities themselves”, others were simply looking for a band-aid for “civil unrest”. Meanwhile, Nelsen notes, companies benefited from “a source of cheap labor with much more limited power.” In short, training people to code didn’t mean they would get better, better paying, more stable jobs – it just meant there was a larger pool of potential entry-level employees who would cut costs. of labor for the growing computer industry. .
In fact, observers identified shortcomings in these efforts even then. Walter DeLegall, a black computer professional at Columbia University, said in 1969 that the “magic of computer training” was not a silver bullet and that rapid training programs reflected the shortcomings of computer science. American public education for black and Spanish-speaking students. He questioned their motivation, suggesting that they were sometimes organized for “commercial reasons or simply to defuse and dispel the growing discontent of these communities” rather than to promote fairness and justice.
The Algebra Project
There was a grassroots effort that addressed these shortcomings, approaching the computer revolution from an entirely different angle.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, civil rights activist Robert P. Moses lived with his family in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where his daughter Maisha attended Martin Luther King Public School and he carried volunteer to teach algebra. He noticed that math groups were unofficially separated by race and class, and much less was expected of black and brown students. Early on, he also identified computers—and computer-dependent intellectual labor—as a growing source of economic, political, and social power. Going to college was increasingly important to achieving that kind of power, and Moses saw that one of the keys to doing so was a foundation in high school math, especially algebra. He created the Algebra Project in the early 1980s, starting in Cambridge Public Schools and supported by a MacArthur “genius grant” which he received in 1982.
In a book he later co-wrote, Radical Equations: Mississippi Civil Rights at the Algebra Project, Moses clearly articulated the connections between mathematics, computing, economic justice, and political power, especially for black Americans. “The most pressing social issue affecting the poor and people of color is economic access. In today’s world, economic access and full citizenship depend critically on math and science literacy. “, he wrote. “The computer has become a cultural force as well as an instrument of work (and) while the visible manifestation of the technological shift is the computer, the hidden culture of computers is mathematics. ”
Arming black students with the tools of math literacy was radical in the 1980s precisely because it challenged power dynamics.
Moses had earned his bachelor’s degree at Hamilton College in New York and a master’s degree at Harvard University before teaching mathematics at the Horace Mann School in the Bronx from 1958 to 1961. For him, arming black students with the tools of Mathematical literacy was radical in the 1980s precisely because access to technology meant access to power. “Who will have access to the new technology? He asked. “Who will control it? What should we demand from the education system to prepare for the new technological era? »
Moses mobilized students and parents to ensure that algebra was offered to all students at Martin Luther King School. He devised new approaches to teaching the subject and, drawing on his experience in grassroots civil rights organizing, enrolled students to teach their peers. College admission rates and test scores have increased at the school, and the Algebra Project has expanded to at least 22 other sites in 13 states. He focused on math because Moses identified math as the foundation of coding, and issues have always been tied to economic justice and educational equity in an algorithm-based economy and Datas.
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