Hacking a Liberal Arts Education

A3_cartoon“And that’s what this last chapter is all about. It could be interesting to dive deeper, but because we are not an engineering school, we can wrap up this class here. Any questions?”

Just one. At what university is it remotely acceptable to damn an entire department to mediocrity?

At Georgetown it is especially apparent that an internal culture of resignation condemns our computer science education. Our students are neither less capable nor less curious than their peers on other campuses. As long as we are convinced that we are inferior, the inertia of academic bureaucracy will withhold support for our programs. Over the last year I worked with a brilliant team of student organizers to hold Georgetown’s first-ever intercollegiate hackathon, Hoya Hacks. Our goal was twofold: first, to recognize the technical brilliance that hides in the corners of our campus; second, to light the first sparks of a student hacker movement that might build for our department the reputation it deserves and needs.

We cannot take all the credit, though. Hoya Hacks is built on the exponential growth of our computer science classes, the momentum added by brilliant new technical faculty and the roaring collegiate hacker movement on other campuses. Georgetown, instead of fuelling this growth, faces an identity crisis: How can we have faith in a program that is historically so securely outside our focus? How can we believe in our own potential?

If a liberal arts education categorically excludes computer science, then perhaps its scope is insufficient and must be broadened to include it. This is not necessarily controversial. Existing support for the School of Nursing and Health Studies, the McDonough School of Business and hard science majors in the College indicates that the strategic advantages and additional perspective of a strong technical education are consistent with Georgetown’s liberal arts tradition. Furthermore, the intersectional nature of computer science in particular can foster growth in any number of other departments. Though they are new, the ethics of workplace diversity, the ontology of artificial intelligence, the sociopolitical utility of wireless mesh networks and the Derridean implications of hypertext are relevant to all Georgetown students.

There are a number of existing models demonstrating the symbiosis of computer science and historically disconnected liberal arts departments. UC Berkeley offers three degrees — a BS in electrical and computer science, a BA in computer science and a BA in cognitive science — built on a core computer science curriculum, two of which exist in the College of Letters and Sciences and even require that students take almost half their classes outside the computer science department. Brown University, renowned for its lethally sharp nontechnical programs, has built a reputation for technical excellence that rivals those of MIT and Stanford. Stanford itself has built an entire department — symbolic systems — at the intersection of computer science and semiology.

Similar growth is possible at Georgetown. What holds us back is not inherent incompetence, a curse of eternal computer science mediocrity. We are limited only by our hesitance, the a priori dismissal of a hacker ethos that can and will take this campus by storm.

Hoya Hacks was held last weekend because we cannot wait for an administration to change the attitude on our campus or for the rest of the world to reconsider Georgetown’s latent potential.

When I graduate this spring, I want to leave a computer science program that unapologetically dives deeper, one that draws and builds on Georgetown’s deep connection to American civic engagement, one that takes advantage of every opportunity to grow as well as the wealth of resources our campus has to offer. Georgetown is uniquely positioned to use tech for good. Unlike the incumbent computer science programs on other campuses, we can build a department that is poised from the very beginning to engage with public policy, to interface with and mold the political tempests just a few blocks from our campus. Instead of waiting for MIT to radically rethink our strongest departments, that radical change should have its roots here on the Hilltop.

This will only happen if we ask and answer difficult questions about our identity and our priorities as a school. New technical growth at Georgetown can begin only with uncovering the makers, the programmers and the hackers who are already here.
It is not enough to wait for resources. Technical brilliance begins with conviction.

 

Taylor Wan is a senior in the College studying computer science.

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  1. Pingback: Vixen Watch for February 6, 2016 – vixenwatch

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