Essay calling for digital skills to be added to liberal arts disciplines

October 30, 2012 at 9:34 am 4 comments

An interesting piece, which argues that proficiency with computing is an important part of a modern liberal arts education.  The argument is a modern and updated version of the argument that Alan Perlis made back in 1961. The specific computing literacies being described go beyond computational thinkingit’s explicitly about being able to make with computing.  Steve Jobs’ made a similar famous claim that computer science is a liberal art.

Students who graduate with a degree in liberal arts should understand the basic canon of our civilization as well as their place in the world, sure, but they also need to understand how to explore and communicate their ideas through visual communication, data manipulation, and even making a website or native mobile app. If they can’t, they’ll just understand the global context of their own unemployment.

via Essay calling for new skills to be added to liberal arts disciplines | Inside Higher Ed.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alanone1  |  October 30, 2012 at 10:20 am

    I think computing should be part of the liberal arts, but I otherwise disagree with almost all the points in the essay (and with Steve Jobs’ specifics).

    Both profoundly misunderstand what is supposed to be learned in learning the liberal arts and the purpose for putting in the considerable effort needed to learn the real deal.

    And — to get closer to their argument — I really think that computing has to make itself into a real liberal art before we rush to plunk the mere category of it into what is supposed to be (and still is in some venues) an important set of ways to view the world and our place in it.

    To pick one of many egregious examples, the current state of what it takes to make a website in the midst of one of the worst systems designs ever generally used by the public is so low that it is anti-liberal arts, except for the purposes of criticizing how not to go about things in computing.

    By the way, Steve Jobs was amazing in many ways — and I knew him quite well — but he neither understand the canon of our civilization nor did he know how to create a website or make a mobile app.

    Don’t confuse someone who has the ability to create great talks and had some taste with those who know how to do and understand this and that. The former is about stories, and the latter are about specific cause and effect relationships that have to be learned as skills and special perspectives.

    Some of those important perspectives are very different and even more important than what are required for engineering, whether in a highly developed area or one that is still mostly kludges.

  • 2. Mark Miller  |  October 30, 2012 at 10:11 pm

    I understand where Michael Staton is going with this, but I think Alan has the better idea. Staton talks about computing and mathematics as “means of communication.” Well, finally somebody in the liberal arts recognizes something about the communication qualities of mathematics, at least. It’s about time.

    Steven Lisberger said 10 years ago that the internet has “got to be something more than a glorified phone system!” Yet, that’s what Staton is more or less advocating. He mostly only understands computing as, in Alan’s words, “the new old thing.” His argument boils down to the idea that the liberal arts needs to be responsive and “get with the times.” To that I say, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

    Staton shows (in a confused fashion) some insight in this comment, “Coding is about manipulating information to create meaning, which is likely how you would define writing.”

    I feel tempted to give him a “B for effort” for this. It’s the only time I’ve seen someone outside of computing recognize that coding is like writing, but I disagree with him that coding is about creating meaning, in the sense that he means it. He further confuses the issue by talking about scripting for the web and mobile apps. When was the last time anyone saw a web site or mobile app. that exposed its script code so that the user could modify it? I’m assuming few have. This does not adequately convey “writing.”

    I can see the source of his confusion where he says, “there’s a reason they call it a computer ‘language.'” Gosh, I sure hope people in liberal arts colleges don’t look at this and start thinking they should teach JavaScript or whatnot as a “language skill” (shudder). He’d be much closer to something powerful if he’d written, “Computing is about manipulating information to create meaning.” A significant part of coding is creating a framework in which that can happen–a computational model. Coding is about manipulating information, and there’s some meaning involved with that, but it’s in a different context. It’s really about creating meaning between the person using a computer, and the computer. The reason we call the means of doing this “programming languages” is it’s an interface with the machine that works with a pathway in our brain that can be used to make sense of relationships and concepts. It’s not a means of communication between people, which is the focus of his article. Code can be made understandable to people, as a means of specification, but the real question is, “What are the implications of that specification?” The true meaning comes from “working it,” seeing its logic play out.

    I think where Staton is confused, though he gets fairly close to a “new medium” concept, even if he just stumbles into it, is that coding is not like scribbling or imprinting ink on a page. Computers, when used well in their system design, help us in understanding abstract and complex relationships, so that we don’t have to do all of the computational heavy lifting ourselves. So where paper is a medium for ink, where expression and meaning happen statically, computing can be thought of as a medium for formal models, where the general rules for what’s about to take place are set out in code, and the “understanding” and “meaning” come from setting initial conditions, and seeing what plays out from them. The process is kind of like doing origami, and watching it being made, than what most would understand as “reading.”

  • 3. Dennis J Frailey  |  November 6, 2012 at 9:59 pm

    The original purpose of the “liberal arts”, back in the renaissance, was to prepare one for life in that society. The original “liberal arts” included “natural philosophy” (today we call it physics) and mathematics. It also included language, since one must communicate. Isn’t is interesting how the mathematics and physics have slowly been drained from the “liberal arts” curriculum. Today’s “liberal arts” curriculum seems more driven by the interests of liberal arts faculty members than by preparing one for success in modern society. Perhaps the best argument for computing in the liberal arts curriculum is to simply remind one’s colleagues of the purpose of the liberal arts curriculum.

  • 4. Ernesto León De la Rosa  |  November 7, 2012 at 5:35 pm

    Reblogged this on Memes:~Education.


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