Steve Jobs: ‘Computer Science Is A Liberal Art’ : NPR

October 7, 2011 at 3:29 am 12 comments

How very cool!

On computer science as a liberal art

“In my perspective … science and computer science is a liberal art, it’s something everyone should know how to use, at least, and harness in their life. It’s not something that should be relegated to 5 percent of the population over in the corner. It’s something that everybody should be exposed to and everyone should have mastery of to some extent, and that’s how we viewed computation and these computation devices.”

via Steve Jobs: ‘Computer Science Is A Liberal Art’ : NPR.

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12 Comments Add your own

  • 1. richde  |  October 10, 2011 at 4:59 am

    It’s a great sentiment, but let’s hope we can do it better. As Arum and Rokser discovered in”Academically Adrift,” the humanities and liberal arts in today’s undergraduate curricula are something of a train wreck. For almost half of all undergraduates there is no measurable learning that takes place in the “general ed” required courses. A lot of the blame for that can be placed directly at the doorstep of liberal arts faculty who make virtually no effort to motivate or justify the material they teach.

    We’ve seen this movie before. Introductory computer science courses that are dry, devoid of motivation and context, and not relevant to the interests of students. We can do it better.

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  October 10, 2011 at 11:56 am

      Agreed that it’s important to get the directionality of the association right. It’s not that we want to teach computer science like English composition or US History. Rather, Computer Science is as important as the other liberal arts: it is a significant expressive medium, it’s a part of what an educated person should know, and it’s a powerful tool to think with. Henry Walker pointed out via email that he wrote a journal article earlier this year, making a similar but more detailed argument for Computer Science as being part of the liberal arts’ school’s mission to produce productive, informed members of the society with thinking skills.

      My daughter is taking AP US History right now, and I really fear computer science being taught like that. She’s struggling because so much of it is rote memorization. I’ve been seeking help for her, and the common advice is “Use flash cards.” Really? What kind of thinking skills are taught with flash cards? Yet, as I read the reviews for our Python 2ed (in preparation for the 3ed), I see that same sentiment. “You need to emphasize the Python reserved words more. Every student should know all the Python reserved words.”

      • 3. Alfred Thompson  |  October 13, 2011 at 8:01 am

        I’ve never been a fan of the AP CS curriculum and while I am at it I have had concerns about AP History as well. Sometimes it seems that the emphasis is on making it hard rather than useful. Somehow hard makes it “college level” in some eyes. And of course hard is easier to get to than useful. For this very reason I wanted to get rid of APCS when I was teaching. Of course the school would not go along because so much of the motivation behind students taking AP anything is how it looks in a transcript. I would have liked to have put together a very rigorous course focused on concepts, ideas, and critical thinking rather than the syntax of a specific languages (the AP language was C++ at the time). But no. sigh

  • 4. Bonnie MacKellar  |  October 10, 2011 at 1:42 pm

    I really find it amazing that anyone would emphasize the memorization of reserved words in any programming language. Our courses, even when they are dry and devoid of motivation, should be all about problem solving. In fact, that is where the students fall down. They are great memorizers, thanks to NCLB, but they can’t problem solve their way through even the teeniest program.

    Our university bends over backwards to make its core liberal arts courses exciting and relevant, but I don’t think it makes any difference in the end, I really don’t. The students still can’t write very well or reason their way through problems.

  • 5. Mike Byrne  |  October 11, 2011 at 11:22 pm

    You’ll never sell this as a GE requirement.

    First, I’m in complete agreement that knowing some CS is a great thing, and I heartily wish that more people did. Unfortunately, the same can be said for all kinds of other pieces of knowledge. And, frankly, I don’t think CS is at the top of the list. (Incidentally, that spot is occupied by basic probability and statistics, but that’s a separate issue. The basics of scientific method and the difference between science and pseudo-science would probably be next.)

    Regardless, it doesn’t matter if, in some abstract sense, having everyone learn CS is a good idea. It won’t happen. If you want to start a fight at any university, ask any two faculty from different departments what courses should be required of every student. The level of agreement you’ll get here is STAGGERINGLY low. The probability that you’d actually be able to sell the full faculty on making CS a required class for everyone is, to several decimal places, zero. Well, maybe at an IT you’d have an outside shot at it.

    Every university professor knows what the worst possible committee assignment is; it’s undergraduate curriculum. Endless arguing in circles, no real progress. “Everyone should write better” is probably the closest thing to consensus you’re likely to reach, and the actual instantiation of even that is often pretty tepid. GE requirements at most universities are similarly weak because the faculty fundamentally don’t agree what “GE” consists of in the first place.

    And you think CS will get added to the “every single student should take this” list? Lotsa luck with that–you’re going to need it!

    I think your best likely outcome has already been achieved at most universities already: CS gets to count for some kind of math/science GE requirement. But it doesn’t really do anything, because students who aren’t CS majors don’t choose it. Instead, students take Calc 1 or 2 because that’s what they had in high school. That, or they take the fluffiest-appearing science class that meets the requirement (I recall Intro Astronomy being popular for this reason when I was an undergrad). It won’t be CS unless CS gets a MAJOR image overhaul. I know “media computation” is a step in that direction, but I’m not sure that it’s enough.

    • 6. Mark Guzdial  |  October 12, 2011 at 11:19 am

      Normally, I’d share your cynicism, Mike. But we did get a GE requirement at Georgia Tech, and I’ve been contacted by several other Universities (including non-technical ones) for help in making computing part of their GE requirements. I sat on the institute undergraduate committee for six years here, during which we broadened the computing requirement (so that we can have different courses fulfill the GE computing requirement), created a threaded CS undergraduate degree, and approved the cross-colleges BS in Computational Media. So, even undergraduate committees can make progress.

      • 7. Mike Byrne  |  October 12, 2011 at 11:39 am

        That’s encouraging! If only every university could be as forward-thinking…

    • 8. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  October 13, 2011 at 11:55 am

      I was on a general education committee a long time ago that tried to beef up the writing requirement. First it passed, then failed in a mail ballot by 3 votes. About 10 years later a different committee came up with a different plan and got enough buy-in from the faculty to get it accepted. The plan does not put CS in as a requirement (I see that as too specialized), but does have a statistics requirement. The requirements mostly make a lot of sense—much more so than the older set of gen-ed requirements which looked more like they were driven by enrollment support than pedagogy. has a quick summary of the requirements.

  • 9. richde  |  October 13, 2011 at 8:48 am

    Cardinal Newman said it 150 years ago: there are many things worth knowing and there is not enough time in life to learn them all. If CS is a liberal art (and remember that science and quantitative reasoning were struck from the liberal arts when the first curricula were developed in the middle ages) then it will surely displace something else in the curriculum, What will that be?

    The difficulty for the liberal arts today is that it has become complacent. The subject matter does not need to be motivated because its value is self-evident, according to some. That’s not a good position to be in. The humanities and the liberal arts have to look seriously what they teach and why (and how) because computational knowledge has a built-in value proposition.

  • […] programming in the context of other courses helps to address some of the concerns voiced in the recent discussion about computer science as a liberal art.  It’s a point I hear often from high school teacher advocates.  ”The curriculum is […]

  • 11. brian fediuk  |  October 31, 2011 at 5:00 pm

    Very awesome quote. I agree, since we are a 21st century society. We carry computers with us all day, and we use them in every single aspect of our lives. Maybe we use them more heavily in some aspects of life, but we definitely can find IT in our lives. Having fluency in basic computer use is starting to become a mandatory life skill.

  • […] Steve Jobs: ‘Computer Science Is A Liberal Art’ : NPR ( […]


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