TITLE: Learning More Than What Is Helpful Right Now AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: December 15, 2011 4:08 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Stanley Fish wrote this week about the end of a course he taught this semester, on "law, liberalism and religion". In this course, his students a number of essays and articles outside the usual legal literature, including works by Locke, Rawls, Hobbes, Kant, and Rorty. Fish uses this essay to respond to recent criticisms that law schools teach too many courses like this, which are not helpful to most students, who will, by and large, graduate to practice the law. Most anyone who teaches in a university hears criticisms of this sort now and then. When you teach computer science, you hear them frequently. Most of our students graduate and enter practice the software development. How useful are the theory of computation and the principles of programming languages? Teach 'em Java Enterprise Edition and Eclipse and XSLT and Rails. My recent entry Impractical Programming, With Benefits starts from the same basic premise that Fish starts from: There is more to know about the tools and methodologies we use in practice than meets the eye. Understanding why something is as it is, and knowing that something could be better, are valuable parts of a professional's preparation for the world. Fish talks about these values in terms of the "purposive" nature of the enterprise in which we practice. You want to be able to thing about the bigger picture, because that determines where you are going and why you are going there. I like his connection to Searle's speech acts and how they help us to see how the story we tell gives rise to the meaning of the details in the story. He uses football as his example, but he could have used computer science. He sums up his argument in this way
That understanding is what law schools offer (among other things). Law schools ask and answer the question, "What's the game here?"; the ins and outs of the game you learn later, as in any profession. The complaint ... is that law firms must teach their new hires tricks of the trade they never learned in their contracts, torts and (God forbid) jurisprudence classes. But learning the tricks would not amount to much and might well be impossible for someone who did not know -- in a deep sense of know -- what the trade is and why it is important to practice it.
Such a deep understanding is even more important in a discipline like computing, because our practices evolve at a much faster rate than legal practices. Our tools change even more frequently. When we taught functional programming ten or fifteen years ago, many of our students simply humored me. This wasn't going to help them with Windows programming, but, hey, they'd learn it for our sake. Now they live in a world where Scala, Clojure, and F# are in the vanguard. I hope what they learned in our Programming Languages course has helped them cope with the change. Some of them are even leading the charge. The practical test of whether my Programming Languages students learned anything useful this semester will come not next year, but ten or fifteen years down the road. And, as I said in the Impractical Programming piece, a little whimsy can be fun in its own right, easy while it stretches your brain. -----