Liberal Arts Computer Science

Posted on August 2nd, 2004 by

“Liberal arts” n pl (14c) . . . 2: the studies (as language, philosophy, history, literature, abstract science) in a college or university intended to provide chiefly general knowledge and to develop the general intellectual capacities (as reason and judgment) as opposed to professional or vocational skills.
– Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary

At the recent 25th anniversary CS event, the final picnic seemed to have generated a discussion that, from my view on the periphery, seemed to question the value and merits of a “liberal arts” education in computer science. Some advocated more classwork/experience in project management and some of the practical tools of working with computers and code. Others took a more wholelistic view that the experiences gained were best suited to provide people who could be trained in these things later.

Having pursued a career in law (rather than one in hardware or software design), I admit that I am in a poor position to provide the evaluation that most can give to the topic. After all, the only programming I did after I graduated was while working for myself as a computer consultant–where “project management” pretty much meant evaluating how many bags of Doritos I would need to complete the job.

However, consistent with the college’s liberal arts philosophy, I will offer the following position for discussion: I believe that there is independent value in the liberal arts education in computer science. Computer science, as with other disciplines, involves a way of thinking, a vocabulary, and a paradigm (if you will) of working. In other words, you have to learn to think like a computer geek before you can be a successful computer geek.

It is not the case that one cannot be successful learning vocationally. There are those who can take the vocational skills of a specific programming language and extrapolate them back to a way of thought. However, are we not better served by providing first the way of thought, so that the specifics of programming in certain instances and program management can be learned later, on the job and in training?

I think so. Your thoughts?



  1. There is broad agreement that liberal education is good for computing careers. Disagreement centers around how to achieve that. Is it enough to do a normal CS major, but positioned within a liberal arts college, so that liberal education will happen outside the major? Or should the major be made especially small, so that there is more room for the liberal education that happens outside the major? Or should the CS major itself be given a liberal arts slant? We’ve opted for a combination of the latter two approaches: a liberal arts slant within the major and a trim major to leave lots of room for other stuff. If someone feels that one or the other were enough, they could get more vocational material in, either by going with a trim but vocational major (lots of liberal arts outside, none inside) or by going with a big major that contains both vocational and liberal arts material (hence needs less external liberal arts material).

    A related topic is whether computer science has liberal arts value independent of computing careers. I spoke on that topic at the Association of Lutheran College Faculty meeting a few years ago; you might be interested in my slides.

    Another related thing that might interest you is the remarks I delivered at last year’s Honors Day Convocation on the topic of what a liberal education is in the first place (w/o reference to CS specifically).

  2. Tim Donoughue says:

    Max’s remarks from Honor’s Day are noteworthy. Most importantly, however, I believe that they highlight the need to question. This is certainly one of the halmarks of learning and thus of a liberal arts way of thinking.

    Certainly ultimately skill is required for success. Knowledge and the check against the world are important, but, without skill, hollow. The question becomes not whether they are important, but whether/how much the college should focus on skill.

    That having been said, noting Max’s comment about the balance the college has struck, I am myself struck that balance must generally be achieved in all things. I am yet convinced that this area is no exception.