Free The Geeks: Towards A Liberal “Tech” Education

July 9, 2008 § 1 Comment

Harvard University raised a minor ruckus last year when they revamped their core liberal arts curriculum. Regardless of the merits of their specific plan, they deserve credit for being willing to reexamine, redefine, and reinvent their scholarship to better fulfill their unique mission: training the next generation of “cultural elites” who will guide academia, industry, and government.

In this era of declining computer science enrollments — and ongoing concern over the math and science competency of American students — I believe it is time for technical institutions to undertake similar soul-searching. In particular, we need to rethink the historic divorce of science and engineering from the so-called liberal arts — those nominally intended for “free men.”

The very term liberal arts somehow implies that technical training is only suitable for “slaves” — the order takers who implement the vision of their “betters”. While that historic reality has mostly become an anachronistic caricature, it still contains more than a grain of truth. We excel at teaching our students the intricacies of quantum mechanics, genetic manipulation, and algorithmic efficiency — yet we too often leave them ignorant of the political, ecological, ethical, and financial realities that will determine how (and whether) those innovations will be employed.

To be clear, I am not saying we should merge engineering into the liberal arts. Technology is a demanding mistress, requiring both specific aptitude and dedicated study to master. Conversely, there are many leadership positions in our society that really do require people skilled in literature, philosophy, and history, and it is unrealistic to expect them to have any deep grasp of technical practice.

Instead, what I believe our students ultimately need — and deserve — is an education that equips them to be masters of their own fate, able to compete on equal terms (if in very different spheres) with their liberal artiste counterparts. I call it a “liberal tech” education, in that is designed for “free geeks” — technologists who take responsibility for their own career trajectory, rather than being content to serve as “wage slaves” to those with broader vision.

So what would such a “liberal tech” curriculum look like? One possibility is that, just as mathematics and empirical study provides a unifying paradigm for scientific education, systems theory and design thinking may provide the basis for a holistic technical education. These disciplines give technically-minded individuals — who, to be honest, are often more comfortable with and fascinated by inanimate objects — a conceptual framework for understanding and manipulating the human systems (e.g., biological, cultural, financial) that provide the ultimate context for their work.

In a very real sense, we want our students to be able to “design’ their career trajectory using the same problem-solving approach they use to design tangible products — and we use to design their education! Not as a static artifact that is created once in unchanging Platonic perfection, but as an adaptive system continually evolving in response to new stimuli. We want them to be able to identify and respond to all the relevant inputs and outputs of the design process; not just speeds and feeds, but the aesthetics, politics, and economics that ultimately determine whether projects bear fruit or die on the vine.

I readily admit that this is a huge task, perhaps comparable to that of creating the modern research university out of the medieval tradition. To fully accomplish it will require not merely the invention of a new curriculum, but dramatic changes in organizational structure as well as hiring and retention practices. It will require faculty with a vision for the social and psychological development of their students — and themselves — plus administrators of all levels who understand how to lead, not merely manage. It means a new level of collaboration with both industry and government, to re-conceptualize both the purpose and funding structure for university training. It may even require at least a partial reconciliation with — and transformation of — the classical tradition we long ago abandoned.

This is not the work of a semester, or of a single five-year funding cycle; but of generations. And while it may not be easy, or inevitable, I believe it is essential. We owe it to our students, whose traditional career paths have been obliterated by both rapid progress and global outsourcing. We owe it to our society, whose greatest ills (military conflict, global climate change, income inequality) have been created or exacerbated by technological progress, yet for which better (and wiser) technology is the only possible solution. We even owe it to the discipline of technology itself, which has been tarnished by association with overly complex products, expensive failed projects, and a relentless, inhumane materialism.

And finally, we owe it to us. For only in humanizing technology and technical education can each of us truly embrace our own humanity. To see ourselves — and help others to see us — not as mere calculating machines or pedagogical engines, but as complex, flawed, flesh-and-blood human beings who live, love, laugh, learn, create, compete and cry; and pass the passionate totality of everything we are and do on to our students.

Because in the end, the geeks we most need to free are ourselves.

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