I have an uncle who likes to talk about the car he had when he was a kid. I’m always impressed listening to him talk about how he used to tune the engine, change the oil, and adjust the timing on his ’67 Mustang all by himself. I have to admit that I’m a little jealous, since my automotive expertise ends with changing a flat or jumping a battery. The rest I leave to the folks at Jiffy Lube.

I’m told that with all the computers involved in running a car these days, it would be pointless to try to learn these skills myself. I would need special equipment and special training. I can’t say for sure, though, since I’ve never really tried to learn. I’ve resigned myself to the idea that with the American Automobile Association, cell phones, and roadside assistance, I just don’t need to know these things. After all, do you really need to know exactly how an engine works in order to drive?

I get the impression that when my parents were growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, most people who owned a car knew how to perform these routine maintenance tasks. Perhaps not everyone could rebuild an engine, but most people could change their oil and give themselves a tune-up. I also think I am not in the minority in my lack of knowledge today. Sure, many people can do it, but the majority of people either can’t or don’t. We seem to have lost interest in how the machine works and in having a hand in its maintenance.

I’m beginning to see a similar trend developing with computers. When the concept of the PC began to take shape back in the ’70s, the folks that jumped on board were intimately familiar with how those machines worked. Most of the first Altair 8800s were sold as kits that the user had to assemble. Once assembled, these machines were nothing more than paperweights until the user loaded a program into memory one bit at a time by flipping the switches on the front of the case. To own a personal computer in 1975 meant that you not only knew how to assemble the hardware, you also knew how to tell it what to do in machine language—ones and zeros.

Granted, Altair users in 1975 were largely made up of those folks who didn’t have much better use for their Saturday night than flipping switches on the front of their new PCs. Most people had a hard time understanding the point of such an exercise. The arrival of the Apple II in 1979 and VisiCalc in 1980, however, opened the PC market to the general population. While these folks weren’t writing machine language programs, they still had a fairly complete understanding of how their systems worked.

In the early ’80s, we began to see computer courses offered in elementary and high schools, and these courses tell us a lot about what we, as educators, thought was important for kids to know about computers. In 1983, the school I attended implemented its first “computer literacy” course. The mandatory full-year course introduced the various parts of the computer, how to turn it on, and how to handle floppy disks. (Remember when they really used to be floppy?) The bulk of this course, however, was spent teaching us how to write simple programs in BASIC. We had to write guessing-game and calculator programs. We learned about variables and loops, and how computers can make decisions in an “if-then” structure. By making it a mandatory course, my school elevated BASIC to the same level of importance as English.

There were two programming courses students could choose from by 1988, when I was a high school senior. Neither was mandatory and they had gained the reputation of being very difficult. Most students took keyboarding and word processing instead. This shift is indicative of a change in attitude regarding educational technology. Computers seem to have become a tool rather than something to be studied and mastered for their own sake. Computer use in schools had begun to shift from a pure science to a sort of vocational training.

Not only had we begun to lose some of the creativity and experimentation that existed in the programming courses of the early ’80s, but the majority of teachers in the late ’80s did not yet have the technical skills to integrate this new technology into their classrooms. While spreadsheets were being taught, they were largely taught for their own sake and had no connection to what was going on in the math class. English teachers had not yet come to realize the effect that the word processor could have on the editing and revision process.

It wasn’t until the early ’90s that we began to see a more complete adoption of technology in the academic classroom. It soon became impossible to open an education journal without reading the phrase “integrating technology into the curriculum” about a hundred times. Students were processing words in English class, using spreadsheets in math and science, and making PowerPoint presentations just about everywhere else. Elementary teachers were swimming in courseware that their students could use to sharpen their skills in the back of the room, and every self-respecting school newspaper or yearbook was being laid out on Page Maker or Quark Express. Many schools began breaking down their computer labs to place six (apparently the magic number) computers in every classroom, and teachers were struggling to find activities to meet the minimum district requirements for computer use.

A tragic side effect of this shift has been an abandoning of computer programming as a course of study. After all, it’s tough to teach programming to a class of 20 with only six computers in a classroom. While many schools offer programming courses, they are usually electives offered to high school juniors and seniors. Very few elementary or junior high schools offer any programming at all.

The growth of the web in the mid- to late ’90s has helped reverse this trend a little. Lots of schools offer courses in web page design and many of them teach the fundamentals of hypertext markup language. Advanced courses even delve into Java Script and Java. It probably won’t be long, though, before HTML editors get more reliable and user-friendly, making an understanding of HTML or Java Script obsolete. Soon, this software will again separate the user from the gory details of how the system works, by writing the code for them.

Somewhere in our rush to integrate technology into the curriculum, we have decided that it really isn’t important to know exactly how the car’s engine works to drive it. We have convinced ourselves that the details of how a computer works are better left to trained professionals than the end user, and we decided to make our students into the latter rather than the former.

While it might be fine for a student to make this decision for himself, we have done our students—and our nation’s technology industry—a disservice by not doing more to offer basic courses in programming and computer science at early grades. Our students now often miss out on the knowledge that is critical for the development of new technologies. Where did we think that these trained professionals came from, anyway? Most recently, they’ve been coming from other countries, including India and Malaysia, where lots of folks keep old cars chugging along with a little care and tinkering.