“Damaged” by BASIC

At a recent conference I attended where a main theme of many papers was intelligent tutors to help novice programmers, an audience Q&A after one of the talks turned to the affordances available to novice programmers in computing’s early days, including the BASIC programming language, which was developed expressly to introduce nontechnical students to computing.

It didn’t take long for one of the discussants to mention that during Edsger Dijkstra’s storied career, he ranted against many things in computer science that he thought were “considered harmful,” including the BASIC language. Specifically, Dijkstra wrote: “It is practically impossible to teach good programming to students that have had a prior exposure to BASIC: as potential programmers they are mentally mutilated beyond hope of regeneration.” (COBOL and FORTRAN were the target of similarly withering remarks.)

Now, with all due respect, to some of us them’s fightin’ words. A number of us in the room were of the generation that cut their teeth on BASIC, and hey, we turned out OK. So as the session moderator, I abused the moderator’s privilege and told the audience that anyone who felt indignant at Dijkstra’s smackdown of BASIC might find some comfort in reading my essay In Praise of BASIC: The Cultural Impact of the World’s Most Maligned Programming Language. Until I figure out whether any journal or other publication might want this screed, you can read it at bit.ly/damagedbybasic. Enjoy.