Stop Saying ``Computer Literacy''!

Brian Harvey
University of California, Berkeley

[A version of this paper was published in Classroom Computer News in 1983.]

As computers become more widely used in schools, educators have invented many different ways to use them. The different uses for computers are based on quite diverse models of what the purposes of computer education should be. One very common approach is based on the notion of ``computer literacy'': the idea that there is some basic familiarity with computers which all students need in order to compete in the job market, or to be informed citizens. The purpose of this paper is to question whether that notion is valid.

The Importance of Metaphor

Several educators have questioned the specific details of particular ``literacy'' plans, while accepting the overall concept. ``Computer literacy doesn't mean X,'' they say, ``it means Y.'' For example, Arthur Luehrmann says, ``[C]omputer literacy must also mean the ability to do computing, and not merely to recognize, identify, or be aware of alleged facts about computing.'' (Luehrmann, 1981) His argument is that a computer curriculum should give students actual programming experience, not just reading about computers in a book. But Luehrmann accepts the concept of computer literacy itself, the idea that there is something which every student must learn. He questions only the details of just what this something is.

What I would like to do is call into question the claim that there is anything about computers which belongs in the school experience of every student. I agree with Luehrmann that programming can be a valuable experience. But the word ``literacy'' means more than that; it means that everyone must have the experience in order to be able to function at all in society.

Many people, hearing me make this argument, have complained that it is foolish to argue about a word. ``Call it something else, then, and let's get on with deciding what it should be.'' This complaint misses the point, and indeed could be said to prove the point. People who have become accustomed to the ``literacy'' idea find it very difficult even to entertain the question of whether there is any universally required computer experience.

The trouble is that the word ``literacy'' is a magic word, which conjures up a very strong metaphor. Literacy in its original sense, knowing how to read, really is universally required in our society. Any educator who suggested eliminating reading from the curriculum would be laughed at, if not tarred and feathered. Merely to say the phrase ``computer literacy'' definitively answers a question which has not explicitly been asked. It's like the classic ``When did you stop beating your wife,'' but harder to recognize because it is so widely used.

One practical result of the literacy metaphor is that many decisions about computer education have been made in a kind of panic. Parents call up the school committee to ask why their children are not being trained for the vital computer job skill. These parents may not know just what that skill is, and neither does the school committee. But they do know that the private school down the road has computers.

What Everyone Needs to Know

It's quite true that more and more jobs involve the use of computers. That's different from saying that these jobs involve computer expertise. Let's look at some examples.

A good example of a computer-using job is that of selling hamburgers at McDonald's. That machine behind the counter which looks like a cash register is actually a computer terminal. When you order a Quarter-pounder with cheese, instead of ringing up whatever the price is, the counter person pushes a button which says ``Quarter-pounder with cheese.'' The computer displays the price, but it also keeps track of how many of this item are sitting under the heat lamps. If they're running short, the computer tells the cooks in the back to make more. The same computer can tell the manager to buy more hamburger buns at the right time. It's a pretty sophisticated system, and helps make McDonald's a low-overhead operation.

Now, what does the person behind the McDonald's counter need to know about computers? He only needs to know that when you ask for a Quarter-pounder with cheese, he should push the button which says ``Quarter-pounder with cheese.'' That's it. Nothing about input unit, output unit, processor, and memory; nothing about programming either.

Perhaps a more common example is that of computer word processing. The word processor involves a much more intimate interaction with the computer than selling hamburgers. Still, the manufacturers of word processing systems take pains to hide the computer, to make the way you operate the machine as much as possible like operating an ordinary typewriter. What skills does a word processing operator need? For the most part, exactly the same skills a secretary needed before word processing: good spelling and punctuation, touch typing, being able to read the boss's handwriting. What the computer adds is mostly a matter of pushing the ``paragraph'' button instead of the carriage return and the tab.

There are more specifically computer-related skills, of course, like threading the fanfold paper into the printer. But that's the sort of thing which is done differently for each specific model, and which is part of a very specific job training program. It isn't what you'd teach in a ``computer literacy'' course for everyone.

Perhaps the point really is that there are too many different computer-related skills to teach all of them to every student. Using a spreadsheet program, for example, is very different from using a word processor. Using a microprocessor-controlled automobile engine tester is very different from either. Neither ``this is the return key'' nor actual programming will help much with any of those job activities.

An Analogy

Virtually everyone in our society deals with automobiles. Each of us would do well to know about what goes on under the hood, and many people do. But many don't, and they function okay. When the car breaks down, they call the AAA. Some people drive in unusual conditions, far from help, and those people may need to be self-reliant in the field of automobile repair. But it would be silly to require an auto mechanics course for every student. It would be even sillier to require an ``automobile literacy'' course in which students read about cars without using one. Many students do find driver training worthwhile, but even that isn't required. Some people don't drive; some grow up on farms and start driving tractors long before the official driver training age; some are taught by their parents.

Reasons for Computer Literacy

I think the notion of computer literacy grew up in the first place as an accident of history, because of the great speed with which computers have become important. Curriculum developers are, by and large, 30 or 40 or 50 years old. They grew up in a world without computers. Suddenly, they have had to face up to a shocking change in the very nature of the world around them. In inventing computer literacy courses, they have designed a curriculum for themselves, not for the kids who have grown up with Pacman, automated bank tellers, and bar code readers in the supermarket.

Another, more sophisticated reason is a confusion about the role of education in social mobility. Many people think that by learning to program computers one can get a good job. The problem with this idea is that what works for a few people stops working when everyone does it. Many years ago, hardly anyone had a high school diploma. Those who did have one could get the cream of the jobs. A few decades ago, about half the population of the United States graduated from high school. They didn't get the very best jobs--by then, you needed a college diploma for that--but they did get decent and fairly secure jobs. Now, almost everyone has a high school diploma, and it's worthless.

Similarly, the day of the matchbook-cover computer school as the route to riches is already over. There are many openings for computer programmers, but the jobs go to people with Computer Science doctorates, preferably with experience. There is still room for the programming entrepreneur, but the people who succeed in that role are not the product of computer literacy courses. They are computer enthusiasts who do it because it's fun, not because it's homework.

I believe that the effect of the ``computer literacy'' movement will be the opposite of what is intended. In the early days, when very few schools offered such courses, their alumni really did have a competitive edge in the job market. But as we approach the day when every school offers ``literacy'' courses, a day eagerly sought by those who believe in the literacy metaphor, there will be more ``literates'' than jobs. Those who have taken the courses won't find easy jobs. But those who haven't taken the courses will be completely out of luck. Ironically, the literacy metaphor will become self-fulfilling, not because there is any real need for such training, but because employers will start demanding it as a filter for job applicants, just as there is no real basis for requiring a high school diploma for many jobs today.

It used to be that computer companies like IBM ran their own training program for their employees. A friend of my family was a high school dropout who was hired by IBM as a keypunch operator, and through IBM's training courses learned to program. She is now a very successful senior programmer. That sort of opportunity isn't available any more; you need both a diploma and data processing experience to get hired at IBM. The poor and the black, who are disproportionately high school dropouts, will find one more barrier to employment as ``computer literacy'' joins the list of school subjects which some people pass and some fail.

Another Analogy

For a moment, forget about the idea of survival skills, like reading, and think instead about the high school newspaper. Some kids work on the newspaper and some don't. For those who do, it is an incredibly valuable experience. The value is not realized only for those students who go on to become professional journalists. Everyone who participates learns writing skills, critical thinking skills, and the subtler skills of meeting deadlines, getting the job done, depending on themselves instead of on some adult. I would recommend the experience to any young person.

But those who don't join the newspaper staff aren't unemployable. There are other ways to learn the same skills. Also, some people may not learn those skills at all, but may learn different skills, in a different setting, perhaps even out of school.

Now imagine that for some reason there grew up a national movement for ``journalism literacy.'' Need I describe the results? Aside from the economic and political disaster I've already mentioned, the quality of the newspapers themselves would go down. The learning experience would become a much less valuable one, intrinsically, job status aside.

So What Should We Be Doing?

If computer literacy is the wrong idea, what's the right idea?

One right idea, I think, is suggested by the newspaper analogy. The computer can be an appealing medium for learning for some students, without being forced upon every student. Computers are a general-purpose tool; they may appeal to different students in different ways. One student may like graphics and animation. Another may like electronic mail. Another may prefer video games. The architecture and scheduling of a computer facility should encourage all these diverse uses.

Another right idea is to make the computer available to students as a serious tool, in their lives right now, not as something they'll need later. Probably the most important example of this approach is word processing. Students have to write many papers, for English teachers, history teachers, and so on. Word processing can make the mechanics of this task much easier, encouraging second drafts. Instead of setting up a required course, try just letting students know that this facility is available to them if they want it. But provide enough printers to handle the load!

Finally, for students who are interested, the computer can be valuable not as narrow job training, but as a medium for developing problem-solving skills. It can also be a medium for developing independence, since not every student need be doing the same programming project at the same time. This educational use of computer programming is the central idea behind the Logo approach to computer education (Papert, 1980).


What's in a name? A great deal, when the name brings in a strong hidden assumption about the sociology and economics of the job market. ``Computer literacy'' implies some skill or knowledge which is necessary for every person to be able to cope with the computer-centered society. This implication leads to certain specific policy decisions about computer education; for example, it leads to spreading out the available computer time (of which there is never enough) among a very large number of students, some of whom aren't interested. The ones who are interested then don't get enough time to pursue their interest in any meaningful way.

The model implied by the literacy metaphor is false. There are no universally valuable computer skills, or universally important facts about computers. Changing the definition of ``computer literacy'' to contain more programming experience, or more study of social implications, or more study of binary numbers, is missing the point.

The bad drives out the good. As more and more schools adopt the ``literacy'' metaphor, other schools are under terrible pressure to go along. The day will come when the metaphor becomes self-fulfilling. To prevent that, we must decide explicitly to reject this model for computer education.


Luehrmann, Arthur. "Computer Literacy--What Should It Be?" The Mathematics Teacher vol 74 no 9, Dec 1981.

Papert, Seymour. Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas Basic Books, 1980.