A considerable number of viewpoints on the demise of the Beeb have been expressed in this column, and having analysed all round, I think it would be a good idea for Beeb enthusiasts to ask not only how to keep the Beeb alive, but also what is at stake in terms of cultural civilisation - and the issues go beyond attachment to a particular kind of hardware.
Amid all the hoo-hah preceding the launch of Windows 95, a historic anniversary in British educational life was overlooked in 1994: the 500th anniversary of the birth of William Tyndale. (Well, almost overlooked: for the record, a commemorative sermon was preached on him in the Chapel Royal of Hampton Court Palace to mark the occasion.) He was of key historical significance, because he was the first scholar to attempt a complete translation of the Bible into English, from the original Hebrew and Greek texts. There was tremendous opposition, and he paid for his attempts with his life.
OK, so what has Tyndale to do with the BBC Micro? Plenty. Here is his “mission statement”:
If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause the boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the scripture than thou dost.
In other words, Tyndale was advocating the educational principle of universal literacy in sacred texts, which up to then had been the province of an exclusive hierarchical elite. This ideal of universal literacy in elite knowledge was repeated in the British national computer literacy campaign, sponsored by the BBC and implemented by Acorn Computers, at the beginning of the 1980’s. In a short time the BBC Micro became the standard machine in British schools.
It would be redundant at this point to go over, yet again, the
reasons why the IBM machine and Microsoft DOS won the race for a standardised
system with large-scale
industrial capacity. What is of crucial significance here is the reversal, implicit in this victory, of the British educational campaign for computer literacy. Whereas the BBC Micro manual sought to introduce the user to understanding hardware and learning how to write software, the PC approach is to dumb the whole market down for maximum profit, and present the computer as a machine like a car, which you learn to drive without knowing anything about how it works.
I think the car is a fair analogy here. I once had a Morris Minor, which
I maintained myself - and I am not a trained engineer. The manual enabled
the owner to do all the routine servicing - including setting the tappets
and timing the ignition with a feeler gauge. The modern car has no user-serviceable
parts inside. As with the PC, a new hierarchy of techies now takes care
of the entire process of production and maintenance,
from start to finish, and the user simply obeys instructions.
However, giving instructions, which simply have to be carried out without understanding, is a reversal of the entire philosophy of liberal education, which has dominated the academic scene in Britain for over a century. If the new power structures that are being built in the cyber sphere were physically visible, they would tower over the tallest skyscrapers in the world. I think the time has come to remind our American friends that that was not the purpose of the Pilgrim Fathers when they set sail in the Mayflower. Somehow the principle of true computer literacy for the lay person, which was clearly instituted in the BBC Micro, has to be continued.
I would put my money on a small machine with an integral printer - a cross between the Z88 and an electronic typewriter - which would have a screen large enough to support graphics programs, and which would naturally have BBC BASIC. I myself am a self-employed freelance, running my own one-man-band business, and I find it takes far less effort to write a small-scale program in BBC BASIC than to try to adapt large-scale industrial software to my needs. As a linguist I am a walking example of a non-technical lay person who can learn and use BASIC. So it can be done. It’s now a matter of convincing manufacturers that it will sell.