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On Computing in Liberal Education


Over the past several years, a familiar narrative has taken shape regarding the role of technology in liberal education: technology, specifically computing, poses serious threats to the foundations of liberal education. The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and The Economist routinely publish articles about new educational technologies for saving money and time, for overworked teachers or underfunded schools. Those same publications also publish articles addressing the excesses of technical education, resulting in student distraction and poor skills development. To use or not to use technology: that is the narrative. While this dichotomy, false in my opinion, may contribute to our understanding of our range of educational options, the intellectual tug-of-war associated with this narrative obscures the subtleties and historical context required for placing this range of options into perspective. When considered in the light of the relevant historical context, technology and computing clearly participate in the liberal arts tradition and promote liberal education. The most pressing pedagogical problems of our time involve the effective integration of technical and liberal education.

Computing not only participates in the liberal arts tradition, but it is firmly grounded in that tradition. The history of computing brings together the two great foundations of the liberal arts: the trivium and the quadrivium. The trivium constitutes the core skills we need to communicate: grammar, logic, and rhetoric.  Historians such as Martin Campbell-Kelly and William Aspray tell us that the history of the computer as a communication and network device stretches back at least to the invention of the telegraph.  The computer over the course of its development has incorporated the functions of the telephone and serves as the premier vehicle for communication in our time. The quadrivium organizes the theoretical foundations and practical applications of mathematics. According to Sister Miriam Joseph, the longtime professor of English at St. Mary’s College and an eloquent proponent of the liberal arts, geometry provides the foundational principles for calculating relations in space, and astronomy is a practical application for geometric theory. Similarly, arithmetic is the theoretical basis for understanding numerical operations, and music is the pleasurable result of the application of this theory. Historians also recognize that the development of the computer as a calculating engine can be traced from Babbage’s analytical engine in the mid-nineteenth century to Hollerith’s punch card system for the 1890 US Census to the development of ENIAC during World War II.  The computer in its myriad forms is the most important engine of calculation in our time. The history of the computer, therefore, is nothing less than the synthesis of the two great foundations of the liberal arts tradition: communication and calculation.

From this perspective, computing disciplines are in a strong position to promote liberal education by challenging students to integrate their skills in the exercise of critical thinking. In a typical database class dedicated to the fundamentals of organizing data, students grapple with a database as a tool for calculation and communication. Normalization, the process of reorganizing data to remove unnecessary redundancies, serves as the theoretical foundation for such courses. The process of normalization relies primarily on calculations to break relational tables into ever more efficient structures. This calculated, technical process, however, is insufficient for producing quality database systems. Students must also wrestle with a database as a platform for communication. What kinds of questions might a user attempt to ask and answer with these data? How should the answer to such a question be presented to the user? In other words, students must integrate their communication and calculation skills to solve a particular person’s problem in a particular context. In our data-driven world, students will need to marshal all of their intellectual skills to solve such real-world problems.          

E. O. Wilson, the eminent biologist, used the term consilience to represent a unity of knowledge based on interlocking causal explanations across disciplines. Given the widespread adoption of data in our society, the role of computing in interdisciplinary research is hardly surprising. Technical education supports this trend in the classroom with courses like data mining, computational science, and digital humanities. For example, standard data mining techniques have been applied to fields as diverse as forensic accounting, economics, genomics, and astronomy. When presented with opportunities for interdisciplinary problem solving, students rise to the challenge. For example, an undergraduate student of economics has the skill necessary to model the gravity theory of trade. Similarly, biology students can construct models of the neural network of C. Elegans, a small thoroughly-studied worm, to explore its structure. Such data-driven computational projects are by no means restricted to students in the natural and social sciences. The field of digital humanities is quickly adapting computational models to the study of humanities and the arts. The discovery by Patrick Juola that J. K. Rowling published a novel under another name is the most famous recent example of the role computer models play in the humanities. Computing provides new ways for students to engage with content across the curriculum.       

Technical education at its best helps us to explore our values and even our humanity. The idea that technology connects to human values is a new and somewhat troubling concept for many people. Since our society generally views technological adoption as an ethically and morally neutral act, educators face an uphill battle to present arguments  that challenge people to develop their own reasoned positions regarding technological adoption.  The nature of human communication on the Internet has received a great deal of attention from writers. For example, many researchers have explored the notion that online channels of communication such as blogs and tweets contribute to a growing segmentation of viewpoints on the web, a phenomena referred to as cyberbalkanization.  In one such study, Lada Adamic and Natalie Glance examined the linking patterns in political blogs in the run up to the 2004 Presidential Election. The research demonstrated a strong preference among bloggers for linking to sites with viewpoints similar to their own. Students can recreate the analysis conducted in this and similar studies with applications and calculations. After reviewing the evidence and recreating the analysis, students reflect on the influence of technology on human communications. Are these tools enhancing or inhibiting our ability to communicate? Are such applications contributing or detracting from our political culture? How can we incorporate such technology to maximize its benefits and minimize its risks? In what circumstances should we forego the use of such technology? In such a lesson, therefore, students learn to place calculation and communication in the service of human values.

In his essay Only Connect, William Cronon proposed a useful summarization of liberal education in terms of freedom and growth: “it aspires to nurture the growth of human talent in the service of human freedom.” How then does technical education promote the growth and freedom of students? The trend toward data-centric approaches to problem solving, commonly called “Big Data,” is changing the nature of our government, economy, and society. Just as literacy and universal education were prerequisites for citizenship in the twentieth century, computing in its liberal arts context will be a prerequisite for participatory citizenship in our time. We are witnessing a massive transition from a society based on text as its organizing information technology to a society based on data. In order for our students to direct this development responsibly and thrive in it, they will need to assess technology in its context, address technical solutions to the needs of specific communities and reflect on a technology’s ability to contribute to human growth and freedom. Students will be in a much better position to adapt technology to achieve these goals with a system of learning that synthesizes technical and liberal education. The liberal arts approach to education provides the best foundation for preparing our students to adapt technology to the needs of our data-driven world.

Tom Lombardi is an assistant professor of computing and information studies at Washington & Jefferson College.