Computer Science and A Liberal Education

A liberal arts education is a toolkit for changing the world.
-- Senior Address, Hobart College Commencement 1999.
Probably the surest way to grow up stupid is to be part of a large static population doing manual labor and living just on the level of subsistence; and the next best is to be born in a nice family with inherited wealth, brought up in an assured social position, and sent to a quiet and correct school. ...

No, we can never tell how great minds arise...but we do know two methods of feeding them as they grow.

One is to give them constant challenge and stimulus. Put problems before them. Make things difficult for them....Tell them to discover what is hidden.

The second method is to bring them into contact with other eminent minds... men and women of real and undeniable distinction. That is, the immortals.... The best way toward greatness is to mix with the great.
Gilbert Highet, Man's Unconquerable Mind.

Doesn't our epidemic dumbing-down have undeniable advantages for those institutions (the media, the advertising industry, the government) whose interests are better served by a population not trained to read too closely or to ask too many questions?
Francine Prose, in "I Know why the Caged Bird Cannot Read: How American high school students learn to loathe literature"

Just to get a bit personal, I see Computer Science as part of a liberal arts education, which to me is supposed to give you basic reasoning skills and help you figure out things about yourself and your relation to intellectual history. CS can arguably be part of engineering, a good dose of which is a wonderful addition to a liberal arts education. Typically an engineering curriculum has fewer electives (hence our own Take Five program), and is accredited by an outside board, while liberal arts programs aren't.

Speaking as a liberal arts professor then, I'd say that if you want to learn a trade, go to welding school. You're getting past your optimal learning years (for things like language and music, it's actually getting very late), you don't have time to waste on job training, and this isn't the place for that in any event. You should be spending your college years figuring out what is important, how things (from quarks to economies) work, and how you (and your current society) fit in with civilization, current and past.

Just for example, are you going to get your idea of what it means to live a meaningful and happy life from popular culture (TV, People magazine,...) or from an awareness of the world's greatest philosophical, religious, historical, economic, literary, and cultural traditions?

An education is about knowing things, whether or not they seem directly useful at the time. Trade school and popular culture are fickle: trades vanish and Madison Avenue or the US automakers' marketing arm might just choose to jerk you around in a different direction next week. Knowing about yourself, about history, and about the good, the true, and the beautiful in life, is a permanent investment that helps safeguard your freedom of choice and action and enriches your life.

So in my humble opinion you should be spending your college years exploring the literature, philosophy, economics, science, history, art, religion and anthropology, politics, that will make you a well-rounded, cultured person. Learn the basics, learn the classics. Learn to read and learn to write. You have to make music and make art to appreciate them, so try those things. Foreign languages are a very good investment. The more you know about all these things the less vulnerable you are to someone else's political, economic, aesthetic, moral, religious or whatever other agenda and the more you'll get out of your life experiences.

Of course, there are certain intellectual skills and technical skills you should be acquiring as part of the irreducible core of your education. These general skills are a good investment: "...the best preparation for making a living comes through learning the arts of writing clearly and persuasively, reading carefully, evaluating evidence effectively, reasoning quantitatively and analytically, doing research, and thinking critically." [Nancy S. Dye, President Oberlin College 1997]. I agree, and I also think that Computer Science calls for and can help you develop all these skills. CSC171, 172, and 173 do not force the issues of writing, critical evidence evaluation or critical thinking: in the classical trivium these courses are the grammar and logic stages, while critical evaluation and writing is the rhetoric stage, which comes later after you know the basics.

However, there is not a much more rigorous test of clear reasoning, logical thinking, control of detail, analysis of subtle interactions in complex systems, and mastery of formal representations of concepts, thought, and knowledge than you get in 171-3. This kind of training in unforgiving, relentless logic (in the classical sense) is an unusually solid foundation for any future education, from English criticism through medicine and physics to philosophy, history, and religion.

Edsger Dijkstra said: " Computer science is not about computers, any more than astronomy is about telescopes." 171-3 are actually more about "computers" than more advanced CS courses, but they are also a nontrivial introduction to several issues of computer science (in the abstract, theoretical, sense). In that it generally rewards accuracy of thought, accuracy of execution, mental organization, and time management It is a fine component of a liberal arts education. The specific skills you learn can even have some practical use, but that's pretty much accidental. The kind of discipline and attention to detail and problem-solving that 171-173 teach definitely will generalize to other situations. In an extreme example, I heard of an advanced mathematics program where 25% of the students' time was devoted to playing chess.

Just keep in mind that college is not necessarily a trade school and that you may owe it to yourself to ignore the here-and-now and narrow careerist goals. I see college in the USA as a chance to do some serious in-depth exploration of what is worth doing, what you enjoy doing, and what you are good at. Don't waste it.

You might enjoy the 1987 classic The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom. If you read it, tell me what you think. You might be amused or outraged by the recent book Generation X Goes To College by the pseudonymous Peter Sacks (Carus Pub. Co. 1996). Half is a firsthand account of teaching journalism in a small college (hilarious and horrifying), half is a meditation on how academics might better use the undeniable and sophisticated media awareness, habits, and technology of today.

This page is maintained by CB.

Last update: 6/30/11