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March 2008
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Computer Science Education

The universities have always, from the founding of the first universities in the middle ages onward, served a dual function. One function is to serve a temple of wisdom -- a place where learning for the sake of learning is encouraged and supported. The other function is to prepare the young for their place in society. Let me expand on the latter thought for a bit.

Working societies above the tribal level all have a major social division that corresponds to the difference between enlisted men and officers in the military. A young person either starts out in the social pyramid at the bottom or somewhere halfway up. Those who start halfway up are given special training. In our society this is conventionally done in the universities. Most people who go to college do so in preparation for becoming members of the officer class of society. That is the principal function of the universities, from the viewpoint of society as a whole, and the reason that they are supported.

The love of learning is a secondary function of the university system -- necessary and valuable, but not primary. In some parts of the system it is primary; on the whole it is secondary.

These are general principles; they apply to CSE as well. Idealists seem to feel that people ought not to take up CS because it is a good paying field. They are shoveling sand against the tide. All one can really ask is that those people who are taking CS (medicine, whatever) be trained properly in the career that they have chosen. I don't care why my doctor originally chose medicine -- I care very much whether she is is a good doctor or not. Similarly, I don't care why the CS major majored in CS. When this person comes to me saying, "I have trained as a valuable employee, hire me for big bucks", I really only have one concern -- Is this person a valuable employee who is worth big bucks?

Maybe this all sounds cynical, but it is not. You may love opera, and consider opera the finest thing in the world. Some do. But one ought to know that you can only have opera in a world that can afford opera, and that somewhere somebody is growing potatoes, and someone is cutting wood, and that all these people are doing all the things that are needed so that people have enough to eat and drink, clothes to wear, and warm places to sleep.


This page was last updated March 1, 2008.

Richard Harter's World
Site map
March 2008
Comp. Sci.
email