From slavery to COBOL

Recently Yale University renamed one of their “residential colleges” (dorms): it had previously been named after John C. Calhoun, and now is named after Admiral Grace Hopper. The administration explained that although they don’t intend to go around renaming everything to satisfy every politically correct complainer, this was a particularly egregious case: the original naming after Calhoun had been not because of any strong link to Yale, but to honor Calhoun’s career as a politician, notably his advocacy of slavery as a “positive good” and of white supremacy. The college had featured a stained glass window depicting happy slaves on a plantation, recently smashed in protest. The original naming was done in 1931, long after Calhoun’s death, long after the Civil War, and at a time when white supremacy was, in the terms of today’s social networks, “strongly trending”.

Today, of course, one thing that is “strongly trending” is advocacy of women in technology. But skepticism as to such trends should not stop one from honoring people who truly deserve it. And for all I know Hopper does: I have not made any real examination of her career, but the occasional things I have heard of her have been positive. Still, the particular grounds called out by the Yale administration for naming the college after her are problematic. They seem to center around her efforts in advocating “word-based computer languages”, of which COBOL is the prime example, and one which she was instrumental in.

COBOL today is almost as dead as slavery was in 1931; and just as the namers in 1931 seem not to have asked the descendants of slaves to weigh in on Calhoun, programmers seem not to have been asked what we think of COBOL. Personally, I never had to suffer through COBOL (it was before my time), but suffering was the word. For one thing, the language was quite verbose. A dominant language today is C++; the name of that language is not only its name but a statement you can write in it. The corresponding statement in COBOL is “ADD 1 TO COBOL GIVING COBOL”. Now, admittedly nonprogrammers likely will be able to guess what the latter statement means, whereas with the former statement you just have to know. But programmers do know, and we object to having to write mountains of text to convey what to us has become simple. To force us to do so isn’t humane, it is inhumane: it denies us one of the main human powers, that of learning and developing skills.

So while Yale has changed the name of the college, it is still named in honor of a failed effort to crush the human spirit.