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The Forum | General Education

Computer Science in a Liberal Arts Education

September 28, 2018

I never considered myself much of a math or science scholar during high school. The symbolic language of math never quite cemented in my mind, and while I appreciated science in the abstract, I didn’t particularly enjoy the classroom experience of memorization and regurgitation. I was most interested in literature, history, and political science and felt confident that I would study these subjects in college.

During my freshman spring semester, I took an excellent seminar on the Soviet Union and as a result, settled on history for my major. In addition, I enrolled in an introductory computer science course for the upcoming semester. This was for two reasons: Firstly, I felt a sense of curiosity to better understand the technological advancements of our time, and secondly, my parents were concerned that I was not gaining any “hirable” skills through my history major that would be necessary in the 21st century economy.

After taking four courses in computer science, I am confident that I made the right decision. I have the opportunity to graduate with either a major or a minor in computer science alongside my history major. While I’m not considering a career in a computer science-related field, I believe that my liberal arts focus of study has been significantly broadened by taking computer science courses.

I feel much more confident in my ability to understand the science behind the technological developments changing our world in the 21st century. A background in computer science is essential for grasping the significance of cloud computing, social networks, self-driving cars, cybersecurity, and artificial intelligence—some of the most pressing issues of our time that are often misrepresented in public discussion. Using my historical skills of distinguishing fact from fiction, I can accurately trace technology’s trajectory in the world. Studying computer science has also sharpened my capacity for analytic reasoning. Analytic reasoning in this context entails understanding the world from an algorithmic viewpoint, or gaining the ability to evaluate data and apply it to the real world.

Some universities offer classes under the heading of “computer science” that focus mostly on practical programming concepts. These classes are designed to prepare students for careers in computer programming. Computer science, in contrast to computer programming, addresses the theoretical underpinnings of data structures and algorithms. Fortunately, the University of Michigan’s program falls into the latter category. In our core classes, we are taught strategies for tackling real-world problems with a judicious blend of abstract mathematics, logic, and common sense. We learn to analyze complex tasks—such as finding the shortest route through a city or generating lyrics based on an artist’s musical style—by reproducing and sorting its essential elements into data structures, then working through potential answers with algorithms. Through techniques like heuristics, binary trees, and recursion, decision-making problems seemingly impossible for humans to understand suddenly become solvable.

By studying history alongside computer science, I have noticed an important parallel. A diligent and conscientious study of either discipline builds an intellectual tool set, one that has allowed me to interpret real-world issues in unique and generative ways. Ideas from both disciplines start to pop up in daily life in useful ways; new connections and meaningful patterns, once hidden, begin to emerge and become apparent. Considering these parallels, I would recommend integrating quantitative-analytic thinking (such as in computer science) into the foundations of education. Subjects like computer science, data science, information science, and statistics offer valuable additions to the traditional liberal arts education.

Amo Manuel was an intern on ACTA’s What Will They Learn?® initiative. He is a senior at the University of Michigan, majoring in history with a minor in computer science.


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