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I'm the author of the original blog post, and I wanted to say that SICP, as well as HtDP, and even a book like Robert Sedgewick's Computer Science (https://www.amazon.com/Computer-Science-Interdisciplinary-Ro...) are in a completely different category than more mainstream how-to-program books (like anything from O'Reilly, Manning, No Starch, Pragmatic Programmers) and even the other popular college texts like Y. Daniel Liang's Introduction to Java Programming and Data Structures (https://www.amazon.com/Introduction-Programming-Structures-C...) or the book in my intro class, Tony Gaddis' Starting Out with C++: Early Objects (https://www.amazon.com/Starting-Out-Early-Objects-9th/dp/013...).

Supposedly all of these books assume (or at least allow for) no background in programming, but I think the reality is that taking SICP or even HtDP into the intro class at a non-elite university or a community college would be a complete non-starter and/or abject failure.

What I'm trying to say is that there is a place for both of these approaches: A deep look into computer science, and the nuts and bolts of basic "get it done" programming.

Should both of these things happen in a single class, or series of classes? I think the answer is yes. But how to do that and not leave non-elite students back on the road is another matter.

I believe that the HtDP authors think that the "domain-specific knowledge" required of SICP was a barrier.

And I also understand how advanced CS students think that a class focused on how to manipulate strings, use loops, deal with variables of various types, and work with basic logic in the context of a specific computer language is NOT computer science.

But in my view, most students -- and all average students -- need to crawl quite a way, then walk, before they can run.

Even Sedgewick's Computer Science, which focuses on Java and has a wealth of great questions/assignments all along the way, could really be a barrier to students who aren't steeped in math and science. I learned some math while going through the book, but I didn't learn so much programming. Liang's approach might be too basic for someone who has already done years and years of programming but is way more approachable for those who have not.

My guess is that many professors tried SICP and had a very poor rate of success. I fully support a selective class that says, "this is very hard, but you will learn a lot and look at the world in a different way, and if you really want to understand computer science, this is the class for you."

But there also needs to be more of a gateway class for future programmers (not necessarily graduate-school-bound CS majors) that eases them into the world of writing code. Offering the basics and sneaking in some CS seems better than doing it the other way around.

In a way, it's like the difference between carpentry and architecture. You can teach people who want to build houses how to design them, but at some point they're going to have to get out a saw, hammer and nails and make something happen.




Thank you for this much more nuanced response. Your original post was very critical of SICP in a way that didn't seem to do it justice - I think that's what set of much of the debate in this thread. But if what you say in this comment is what you really meant, I fully agree with it.


I am writing from the perspective of someone who isn't a CS major and is trying to learn programming on my own. I am very interested in the CS aspects of programming but am finding it hard to learn it in an approachable and understandable way.

If an "ivory tower" approach is working, I'm on board, but I bet more people get value out of SICP after they have a lot of classes and experience under their belt and not the other way around.


Books like SICP are touted -- if not by the authors, then by those who got a lot out of them -- as the one true key to knowledge. I think we all gravitate toward that ideal, and we want one book to teach us everything, but reality is often more complicated, and one person's steak is another person's ... not steak.




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