The Role of Computer Science in Liberal Arts Education & Society

Computer Science integrates three fundamental processes: theory (from mathematics), abstraction (based on the scientific method), and design (from engineering) [1]. The problem solving perspectives emphasized in CS provide important mental models for addressing problems in many disciplines. This is sometimes called “algorithmic thinking” or “computational thinking.” As described by Walker et. al., “methodologies within computer science involve an active, creative process for understanding a problem, designing and organizing solutions, and presenting those solutions in a precise and logical fashion. … Algorithmic thinking can be used to counteract the natural human tendency for quick and easy, but sometimes careless and sloppy, thought.” [1]

Computing impacts nearly all aspects of modern society. Software is in many devices we use every day including our cars, televisions, and phones and is responsible for managing our bank accounts, identity, health records, and taxes. Software has a major impact on how we work and communicate, especially during this pandemic. Recent events have demonstrated that the use, design, and management of software systems can impact society in significant ways including life and death. Software security is increasingly important as the incidents of malware, fraud, extortion, identity theft, and cyber espionage are on the rise. “We now live in a world where AI governs access to information, opportunity and freedom. However, AI systems can perpetuate racism, sexism, ableism, and other harmful forms of discrimination, therefore, presenting significant threats to our society – from healthcare, to economic opportunity, to our criminal justice system.” (source)

To meet these challenges, the world needs software developers who exhibit integrity, honesty, critical thought, and care. We need developers who see their role as a service to society, and who practice thoughtful inquiry, service, leadership and care – for other people, for their communities, and for the Earth. As an example, a person working on software for a social networking system has to make decisions between what is best for society and what is best for the company. There are indications that the business model of many of today’s social networking systems prioritize monetary gain over privacy, security, and social good. For these reasons and more it is vitally important for computer scientists to be educated within the context of the liberal arts tradition.

The CS Department educates students with the technical skills to be effective and capable software developers, while the General Education curriculum provides them with exposure to broader questions, ideals, principles of diversity, inclusion, social justice, and sustainability, and values of Lutheran Higher Education. We are also moving toward a stronger ethics component in our CS curriculum and have submitted grants with colleagues across campus to support collaboration on these important curricular revisions. Such an education enables students to meaningfully integrate and apply their knowledge and skills in thoughtful service. A software developer needs technical skills to build maintainable, secure, and high quality software, as well as the moral compass to know what to build and why. Our best hope for the future is to produce software developers that can make informed judgements about their work and gauge the effects on society, global communities, and the Earth. We feel that this is best done by providing a CS education within the liberal arts framework. The liberal arts definition adopted by the College of Arts and Sciences says that the liberal arts “empower [students] to think and act in ways that are critical, imaginative, and responsible.” It goes on to say that it challenges students to “appreciate different points of view, to interact productively with others, and to express themselves effectively, creatively, and empathetically.” These are exactly the values and habits of mind that software developers need.

Not only do we believe that the liberal arts provide important context for Computer Science students, but we also believe that Computer Science is an essential part of the liberal arts. In order for students to “meet the challenges of a complex and changing world,” and if PLU is “to educate students for lives of thoughtful inquiry, leadership, service, and care”, then students must have some knowledge of computing technology. Without such, students risk seeing computers and networks as “black boxes,” and lack understanding of the power, risks, societal impacts, and limitations of computing technology. Students who become leaders need to understand technology in order to practice thoughtful care for people, local and global communities, and the Earth. As Walker and Kelemen [1] articulate,

“…computer systems have become a significant factor in contemporary life. Understanding this technology and its implications, therefore, has become vital ‘for the honorable discharge of the duties of life.’ Like any powerful technology, computer systems can be used for the benefit of all or, in the hands of the selfish, for the benefit of a few at the expense of many. Although relatively few liberal arts graduates may enter a computing profession, many liberal arts graduates will be making policy decisions and taking leadership roles within a democratic society. All of these people need to understand opportunities and issues related to technology; they need insights to understand implications and to ask appropriate questions. People well-educated in the liberal arts with some knowledge of computer science are needed to help decide what computers ought to do.” [1]