The Language Of The 21st Century

There are a couple four-year-olds in my vicinity. Their parents are trying to do the right thing by reading to them, taking them to museums, introducing them to organized games, attempting to teach them their letters and numbers. But all that may be anachronistic already.

They now share an iPad with kid apps and much of their reading is not in books but on electronic devices. They may know a bit about animals, vegetable sand minerals, but a lot more about Transformers and Power Rangers.

Yet, when they get to school, they are likely to encounter a curriculum more suited to the world of Horatio Alger than to that of Optimus Prime. The language of success changes from one generation to the next and woe-betide the child educated in an outmoded lexicon. I admit the necessity while feeling more and more like a 19th century man marooned in a 21st Century world.

For years, the educated gentleman was expected to know his Bible, Shakespeare, Iliad and Aeneid. He learned history, logic, rhetoric, Latin and maybe French. If he was advanced, maybe even Greek.

This prepared him to speak like a gentleman, trade allusions to the common stock of knowledge with the similarly educated and possibly practice law or medicine, such as it was. He might even try to manage his estate, but his impractical education did not really provide the tools for that. The mismanagement of Downton Abbey by the ill-prepared Earl of Grantham is no fiction.

By 1900, the British Empire was being outcompeted in an industrialized world by Americans and especially the Germans whose schools had embraced science and engineering, economics, finance and even agriculture as disciplines not beneath the dignity of an educated man.

It is no accident that most of the men who remade physics and chemistry in the early 20th century were educated on the continent or that Americans seeking to do science at the highest level before World War II felt compelled to study abroad. Oppenheimer, for example, did post-graduate work at Gottingen, other contemporaries elsewhere in German, in Denmark, Switzerland or at Cambridge. The language of progress and the passport to success had shifted from the humanities to the sciences and mathematics.

Today, the tables are turned. Many strivers from abroad come here to study science at a high level or to collect a medical or MBA degree. But once again the language of success has moved on, this time to the new world of the 21st century. Those four-year-olds may already be lagging their more plugged-in peers. It’s all about the code, babies. Really!

Andy Kessler, a former hedge fund manager, writing recently in the Wall Street Journal, advised mothers to teach their babies to grow up to be software coders. Why? To follow the money, of course. These ubernerds are so in demand and in such short supply that they can write their own ticket. In code, presumably. According to Kessler, a 27-year-old coder at Google is one of 52,000 employees and probably longs for a little more freedom and impact on the job, but he’s trapped by Golden Handcuffs. That is, a compensation package so plush that he can’t afford to go elsewhere. To hire such people away, companies are offering in the neighborhood of $250,000 per annum with “$8 million in restricted stock units, typically vesting over four years.”

Seeing the lay of the land, once backward Britain now seems determined not to short-change the rising generation. A measure has just passed to mandate software coding classes in all primary and secondary schools. Estonia now starts students coding in first grade. Presumably in Asia the lessons begin in the womb.

Meanwhile in America, the fights are over how much to cut school funding, whether the high school literature choices have offensive words in them, whether the teaching of history should be based on research or should provide a sanitized version acceptable to politically timid school boards and designed to produce patriots rather than scholars, and whether to tell the children about Darwin or stick to Genesis. Obviously, we’re doomed.

And even as we debate the pros and cons of 19th century science, the supremacy of software coders may be under challenge by an even more exotic class of coders — those fooling with DNA. So called biohackers are now doing with living matter what Jobs and Gates did in their garages with silicon.

It is now possible to practice do-it-yourself genetic experiments at home. One bunch of biohackers, for example, is trying to transfer bioluminescent genes from fireflies into plants so that someday streetlights will be obsolete. Instead, the stately trees along your avenue will light your way at night by glowing in the dark.

Oh, Brave New World that has such coders in it. But the world changes, and one had better keep up. Any four-year-old who isn’t learning the language of software or of genetics is being prepared for the past. And the job prospects in the buggy whip business don’t look good. On the other hand, I may be too old to be comfortable when the kids start making my toaster talk to me in the voice of Optimus Prime or reengineer the toast so that it emits its own jelly.

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