It’s no secret that computer science is a big deal on campus. With 246 major declarations two years ago and even more last year, the subject has continued to distance itself from other undergraduate majors in terms of popularity. Moreover, close to 2,000 students in total study some form of computer science during their time at Stanford, with a record 608 students enrolled in CS 106A: Programming Methodology last fall.
Many have attributed the explosion of interest in computer science on campus to students’ desire to major in something practical or the pressure and influences stemming from attending a university in the heart of Silicon Valley. For example, author William Deresiewicz argues that student desires to pursue “practical” majors like CS dissuade them from considering life’s major questions and pursuing a liberal education.
I am not a computer science major (or anything yet, for that matter) so I may not be fully qualified to talk about this subject. But, with that being said, I think we should be encouraged by the tremendous interest in computer science because, simply put, the subject is awesome and an indispensible part of a 21st century liberal arts education.
For those—like Deresiewicz—who frame the rise of CS as a decision by students to pick up an employable trade skill over choosing a subject with serious intellectual vitality, I would point them to an analogy that Mehran Sahami, my CS 106A professor, made during the second day of class.
“Computer science is the study of problem solving. A computer scientist views a computer the way an astronomer views a telescope. It’s a way to get at what you’re really interested in studying.”
Often, the arguments suggesting that computer science is an anti-intellectual discipline rely on a strawman. Their image of a computer science student seems to be of a sun-deprived geek sitting for hours and typing 1s and 0s as fast as he can.
The reality is far different. Computer science is about thinking how best to solve a challenging problem and having the imagination to see the world differently more than it is about gaining a ticket to a job. Whether thinking through a sophisticated algorithm or persevering through debugging a program, computer science does increase one’s appreciation for solving difficult problems and provides the framework to solve new ones, which results in a stimulating educational experience.
When Keith Schwarz demonstrated how to solve the Towers of Hanoi problem using recursion or how Kruskal’s Algorithm finds the minimum-spanning tree of a graph in CS 106B, I let out a small—but nonetheless audible—gasp from my seat in NVIDIA Auditorium because my mind was actually blown away. It was a stimulating intellectual experience for me, the kind that reminds you why you decided to show up for class and why you’re even at college in the first place.
I also think it’s unfair to pin the surge in computer science interest on the economy and current job market, because that detracts from the students who are in love with the subject and the excellent teachers in the department who do a fantastic job of igniting that spark within students. Sahami, Schwarz, Eric Roberts and Jerry Cain—amongst others—are some of the best lecturers in any subject at any university, and they all teach introductory courses to students with little to no background in the subject. If the math department followed the same model of having polished, passionate professors teaching Math 51 as opposed to nervous postdocs, I’m sure that people would start taking it out of interest rather than necessity.
I’m not trying to say that CS can be a substitute for humanistic inquiry, because I also strongly believe that an undergraduate education can be the perfect time to explore fundamental questions like “What is the meaning of life?” and “What does it mean to be moral?” That’s why I’m a huge fan of the new joint major programs in CS and Music and CS and English, which were discussed extensively in The Daily’s “Humanities in the 21st Century” Op-Ed Series. I believe these programs will be a wonderful option for Stanford undergraduates, not because they provide an employable skill to English majors, but because they recognize the intellectual value computer science has as a key component of a modern liberal arts education.
Computer science is not awesome strictly because of its practical element, or its current value in the job market. It’s awesome because it provides the opportunity to create something brand new and to develop the mental ability to attack difficult problems in a variety of fields—from biology to economics and even to literature.
Thus, as long as students are studying computer science—either as a major or for just one class—out of a genuine interest in the field, we should celebrate the growth of computer science because it is a beautiful, challenging subject that can contribute to a balanced undergraduate education, one that can leave students with a love of learning and an appreciation for problem solving—and then inspire them to use that telescope to explore the wonders of the universe.
Vihan Lakshman wasn’t kidding when he said he is currently undeclared. Convince him to major in history at firstname.lastname@example.org.