When I first came to academia, I fancied myself a problem solver beyond compare. After all, I was a Computer Scientist, one of the few on campus, and no one had my programming skills. Actually, I was an Electrical-Engineer-Turned-Computer-Scientist, but no matter: if you had a problem, I could fix it. How? With software, of course!. To me, every problem was a software problem. Need a better way to schedule classes? Let me write some code for you. Need a way to record minutes from meetings and post them so everyone could read them? I can type that solution out tonight. I was “there’s an app for that” way before apps were a thing.
Again, every problem is a software problem. Code can cure all ills.
Actually, a bedrock theory of Computer Science backs me up on that. A programming language is Turing Complete if it can be used to express the solution to a problem that actually has a solution. So, if your problem actually has a solution, I know the words to help you find it. If you don’t trust me, surely you can do better than England and trust no less of an authority than Alan Turing.
You have a problem? I’ve got code. You need a solution? I know C.
The problem is … I don’t know how to write the program to make me believe that anymore.
Life experience – just breathing and interacting and having to get along with and accomplish things with my fellow humans – has taught me that any attempt to solve problems while looking through just one lens is going to fall rather short of optimal, is going to lack in some crucial way, is going to disappoint, and will soon need an inglorious redo. I’m no longer the fan boy of computer science that I once was. I no longer preach proudly from the pulpit of Python or gesticulate energetically in the Java gymnasium. I know there’s more to life than just code.
And that is why I loathe this article, which excerpts an opinion piece by Cathy N. Davidson, author of The New Education: How to Revolutionize Higher Education to Prepare Students for a World in Flux. Let me be clear: I have not read Davidson’s book. Nor do I disagree at all with her contention that a STEM-only education is not the answer to any problem worth solving. I agree wholeheartedly and have long burned out on the whole push for more STEM education, viewing it now as the lazy administrator’s attempt to look hip, fresh, and timely. And don’t even get me started on STEAM, which is just a feeble and late-to-the-party attempt by the Humanities to be included in the superficially hip, fresh, and timely. I am entirely 100% on Davidson’s side when I say that the best education is a balanced, liberal, and broad one that mirrors the complexities and nuances of life, one that doesn’t churn out tunnel visionaries hellbent on curing cancer with code.
No, what bothers me so much about this article is that it purports to say something new and non-obvious that will no doubt be used as one basis for arguing for greater resources for non-STEM fields, as if those of us in STEM are the enemy. A Revenge of the Anti-Nerds, if you will.
Do you think I’m overreacting or being too sensitive? Personal experiences aside (I can assure you, I’ve been to plenty of meetingswhere my STEM focus on the use of logic and deduction has disqualified me from having an opinion), I don’t think it is possible to overreact when someone is grinding an ax in your face, and that is what this opinion piece does. For example, the author indicates that Google’s Project Aristotle found that, among the eight characteristics listed on a survey, STEM expertise came in dead last in importance for Google employees. Are we to take from this that one of the greatest innovators in computer hardware and software attained this lofty perch because they hired people who couldn’t code and couldn’t design circuits but could write poems about love and mortality better than the bevy of philosophers who work for Microsoft?
No, what we should take from this is that the thing that distinguishes one Google employee from another is that ability to empathize, communicate, envision, and express in more than just code. The ideal Google employee isn’t the stereotypical nerd-in-a-cubicle. But the ability to code surely is the starting point. Google’s software doesn’t just write itself – at least not yet. But that day when the software writes itself is coming, and it won’t be because one of their engineers will be able to explain how Camus’ Arab on a beach perfectly captures the banality of modern life and the nagging distaste we have for it. It will come because their computer scientists figured out the right algorithms for creating software that begets other software.
This is not the nerds-think-they-are-so-smart-but-they-are-not moment the author hoped for, no matter how she tries to twist it. What’s sad is that her approach of trying to elevate the Humanities by downplaying the importance of STEM is a common one, and one that loses the Humanities fans among us road-weary STEM folk who have finally learned what, in retrospect, is a rather obvious life lesson: that there is a lot more to life than physics, or calculus, or covalence, or even, dare I say, code.
Humanities, the Arts. the social sciences, STEM, the professions … if a university is going to educate citizens who better the world, they must offer all, in balance, and trumpet the brilliance of the perspectives they each offer on the richness, complexity, and beauty of life. Enough of this inferiority-complex-driven “us too” tact. Otherwise, I’ll have to write some code to silence your silliness. And Turing says I can.