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India’s National Education Policy 2020 (NEP) is an omnibus document. It tries to embrace all the change that it sees unfolding before it. Various keywords that construct and advertise the 21st century have been woven into it. Phrases like “artificial intelligence", “machine learning", “big data" and “computational thinking" are sprinkled around. One of the bridges that it builds to what it assumes to be a damn-sure future is a proposal of lessons in computer coding for middle-school children. Those in class VI, that is, at the threshold of their adolescence.

For some strange reason, the NEP’s proposal for “coding activities" reads like Macaulay’s minute for English education in the early 19th century, when the focus was to develop Indian clerks for the progress of the East India Company and British Empire. However outrageous it may sound, to push children into coding so early in life may be about developing clerks for the digital age. There is nothing wrong in learning something new, but the question is: Should code writing, an act of instructing computers in clipped languages that convert to binary codes, be seen as a basic skill like reading or a life skill like swimming? Or, should it remain a vocational skill, based on aptitude? Coding is not to be confused with computer literacy, which children anyway pick up very early, given the gadgets all around.

It’s not hard to see where the push for “catch them young" is coming from. There is a romance about the Silicon Valley school/college dropout billionaire that has entered our new world mythologies, one that the NEP clearly subscribes to. Examine advertisements from teaching factories that prop up on the social media feeds of parents. Here’s a sample proposition: “Kickstart your kid’s journey to create the next billion-dollar idea of the tech world." It also promises to send “handpicked passionate early coders to Silicon Valley..." The course, it adds, will teach “foundational understanding of logic, structure, sequence, commands and algorithmic thinking." The industry’s campaigning is strong. We may desire many skills that would help our children handle their emotional well-being at that age, but those skills may not receive such a push because there is no industry to promote them. There are no stocks to be traded, nor profits to be made.

Yet, we should have far more serious concerns. Coding, as ads claim, pushes a child towards precision, logic and structures of a binary kind. What if this early training creates a linearity in their thinking patterns that may weaken or erase other ways of thinking? What if it even partially shuts a child’s ability to read the diversity and complexities of human ideas, histories, justice and life itself? In other words, what if coding surreptitiously overrides every other possibility, and flattens the child’s world? Coding is not critical thinking. For that, it would be instructive to read the National Curriculum Framework released in 2005. Coding is technology masked as pure science, which it is not.

The classic question is this: Should we teach our children to be bricklayers in middle school or should we allow them to evolve as architects with a broad overview of the world? It may be better for a child to acquire broader frames of reference to knowledge at age 11 before they get into vocational specifics. In the US, as The New York Times reported in 2017, it was the tech industry that was pushing coding into classrooms. It said Apple chief executive Timothy Cook had brought it up during a meeting of tech titans at the White House: “But even without [Donald] Trump’s support, Silicon Valley is already advancing that agenda—thanks to the marketing prowess of Code.org, an industry-backed nonprofit group", the report said, adding Code.org had raised more than $60 million by 2017 from tech companies.

Consider this. In the 20th century, when manufacturing was in boom, education policy did not think of training kids to be car mechanics. But software and coding has a special cultural context in India, where what we do with our head and what we do with our hands is intricately inflected by notions of caste and class. There is an attempt to stratify skills. In the NEP, electric work, carpentry, etc, find mention as “fun courses".

Kenneth Keniston, the late social psychologist at MIT, told me in 1998 why he was studying the cultural implications of software: “Software is not merely a way of solving problems or writing texts or transferring data, but it also carries implicit or embedded or hidden cultural assumptions." The debut of coding in our curriculum also has deep cultural assumptions.

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