March 5, 2010

Programs of study

Core class in computing skills would benefit students across all disciplines

For many decades, the Core has challenged U of C students to extend their reasoning skills to encompass all of the major academic disciplines. However, the College’s flagship program is in need of an update. Introducing a course on computer programming, data analysis, web development, or graphic design into the Core curriculum would benefit students intellectually and practically, fitting well within the Core’s mission “to cover the whole scope of Human knowledge, and to teach not facts but the tools of inquiry.”

The reasons for this addition are clear. As computers become integrated into an increasing number of fields of analysis and discourse, students who possess a strong computing background will be able to segue more easily into professional practice. Practicalities aside, a thorough introduction to computing would be in keeping with the ideals of the Core. Hum cultivates critical thinking skills and builds upon writing mechanics; a computer technology Core course would similarly develop abstract problem-solving skills alongside concrete proficiency in programming languages. In both Hum and computer science, students acquire fundamental abilities to analyze complicated situations and express creative solutions.

The College recognized this in the mid-nineties when it established Mathematical Sciences, a three-course sequence that, according to Committee on Social Thought student Adam Kissel (A.B.D. ’03), brought together “concepts and methods from mathematics, computer science, and statistics, emphasizing interdisciplinary aspects of these subjects.” However, this sequence was shortened and ultimately discarded in the following years. Currently, students may take Introduction to Computer Science to fulfill the Core’s math requirement, but few do so, and students with no prior programming experience often find the pace and depth of the course difficult to manage. What is needed are courses providing an introduction to computer-related reasoning abilities and technical skills that have broad application in the wider world.

The new Core requirement would be divided into diverse introductory offerings. All would focus on problem solving, analysis, and expression, but different courses would emphasize particular aspects over others. Accordingly, programming courses would introduce students to basic languages such as C or Python, data analysis classes would provide overviews of STATA, R, or Root, and web development and graphic design classes would focus on tools like the Adobe Creative Suite.

The Core teaches students to read, write, and prove arguments in new ways. It is designed to give students the basic theoretical “tools of inquiry” that allow them to flourish as members of society. As that society changes, so too must the basic set of abilities that the Core inculcates. Adding computing skills as a Core requirement would go far toward providing students with the tools necessary in so many areas of practice, without diverging from the University’s commitment to theory.

— The Maroon Editorial Board consists of the Editor-in-Chief, Editor-in-Chief– Elect, Viewpoints Editors, and three Editorial Board members.