Columns, Opinions

Mitra ’18: Rethinking humanities in the tech age

By
Opinions Editor
Thursday, April 6, 2017

Steve Jobs once said, “Everyone should learn how to program a computer, because it teaches you how to think.” I imagine when he first made this claim in 1995, it was met with laughs and eye-rolls. The reaction today would likely be different: Now, more and more people are treating rudimentary programming as a basic skill.

Just this week, the New York Times ran a story titled, “Where Non-Techies Can Get with Programming.” It describes programming as the “lingua franca of the modern economy,” a tool that can be used to improve productivity in almost any field. The article paints a startling picture of the pervasive role of computer science in the job market — one that should be an eye-opener for all students thinking about developing employable skills. But as we move forward in the age of technology, it is not just students that need to think strategically about learning computer science — universities need to reconsider their curricula too.

In the last decade, an increasing number of fields, from journalism to consulting, are becoming computational in nature. Many job postings in industries unrelated to technology now list proficiency in languages like Java as a requirement or preferred skill. Ten years from now, Python and C++ might well become the next Microsoft Office. And even if this isn’t the case, it is indisputable that computing skills have become increasingly valuable in recent years.

Sensing this trend, over 50 percent of college students are now enrolling in at least one computer science class. At Brown, enrollment in computer science courses doubled between 2005 and 2013. CSCI 0150: “Introduction to Object-Oriented Programming and Computer Science” is one of the most popular courses every fall, regularly filling up Salomon 101. But even the most basic computer science courses are notorious for being time-consuming and challenging for the uninitiated and uninterested; they are not ideal for students who only want to pick up the basics of computing and apply them to other disciplines.

This dilemma was something I struggled with for the last few months. As a public policy concentrator, I had little interest in intense programming. But with the rise of data-driven policymaking, jobs in government and policy are increasingly relying on computing skills. I wanted to learn the basic tools so I could apply them in policy or political journalism contexts, but I didn’t know where to look. In the last few months, I have met many other students facing similar struggles.

So this leaves universities with a pressing question: How should they integrate programming and data science into the curriculum so that students are prepared to enter the competitive and increasingly tech-oriented job market? And how can they achieve this without compromising other skill sets and promoting a diverse array of interests?

Some undergraduate programs, like Harvey Mudd College, now have mandatory CS courses for the entire student body. While this model could work in other schools, it does not align with the open curriculum and admirable emphasis on academic freedom. Yet, as industries gradually adapt to the onset of the Information Age, it is time universities like Brown follow suit.

Brown has already made a start by offering courses like CSCI 0030: “Introduction to Computation for the Humanities and Social Sciences” and CSCI 0040: “Introduction to Scientific Computing and Problem Solving.” These courses use computing tools to tackle real-world problems in a range of other disciplines. Other departments have also developed courses that hone programming skills in other contexts, including ECON 1660: “Big Data” and LITR 0110D: “Digital Language Art I.” I would love to see other departments continue this trend and create computing-oriented courses that are specifically targeted toward other fields and require no programming experience.

At the same time, students — particularly those in the humanities and social sciences — should consider taking at least one computing course during their time at Brown. It might not be the most fun or casual elective, but it will probably be one of the most useful. And with the sheer variety of programming courses geared toward other disciplines (with hopefully more on the way), there is something for almost everyone out there.

Last year, former President Barack Obama declared that computer science is “a basic skill, right along with the three R’s” — reading, writing and arithmetic. I don’t think that statement is true yet, but in another decade or two, it probably will be. So it is time for both departments and students to stop treating computer science as a niche skill. It is all around us, and it is here to stay. We need to make sure we’re not left behind.

Mili Mitra ’18 can be reached at mili_mitra@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

Topics: ,