All I needed to know about, well, everything, I learned in CS?

There’s a very interesting opinion piece in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Decoding the Value of Computer Science”.  It’s actually a very complimentary article about how studying computer science has helped the author be a more effective thinker, and how the critical thinking and logic skills have spilled over into each of his subsequent careers (none of which have had anything to do with computer science).

I took a keen interest in this article because, of course, this is the message that I try to give my students:  studying CS is one of the smartest things you can do while at Carleton, because it prepares you generally to be a good problem-solver.  I’m actually thinking of linking to it on my course Moodle pages next term and having my students read it.

Here are a couple of my favorite quotes from the article:

Before long I wanted to understand where those games came from and how, exactly, they worked. So I took to programming, first in Basic and then Pascal. Coding taught me the shape of logic, the value of brevity, and the attention to detail that debugging requires. I learned that a beautiful program with a single misplaced semicolon is like a sports car with one piston out of line. Both are dead machines, functionally indistinguishable from junk. I learned that you are good enough to build things that do what they are supposed to do, or you are not.

I like the sentiment of “debugging” as “attention to detail” and not “dreadful task”.  Also, the author is spot-on with his description of how he got hooked—I find that students take my Intro course because they’re curious about how this technology thing works, whether that “thing” is games or Facebook or just a desire to think of the computer as something other than a black box.

Here’s one way in which that played out for him in the future, as a writer:

My editors rarely said a word about words, in the sense of how to phrase an idea. The real work was in structure, in constructing an unbroken chain of logic, evidence, and emotion that would bring readers to precisely where I wanted them to be. I learned to minimize the number of operating variables (people). I also learned that while some talented writers can get away with recursive scene-setting, it is usually best to start at the beginning and finish at the end. I discovered that skilled writers, like programmers, embed subtle pieces of documentation in their prose to remind readers where they are and where they are going to be.  Writing, in other words, is just coding by a different name. It’s like constructing a program that runs in the universal human operating system of narrative, because, as Joan Didion once said, we tell ourselves stories in order to live.

I’ve had discussions in the past with people who teach writing as to whether coding is writing—this piece seems to argue that it is.

The author also laments the current state of CS education, the fact that the number of students studying CS at the high school and college levels is dropping, and the possible repercussions:

Computer science exposed two generations of young people to the rigors of logic and rhetoric…. Those students learned to speak to the machines with which the future of humanity will be increasingly intertwined. They discovered the virtue of understanding the instructions that lie at the heart of things, of realizing the danger of misplaced semicolons, of learning to labor until what you have built is good enough to do what it is supposed to do.

Luckily, here at Carleton the number of students studying CS is and continues to be strong—but I do worry about the field in general and what the lack of majors (and of people studying CS in any form, whether as a minor [other places] or as a general graduation requirement or just for fun) means for the future of innovation (as the author mentions earlier in the article).  Should we be requiring students to take CS?  😉

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