Computing: The Next Greatest Liberal Art

Brookville Elementary students engaging in a programming lab at Miami

Brookville Elementary students engaging in a programming lab at Miami

Jeannette Wing argues that we should promote “Computational Thinking”, e.g., the use of methods and techniques that computer scientists use daily to solve problems (Wing 2006).  In particular, she says:

“Computational thinking involves solving problems, designing systems, and understanding human behavior, by drawing on the concepts fundamental to computer science. Computational thinking includes a range of mental tools that reflect the breadth of the field of computer science.”

Computational thinking is not the study of computer science, but rather a paradigm that is increasingly becoming more necessary as the traditional liberal arts begin to encounter problems of scale.  The concepts of computational thinking include fundamental concepts of computer science including identifying and restating the problem in order to understand the domain and context, analyzing alternative solutions to determine the best way to attack a problem (often using abstraction, decomposition, and tradeoff analysis to make seemingly intractable problems tractable), working in multidisciplinary teams to solve large problems that no one person can solve alone, and putting all of the gained knowledge together in order to produce a solution.

Among others, At Miami University I am currently teaching an introductory course on programming entitled “Fundamentals of Programming and Problem Solving” (affectionately called “CS1”).  I recently asked the students about the Miami Plan Principles.  The Miami Plan, for those of you not familiar with Miami, is the strategy set forth by the university over 25 years ago to ensure that Miami students were education in the liberal arts.  The Miami Plan Principles fall into four different areas:

  • (CT) Critical Thinking
  • (UC) Understanding Contexts
  • (EO) Engaging with Other Learners
  • (RA) Reflection and Action

So I asked my students, “How many of you know what the four Miami Plan Principles are?” All I heard were crickets.  So I continued, “How many of you have taken Miami Plan courses?” All their hands went up.  Is this a problem? Yes, but maybe not for a computer science student and I claim it is because of computational thinking.

To accept my argument you have to understand that the stereotype that many hold to about what practicing computer scientists do are false. They do not lead solitary lives locked away in dark rooms never to see the light of day.  Instead, the spend a great deal of their time communicating with others (EO), understanding domains that go beyond the subject of computer science (UC), evaluate an array of concerns and viewpoints while developing alternative solutions (CT), ask questions of their solutions (Did I build the right product? Did I build it the right way?) (RA), and are continually rebuilding, modifying, and reworking as conditions change (RA).  In solving the problems this way (e.g., applying the Miami Plan Principles), I claim that they are merely applying computational thinking.

Why is this important? Recently, my colleague Glenn Platt recently asserted the following (Platt 2013):

“We see games as the liberal arts of the 21st century.”

You may think that this is just Glenn promoting the gaming program, but I think he is right but that maybe he was thinking too narrowly.  It is computation that is the liberal arts of the 21st century!  In February, a YouTube video released by underlines my point ( Every student in every school should have the opportunity to learn to code

So, what do we do with this.  The Miami Plan asks students to reflect and act and so why don’t we?  And so I did.  My action was this.  Back in the beginning of February, Katie Henry, a fourth grade teacher in Brookville, Ohio contacted administrators about presentations they were going to make for a teacher education course in the School of Education, Health and Society at Miami.  It was her students’ desire that they get a chance to come “see the computer science department”.  Eventually, this request trickled down to me and I agreed to host this class of twenty-four fourth graders.  Originally I suggested that the students come and create Apple iBooks, but Katie pushed back and said the following (Henry 2013):

“Is there any possible way students can still get a behind-the-scenes look at writing code?–Perhaps as a part of our Miami visit?  I am highlighting writing code as a 21st century language/literacy skill, best learned while young.”

Brookville Elementary students working with Miami undergraduates

Brookville Elementary students working with Miami undergraduates

Who could say no to that? Incidentally, her message came four days after the release of the video!  So we put a plan into place.  Along with two students, I visited the Brookville school to teach the fourth grade students how to program a Magic 8-Ball app using the MIT Appinventor tool.  Ten days later, they finally visited Miami and we started creating a completely new app meant to help students learn arithmetic.  We are now following up by creating labs that are meant to help those students continue down this path of learning to code that I believe is more than just a language or literacy skill but rather the best way to learn computational thinking but also the best way to engage in the next greatest liberal art.


Katie Henry. 2013. Personal Communication.

Glenn Platt. 2013. Quote from Miami Website.

Jeannette M. Wing. 2006. Computational thinking. Commun. ACM 49, 3 (March 2006), 33-35. DOI=10.1145/1118178.1118215

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4 Responses to “Computing: The Next Greatest Liberal Art”

  1. Artie Kuhn says:

    Jerry, it may be that we all see our particular domain as “the next liberal art”! Richard Buchanan wrote Wicked Problems in Design Thinking published in Design Issues in 1992. He makes the same argument about design: that it’s a way of thinking that unifies all other ways of thinkings. The truest liberal art.

  2. Jerry Gannod says:

    I believe it takes the learner to reflect on the meaning of what a liberal art is in order to make the claim. I might argue that there are fields that are not qualified as liberal arts.

  3. Jerry Gannod says:

    I was thinking about this more and perhaps the way to re-envision the Miami plan is to have individual disciplines decide what should constitute a liberal arts education (in much the same way that communication or writing across the curriculum works).

  4. Artie Kuhn says:

    Jerry, I’m liking that idea…

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