Why go to college? Liberal Arts vs. Computing
My son is going to Georgia Tech in the Fall, in the Computational Media degree program. Because the CM program is joint between GT’s Colleges of Liberal Arts and Computing, we went to both College’s presentations during Freshman Orientation last week. I found the contrast between the two of them fascinating.
The Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts starts their orientation with a brief documentary about Ivan Allen, the former mayor of Atlanta for whom the College is named. John Tone, Associate Dean of the College, explains that the College shares Allen’s values and encourages students to model themselves on Allen. The presentation goes on with the theme, “Find Your On Switch.” Explicitly, the point is made that the goal of a liberal arts education at Georgia Tech is for each student to figure out what they are most passionate about, what they want to sink time into in order to develop expertise. International experiences, like study abroad and internships, were explained in terms of the opportunities they provided for seeing more options, other ways to find your “On Switch.” (About 40% of Georgia Tech’s undergraduates have some international experience, with a goal of getting that to 50%.) Overall, this presentation was highly successful with the students, and the parents were excited, too. I saw a mother in front of me write a note to her daughter saying, “This Is So Cool!!”
The College of Computing talked about jobs. Parents were told about the bright prospects for a computing career. The curriculum was explained in terms of how it prepared students for the workforce. International experience (exactly the same programs!) was introduced as a way to prepare students for a globally competitive marketplace, and about how the top companies valued students with an international perspective. Many of the parents seemed engaged by this perspective, and asked pointed questions, such as whether the robotics approach in CS1 was really the right one to prepare students for more general computing tasks and whether the Computational Media degree really prepared students for the jobs that were available today.
I found the contrast fascinating, especially when the two College’s were talking about the exact same thing. I don’t think that either presentation is wrong or even contradictory, though each can be critiqued as being too narrow. The Computing perspective lends itself to seeing GT as a vocational school, and anything not related to tomorrow’s job ad is clearly irrelevant. The Liberal Arts perspective can be read as encouraging students to ignore everything that he or she finds boring or hard — if it doesn’t “Find Your On Switch,” then it’s clearly not important, is it?
As a Computing faculty member, I personally found the Liberal Arts presentation novel and refreshing. I frequently have to defend what I teach to my students on the grounds that, “Yeah, real companies really do this.” (For example, we brought in real developers last year to our Senior Design class, to convince them that Scrum was worth learning.) I love the idea of being able to argue, instead, “Try it, because it’s fascinating and will allow you to think about problem solutions in an entirely new way, maybe in a way that you will find intriguing and engaging!” Hmm, I wonder if that argument actually flies with Liberal Arts majors. I am pretty sure that it wouldn’t with CS majors.