It’s no secret that most Penn students want to be the next Elon Musk. I know I do. But as venture capitalist and entrepreneur Peter Thiel wrote in his book, “Zero to One,” every moment in business is singular: “The next Bill Gates will not build an operating system. The next Larry Page or Sergey Brin won’t make a search engine. And the next Mark Zuckerberg won’t create a social network.”
What will my moment be? If I knew, I wouldn’t be writing this column. That’s why I’m at Penn, and why many others are too: to understand how the world works, what areas could be improved and how to build the future. Yet, how am I supposed to discern the world’s inner workings and capitalize on its needs when the education I am getting doesn’t require any understanding of computer science?
Computer science should be a core requirement in the College of Arts and Science’s curriculum.
Let me first debunk the idea that the College is an exclusively liberal arts institution. The College’s current goal is: “to help students to become knowledgeable about the world and the complexities of today’s society, aware of moral, ethical and social issues, prepared to exercise intellectual leadership, and enlivened by the use of their minds.” Perhaps the most important aspect of this mission is the phrase “today’s society.” This implies that the College is, at least, somewhat practically minded.
Learning the liberal arts is feckless if the conceptual leap connecting strictly academic material to the world today is never made, and subjects characteristic to the liberal arts — namely philosophy, mathematics, literature and the natural/physical sciences — are not comprehensive enough to prepare students to effectively contribute to today’s world. In fact, that’s why the College has its Quantitative Data Analysis and Formal Reasoning and Analysis requirements, both of which fail to meet the stereotypical “liberal arts” recipe.
And I think that’s great; I’m proud to go to a college that values the liberal arts and subjects that will prepare me for any job. It also speaks volumes about the College’s willingness to adjust its educational method to how the world is changing that it has the Formal Reasoning and Analysis requirement. This includes courses in mathematics, computer science, linguistics, decision theory and symbolic logic, all of which teach “deductive reasoning and the formal structure of human thought.”
Currently, the Department of Computer and Information Science is in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, which could explain why the College does not mandate a separate computer science requirement. However, Penn should open up its computer science program to all students and require an introductory course in the College — the largest of the four undergraduate schools — because of the unique intellectual benefits it provides.
Sure, computer science is like learning a language, but more than anything else, it’s about problem solving. Whether discovering a heuristic solution to the "Traveling Salesman Problem" or coding a recursive binary search, computer science forces you to think in terms of optimization and maximizing efficiency.
What is a way to perform a certain task with the least run time? How can I describe a situation so precisely and simply that a stupid machine can execute it? How can I effectively solve a problem when it’s impossible to know all the details? If there’s an error, where is it occurring and were there any conceptual mistakes that led to the error? Everything is compartmentalized into its most basic parts, and it’s not difficult to infer why that is an incredibly useful way of looking at the world.
Not to mention that, in addition to interpreting data and understanding logic, most fields require some basic ability to program. Much of scientific research uses in silico experimentation, which are experiments done using computer modeling. Telemedicine, which provides clinical health care for people with geographical access issues using telecommunication and information technology, is becoming increasingly prevalent. And, to be an efficient worker in any job, it is imperative when presented with a task to see if it could be automated rather than you wasting your time unnecessarily.
It, thus, cannot be true that the College is successful in its mission to “help students become knowledgeable about the world” and “exercise intellectual leadership” when many students graduate from the College without taking a single computer science course or knowing how to program. And, as technology continues to advance and assets like artificial intelligence and virtual reality become integral parts of our everyday lives, not at least understanding what an algorithm or basic programming syntax is will become even more of a liability.
If the College doesn’t change its curriculum, I highly recommend you change your own.
JACQUELYN SUSSMAN is a College freshman from Westport, Conn. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. "The Objectivist" usually appears every other Wednesday.
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