strangest systems I've sent email from

Brian L. Stuart blstuart at
Mon Apr 25 16:46:39 CDT 2016

On Mon, 4/25/16, Swift Griggs <swiftgriggs at> wrote:
>The idea is somewhat that if students learn a
> "good" language that'll teach them some meta-structure that will help them
> later.

Certainly a lot of people do view it that way, but it's not what I was
getting at or how I see it.  Based on my experience, the virtues of
any single language are pretty much irrelevant.  What's vitally
important is that the student emerge with a deep understanding
of how a variety of languages actually work, how they're processed
and how the computer executes code written in them.  If you have
that deep understanding with a sampling of languages that represent
some of the variety of techniques and paradigms (for lack of a
better term), then you'll be able to pick up and adapt to most any
language that comes along.  To tell you the truth, I'm not very
likely to hire anyone who isn't conversant with at least half a
dozen different languages.  To summarize, my focus isn't on the
skills of any particular lanugage; it's on the understanding of the
fundamental concepts, principles, techniques, and mechanisms
that make up the world of computing.

>Then, let me say that the *idea* that I was attacking Pascal via
> Oberon rather than the Ivory Tower Academics is ridiculous. 

I did understand the point in your first message to be anit-"Ivory
Tower Academics."  However, my point it is that viewing the people
you have identified as such and dismissing their experience and
expertise is a narrow-minded and short-sighted perspective.
> Your point might be 
> logically valid, but ask a 23 year old if they care when they can't get a 
> job after giving the uni a quarter million bucks and 4-5 years of time
> they spent being "educated" rather than "trained".

It's interesting that you pick that age as the example.  My daughter
is 23.  For her, the undergraduate experience wasn't about a job
at all.  It was about exploring the intellectual world and (to borrow
from Thoreau) sucking the marrow out of that life.  In the interest of
full disclosure, however, I should point out that she's not typical
of most college students (although I wish more were like her).  She
did grow up in a household that averages more than two degrees
per person and she did triple major in her four undergrad years.
(A proud daddy can't help but brag a little. :) )
> The underlying point I  was making is that schools don't always
> "train" a person ...

I apologize if I misinterpret, but I also detect the suggestion that they
are supposed to.  I don't disagree that they don't train, but I do
disagree that's what their purpose is.  I'm not suggesting that
some degree of training coming along with the education is a
bad thing.  However, I'm saying that's not the primary purpose
of the university.

>  and that's what I wanted and actually needed.

There seems to be an implication here of an XOR when I look
for an AND.  In particular, if I have a candidate sitting across
the interview desk from me, I'm not interested unless they have
both education and training.  I expect the education to come
from a formal environment where people of long experience
can help the student understand many perspectives.  I expect
the training to come from self-directed experience.  Unless a
candidate shows both the ability to work in a rigorous intellectual
manner and the self motivation to go beyond what they've been
given, I'm not interested.

> all but one of the  profs had
> turned off their brains in 1986 and it was the 90's.

It's certainly true that does happen both in academics and
in industry.  However, more often than not, the ideas that
were seen as "new" in the '80s, '90s, '00s, and '10s, are
really ideas that the Computer Science community saw,
studied, understood, etc in the '50s, '60s, and '70s.  So
what appears to be out of touch is often really a broader
perspective and one worth understanding and learning from.

> True. I wonder though, do you believe that teaching a
> language with almost  zero commercial value is justified
> in the name of education because of  it's superior "meta"
> qualities ?

I'm not sure I can answer the question as you've posed it.
As I said, I tend to consider the choice of any single
language to be mostly irrelevant.  I'm much more interested
in the neural pathways that the student builds as a result
of the experience of coming to understand a large set of
languages.  As it turns out, I am currently involved with a
restructuring of the introductory programming sequence at
one university.  Our choice of languages was driven by
both pedagogical and vocational considerations.  Were
our environment different such that we should have looked
at only one or the other, then we would have chosen
differently.  Regardless of what we did pick, we never
intended for the freshman languages to be the only languages
our students knew before graduation.  No one or two
languages will give the breadth and depth needed pedagogically.
Neither will any one or two languages suffice for building a
career as a computer scientist.

> Grades aren't meaningless if you have a grant/scholarship
> to maintain or  need to get into graduate school.

There are expected minimums, certainly.  Based on my experiences
in both academics and industry, I would have my doubts about
whether someone is really cut out for a CS major if they can't
average Bs in their major classes.  On the other hand, I have yet
to be in a hiring meeting where one candidate was chosen over
another because they had a 3.5 vs the 3.3 the other candidate
had.  For that matter, I always question candidates that come
in front of me who have 4.0 averages.  Before I can take them
seriously, I need to see some evidence that learning new things
is a higher priority to them than the grade.  It goes back to the
expectation that the candidate show evidence that they can
pick things up on their own as well as in the classroom.

> They have  plenty
> of meaning to employers like IBM who might not hire you for
> that  entry-level position with a low GPA.

Actually, it's better to consider companies with unenlightened
cutoffs to be simply advertising that they are not where you want
to be.

> They might not reflect some aspect of  education or learning
> you think is important, but there is more to going  to uni than just
> to get a mind expanding education.

The purpose of the university is the discovery, dissemination,
preservation, and interpretation of knowledge.  A necessary, but
not sufficient, part of being well-prepared for a professional career
is the exposure to that breadth and depth of knowledge.  I would
rephrase your statement to say that there's more to preparing for
a career than just getting a university degree.

> I think folks who haven't been to school in 20+ years have a totally 
> warped view of what is happening nowadays.

I might point out that on this mailing list, you will find people who
are all across the spectrum with exposure to education.  Some of
us were students many years ago and haven't had much contact
since.  Some of us have been students recently.  Some of us have
siginificant faculty experience.  As with the experience of changes
in the CS field, I'd suggest that the longer the period of time over
which one has experience with education the less warped the
view of what's happening.  However, each individual must
decide for themselves whose opinions and experiences earn their

> All our code was in C  or C++ and we found that none of the students
> from the local universities  had those skills.

Although there are plenty who disagree with me, I argue that the
purpose of the university experience isn't the skills; it's the understanding.
I always say I want to hire the preson who I can tell on Friday that
we'll be using Intercal for the project and they'll spend the weekend
teaching themselves the language and come in Monday morning
ready to code in Intercal.  I (as well as entrepreneurs I know) have
very little interest in how much experience and skill a candidate
has in a particular language.  The reality is no matter what their
experience is coming in, I'm going to have to teach them how to
do things the way I want them done.

> I could only attribute that to the memorize-and-regurgitate
> culture of the schools, but maybe it was just bad luck. 

It's a combination of bad luck and the ill effects of misplaced
priorities filtering up from the primary and secondary school

As I tell my students, there is a continuum of understanding.  At
one end, there is the mere repeat back to me what I've said to you.
If that's all a student can do, then there's not much value in it.
I can simply put the same information into a computer and then
not bother paying a person for it.  At the other end of the continuum
is the ability to ask the right next question, the understanding of
how our current knowledge came about, and the understanding
of how to advance that knowledge.  My objective in every class
I teach is to help each student move as far along that continuum
as they are capable.  The farther along that continuum you move,
the more you will be able to discover what has never been known
before and create what has never existed before.

Many would classify that perspective as "Ivory Tower."  They
might say, I can't put food on the table with that attitude.  I would
differ with that.  I have put food on the table for several decades,
and in only a few of those years were the funds coming primarily
from the academy.  Indeed I have realized that my level of understanding
and my drive to explore, investigate, and create are of significant
value to many.  Those who recognize that are willing to exchange
monatary renumeration for the contributions I can make.  Those who
don't recognize it self-select themselves out of the pool and I don't
have to worry about them.

Throughout this, it has not been my intention to in any way
dismiss your perspective or to suggest that it is a "wrong"
perspective.  Indeed, it's a perspective I'm quite familiar with.
Instead, my objective has been to suggest there's another
perspective whose consideration might lead to deeper understanding.
It is a perspective which attempts to temper the immediacy
of the question of tomorrow's employment with the longer-term
view of how that employment fits into the thousands of years
of human civilization.


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