Computer Science and the Liberal Arts

The following statement was adopted by the department faculty February 14, 2003.

The liberal arts are traditionally intended to develop the faculties of the human mind, those powers of intelligence and imagination without which no intellectual work can be accomplished.... Liberal education, including all the traditional arts as well as the newer sciences, is essential for the development of top-flight scientists.... The aim of liberal education, however, is not to produce scientists. It seeks to develop free human beings who know how to use their minds and are able to think for themselves. It produces citizens who can exercise their political liberty responsibly. It develops cultivated persons who can use their leisure fruitfully.... Our educational problem is how to produce free [human beings], not hordes of uncultivated, trained technicians. --Mortimer Adler

The underlying philosophy of the liberal arts and sciences, established through centuries of tradition, is that, in order to be properly educated, a person must have both a solid foundation in the ways of knowing that are common to our society and knowledge of the practical arts. Computer science, as one of the ``newer sciences,'' develops the power of the mind in the particular areas of critical thinking, problem solving, and dealing with abstraction. As a part of a liberal arts curriculum, it also contributes to the development of students' skills in communicating clearly, working with others, examining perennial questions, and making ethical decisions.

While many disciplines claim to develop problem solving skills as a part of their curriculum, computer science has at its core the study of algorithms - that is, the study of techniques of problem solving. Computer scientists focus on the core elements of a problem area through the techniques of abstraction and modeling. These techniques give the student new ways to look at and understand the world. While computer science has a technical component, necessary for understanding the discipline, the emphasis is on the underlying principles, which persist as the technology changes. Adler rightly distinguishes between a liberal education and the education of ``hordes of uncultivated, trained technicians.''

Computers are designed, programmed, and used by human beings. Thus, teamwork, cooperation, and communication are traits that fit naturally within the discipline. These traits are developed in our students through discussion, writing, and speaking opportunities, as well as in group projects.

A liberal arts education should prepare the student for an examined life. The study of computer science leads naturally to the consideration of perennial questions and ethical issues. For example, provable limits of computation open up the possibility of arguing that questions in other arenas are impossible to solve. We seek to help students integrate their understanding as computer scientists with their personal belief system so that they can make better informed decisions and live their lives as an integrated whole.

Our goal within the department, as within the colleges as a whole, is both to broaden and to deepen student understanding in many areas while helping students acquire the tools to both think clearly and to carry on their education independently. Four years of college is a beginning to that process and not an end.