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What's so bad about making it easier to learn Java?

Posted by kathysierra on January 19, 2004 at 12:55 PM PST

I was talking with author Dori Smith recently, and it turns out we both experienced a similar phenomenon: angry email and online posts about how we were making it too easy to learn Java. But is that really such a terrible thing? I know there's a lot of on- and off-line grumbling about whether it's a good idea to "teach the unteachable" or try to encourage "people who have no business programming in the first place."

Yes, this is an old debate (I like what Simon Phipps had to say after JavaOne), but my being on the receiving end of some of the anger is still kind of new to me, so I'd like to hear more about what's driving this mini-backlash against the new wave of books and developer tools intended to bring the not-quite-C++-gurus into the Java fold.

Is this in fact "dumbing down" and de-valuing the Java language and/or de-valuing Java programmers? Should we (Dori and I, and all other folks who try to teach Java to others or who build tools like Project RAVE) deliberately impose artificial barriers to entry to help guarantee that only the best and brightest can ever write Java code?

Is it really true, as some claim, that managers everywhere are going to snap up these one-step-beyond-supersizing-it programmers and toss out all the ones with real knowledge and skills? Is it true that if one needs a gentle introduction (or at least a different *kind* of introduction) to, say, the world of OO development, that it means he has no hope of ever becoming good at it?

Is there no way a Java developer can be any good without a CS degree? (Although there's always a certain amount of snobbery on both sides -- the CS grads (who may not have had real world experience) vs. the hard-core real-world vet who doesn't need no stinkin' degree.) Is there only one True Path by which a human can become a good Java programmer? And if there is, WHO decided what that path was supposed to look like? Is it possible that the path looks like that simply because... well, simply because it always HAS looked like that?

I might be kidding myself, but I like to think that *anyone* who is capable of learning to do this, and has the passion and interest in working at it and growing and improving, deserves the chance. Just because someone needs (or maybe just WANTS) an easier, brain-friendlier way to get started doesn't automatically mean that person is an idiot/dummy. And it doesn't mean that this person is doomed to write terrible code for life, bring large-scale projects to their knees, and signal the final dealth blow to the careers of seasoned developers.

OK, it sounds like I'm being melodramatic, but these are almost verbatim statements I've heard. But the weirdest thing for me is that some of the more vocal complainers I've heard from act as though they themselves were *born* with their knowledge and skills. But once upon a time, they too were absolute beginners. Everyone has to start somewhere.

Roger Schank, one of my favorite AI professors (founder of the Cognitive Science Society, former director of the Yale Artificial Intelligence Project), claims that the whole approach to teaching (and especially technical subjects) in higher ed in the US is almost completely contrary to everything we know about how the brain works. He claims (and the learning theories certainly seem to back this up) that students learn *in spite of* the ways in which complex subjects are taught in school, rather than *because of*. So, why do these methods still persist in universities? He believes there is a certain amount of, "Well, *I* had to suffer through it like that, and by god, SO WILL MY STUDENTS." And the whole thing just propogates forever, including extending into corporate training.

I guess I'm really bringing in multiple arguments here, so I'll try to summarize the main questions I have:

* Is it wrong to make it easy for those without a formal CS background or years of programming experience to learn Java and/or OO?

* Is it wrong to make learning a complex (and serious) technical topic *fun*? Does it degrade the topic? Does it degrade/insult those who worked hard to become expert at that topic?

* Now that just about all C/C++ programmers already know Java, who are these next 7 million going to be?

* Assuming there *is* at least *some* danger (and I believe there is) that some will come in to programming jobs lacking the understanding and appreciation we know they need, is there something we can do?

* In other words, rather than complaining that these next 7 million are going to be our downfall, can we take steps to help the new folks learn and appreciate more of the art and craft of OO development?

These new folks are going to need not just some "how-to" skills, but also "what-to" and "why-to" and "when-to" understanding. I'm not buying the whole sky-is-falling idea, but still, the concerns aren't completely without a basis. So, what can we do to help?

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