Old English, Programming, and the Liberal Arts

Learn to Code 1: Does Everybody Really Need to Program?

Learn to Code 2: The Many Reasons We Must Program (and the Few Why Not)

It’s easy to forget, if I don’t remind myself, how happy my professional life is.  I spend my working days reading interesting books, having conversations about those books with intelligent people, and teaching those intelligent people how to have more intelligent conversations (with better books).  In recent semesters, among the other fun things Emmanuel College has invited me to do (for pay!), I’ve been teaching rhetorical theory, theology, and Old English.  So of course I’ve been thinking lately about computer programming.

The connections might not seem obvious to those who think in chronological terms first.  After all, Christian theology has been around for a couple thousand years, and rhetorical theory goes back farther than that.  Of the trio, Old English is the youngster by a few centuries, and even it passed out of common use almost a millennium before people programmed computers for a living.  But thinking pedagogically sometimes means drawing lines across historical moments, and this is one of those moments when just such thinking sheds light on things.

Liberal Arts, Education for Republic

The telos of a liberal arts education, like the content of a liberal arts education, is always up for grabs.  In some historical moments education happens for the sake of governing an empire (like Daniel’s schooling in Babylon) and in other moments for the sake of individuals’ economic and social advancement (like Sophistic education in Athens).  Sometimes it’s for the sake of the Church, sometimes for the State.  There are moments when educators fool themselves into thinking that our guilds’ existence need no justification, and other times, we remember that education, by definition, always must be for the sake of something beyond itself.

I’ve been thinking lately about the ends for which education might exist in 2013, for Christians, and I’m inclined (predictably) to pull on an imaage that Augustine sets forth in The City of God book 19.  Rome, Augustine argues, is a mockery of the true republic, the public thing that is the Church.  A real republic, in Augustine’s argument, must have as its aim genuine goods, teloi towards which the life of the city aim, and Rome, because its gods are false ones, ultimately never could be a true republic, even by Cicero’s standards.

The image got me thinking because, as a professor in a Christian college, I’m serving my students as persons, to be sure, but I’m also at the service of the communities beyond my students’ individual persons, an educator of thinkers who serve, in turn, local gatherings of producers and consumers, of citizens and subjects, of the faithful and of the sent.  (That many of those who graduate from Emmanuel join the ranks of the “spiritual but not religious” certainly stands as a concern, but I’m inclined to think that service can happen without batting a thousand.)  And that service has its place in hierarchies of goods, and part of my job is to try to convince my students that some questions are better than others in ordering those hierarchies of goods.  I’m always going to try to convince my students that the city-of-cities, the Church, is ultimately that community which defines the proper limits of nations and companies and other communities, but I’d also be a great fool to deny that Jeremiah 29, among other texts in our tradition, make me think that seeking the shalom of the city can and should overlap with faithful service to YHWH and YHWH’s people.  So I’m always educating those who will serve not a community but a complex network of overlapping communities.

That’s the big picture.

Where Coding Comes In

The smaller picture, though, is that in the service of those communities, a liberal education should, while investigating what sorts of service are worth performing, should also give students intellectual tools for performing specifically intellectual service.  Over the centuries, educators Christian, Islamic, and classical-Athenian have gravitated towards rhetoric and mathematics (conceived broadly, in the sense that a person of great learning is a “polymath”) as the means to the end of shaping servants.  The rhetorical end I could write a book about, and in fact I’m in the process of doing just that.  The shaping of human reality by means of utterance is at the core of what we do, and Plato’s conception of rhetoric as the leading-of-souls is some really good stuff.

But I’m also a teacher of mathematical (in the sense of “bodies of knowledge”) material as well.  That’s where Old English comes in.  When a student has learned Old English, or Latin or other language whose roots provide the grounding for our modern discourse, she or he has the ability to see where and how we articulate things rhetorically in ways that, before learning those language, were not available.  Seeing that English does not have a future tense, in the ways that Greek and Latin and Spanish have future tenses, helps us to see the range of helping-verb constructions that we use to communicate futurity, and that in turn helps us both to see how other people communicate futurity and to do so ourselves in ways that lead the people around us to see reality truly.  The same goes for the loss of a true infinitive in modern English (try to state a verb’s infinitive without a helping word if you want to see what I mean), the idiosyncrasies of medieval and modern prepositional constructions, and other grammatical realities that become opaque (a student looks at them rather than through them, to borrow Richard Lanham’s phrases) with rigorous study.

And that’s what got me thinking of programming: as Doug Rushkoff notes in his dynamite book Program or Be Programmed, a familiarity with basics of web-programming like tagged text, search-and-sort algorithms, and database construction, while they might not lead to a paycheck for writing computer code, nonetheless do for a citizen or an employee something analogous to what an education in historical linguistics does for them, namely to help them see articulations of reality where those not-yet-educated see only smooth and undivided reality.

It’s not like I have to have reasons to come in to work and translate Old English poetry (or talk about web design) with bright students every day.  I’d do it just for the enjoyment.  But since I do try to conceive of my own service/ministry/mission in terms larger than what makes me smile, I figured I’d make this attempt.

What think ye: are these good reasons to teach Old English, rhetoric, computer programming, and other such liberal arts?

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