Magazine article Liberal Education

Computer Science and the Liberal Arts

Magazine article Liberal Education

Computer Science and the Liberal Arts

Article excerpt

PERHAPS IT IS my four years of high school Latin but I always associate the "liberal arts" or "liberal education" with "freedom." Historically, of course, this was the direction of study pursued by those who were free to spend their time delving into such areas as logic, arithmetic, and rhetoric while the less privileged found themselves apprenticed to craftsmen in order to acquire a means of livelihood. While the first path would presumably prepare the student to pursue a wide variety of interests, the second would establish the apprentice on the road leading directly to a particular craft or trade. Today, we associate the liberal arts or liberal education with a course of general study that equips students with critical thinking skills, with the ability to communicate effectively both orally and in writing, and most importantly with the ability to continue learning in a world where swift change could make very narrow training rapidly obsolete. Preparing for a particular career is generally a far less important goal. Thus while the study of the liberal arts was often available only to those who were already free because of wealth or circumstance, today we like to view it as an opportunity for greater freedom in the choice of a future career or profession. Equipped with a broad knowledge of the arts and the natural and social sciences and with the skills to use that knowledge successfully for continued learning, reasoned and principled decision making, and effective communication, a liberally educated graduate (regardless of the kind of school he or she attended) should be poised to pursue a diversity of careers.

Unfortunately, while excelling at aspects o liberal education, liberal arts colleges, in particular, have been rather slow to recognize the opportunity that the study of computer science provides for achieving these ends. In fact, those who defend the appropriateness of computer science as a field of study in a liberal arts institution are frequently met with some skepticism from their colleagues. Furthermore, while most such institutions do offer the major or some sort of concentration, the impact on the general student body has not been very pervasive. Not long ago, a respected liberal arts college in Michigan announced its decision to drop the computer science major from its offerings. While this action was undoubtedly based on the small number of majors in the program, the need for this decision immediately raised the question of why there weren't a great many students taking computer science courses. Twenty-first-century graduates will begin their careers in a world in which the computer is almost omnipresent, and yet they frequently will have only the most rudimentary knowledge of the important ideas and principles of computer science or the social and ethical implications of technology. Their ability to make contributions to the natural and social sciences will undoubtedly be limited by their capacity to make full use of the ideas arising in computer science, and their policy decisions and vision could very well be impoverished by a failure to address ethical issues related to technology.

After the precipitous drop in computer science enrollments during the first decade of this century, many small liberal arts colleges, like their large university counterparts, found themselves with significantly diminished numbers of majors. While the most common explanation for these smaller populations probably included a reference to "outsourcing" or "off-shoring," this is hardly an explanation in the context of a liberal arts institution. Most students who pursue majors in art history, the classics, or even psychology do not expect to find employment directly related to their major with only an undergraduate degree. Selecting such majors permits them to nurture their interest in a particular field while simultaneously developing competencies such as research and analytical skills and the ability to communicate effectively, which would make them valuable as future managers, leaders, and decision makers regardless of their major. …

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