TITLE: Computer Science and Liberal Education AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: July 26, 2005 10:38 AM DESC: ----- BODY: University-level instructors of mathematics and science have become increasingly concerned about the level of preparation for their disciplines that students receive in elementary and high school. For example, Tall, Dark, and Mysterious and Learning Curves both describe life in the trenches teaching calculus and other entry-level math courses at the university. We in computer science see this problem manifest in two forms. We, too, encounter students who are academically unprepared for the rigors of computing courses. However, unlike general education math and science, CS courses are usually not a required part of the students' curriculum. As a result, we begin to lose students as they find computing too difficult, or at least difficult enough that it's not as much fun as students had hoped for. I believe that this is one of the ingredients in the decline of enrollment in computing majors and minors being experienced by so many universities. Yesterday, via Uncertain Principles, I encountered Matthew Crawford's essay, Science Education and Liberal Education. Crawford writes beautifully on the essential role of science in the liberal education, the essential role of liberal education in democracy, and the vital importance of teaching science -- and presumably mathematics -- as worthy of study in their own right, independent of their utilitarian value to society in the form of technology. A significant portion of the essay catalogs the shortcomings of the typical high school physics textbook, with its pandering to application and cultural relevance. I shall not attempt to repeat the essay's content here. Go read it for yourself, and enjoy the prose of a person who both understands science and knows how to write with force. Notwithstanding Crawford's apparent assertion that the pure sciences are noble and that computing is somehow base technology, I think that what he says about physics is equally true of computing. Perhaps our problem is that we in computer science too often allow our discipline to be presented merely as technology and not as an intellectual discipline of depth and beauty. As I've written before we need to share the thrill, that computing brings us -- not the minutia of programming or the features of the latest operating system or chip set. Surely, these things are important to us, but they are important to us because we already love computing for its depth and beauty. Just yesterday, I commented abjectly in e-mail to a colleague that only twelve incoming freshmen had declared majors in computing during this summer's orientation sessions at our university. He wrote back:
I think we need to move away from presenting the CS major as a path to being a software drone in competition with India. We need to present it as leading edge, discovery based -- that is -- a science. I think too many students now see it as a software engineering nightmare -- a 40 year career of carefully punctuated cookbook code. Too boring for words.
Perhaps it is time for us to shift our mode of thought in computer science education toward the model of liberal education a lá the sciences. We might find that the number of students interested in the discipline will rise if we proudly teach computing as an intellectual discipline. In any case, I suspect that the level of interest and commitment of the students who do study computing will rise when we challenge them and address their need to do something intellectually worthwhile with their time and energy. -----