TITLE: What Remains Is What Will Matter AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: July 07, 2009 4:39 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Quoted by Harry Lewis in Excellence Without a Soul:
A liberal education is what remains after you have forgotten the facts that were first learned while becoming educated.
-- Jorge Dominguez
I think this applies not only to a liberal education broadly construed but also to specialized areas of study -- and even to a "narrow" technical field such as computer science. What is left five or ten years from now will be the education our students have received. Students may not remember the intricacies of writing an equals method in Java. I won't mind one bit. What will they remember? This is the true test of the courses we create and of the curricula we design. Let's set our sights high enough to hit the target we seek. Lately I've been trying to swear off scare quotes and other writing affectations. I use them above with sincere intention. Computer science is not as narrow as most people think. Students usually think it is, and so do many of their parents. I hope that what we teach and do alleviates this misconception. Sadly, too often those of us who study computer science -- and teach it -- think of the discipline too narrowly. We may not preach it that way, but we often practice it so. With good courses, a good curriculum, and a little luck, students may even remember some of their CS education. I enjoyed reading how people like Tim O'Reilly have been formed by elements of their classical classical education. How are we forming our students in the spirit of a classical CS education? If any discipline needs to teach enduring truths, it is ours! The details disappear with every new chip, every new OS, every new software trend. What is most likely to remain from our stints in school are habit. Sure, CS students must take with them some facts and truths: trade-offs matter; in some situations, the constant dominates the polynomial; all useful programming languages have primitives, means for combining them, and means for abstracting away detail. Yes, facts matter, but our nature is tied to its habits. I said last time that publishing the data I collect and use would be a good habit because habits direct how we think. I am a pragmatist in the strong sense that knowledge is habit of thought. Habit of action creates habit of thought. Knowledge is not the only value born in habit. As Aristotle taught us,
Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but rather we have those because we have acted rightly.
Even an old CS student can remember some of his liberal arts education... Finally, we will do well to remember that students learn as much or more from the example we set as from what we say in the classroom, or even in our one-on-one mentoring. All the more reason to create habits of action we don't mind having our students imitate. ~~~~ Note. Someone might read Excellence Without a Soul and think that Harry Lewis is a classicist or a humanities scholar. He is a computer scientist, who just happened to spend eight years as Dean of Harvard College. Dominguez, whom Lewis quotes, is a political science professor at Harvard, but he claims to be paraphrasing Alfred North Whitehead -- a logician and mathematician -- in the snippet above. Those narrow technical guys... My favorite Lewis book is, in fact, a computer science book, Elements of the Theory of Computation, which I mentioned here a while back. I learned theory of computation from that book -- as well as a lot of basic discrete math, because my undergrad CS program didn't require a discrete course. Often, we learn well enough what we need to learn when we need it. Elements remains one of my favorite CS books ever. -----