Computer Science is a Liberal Art

There is a tendency today for people who aren’t programmers or IT professionals to joke about their lack of computer skills. It is not uncommon to hear an otherwise brilliant person remark something about not being able to figure out their iPhone — this apparently has replaced “programming a VCR” as the pinnacle of technological savvy.

The title of this article is a quote from Steve Jobs. Whether you loved him or hated him, there is no denying that Steve Jobs was a very important figure in the history of the popularization of computers. However, there are people who were even more important to the history of computers and computer science, but who are unknown to most people today.

A prime example is Adele Goldberg. She was one of the computer programmers, (along with the also-amazing Alan Kay) who developed the Smalltalk programming language. Goldberg and Kay’s work would lead to the invention of many of the ideas behind modern computer operating systems by Douglas Engelbart in 1968 and eventually to the creation of the Apple Macintosh.

Kay and Goldberg are just one small part of the history that leads from computers being a tool for researchers, to each of us having a powerful handheld computer in our pockets. The history of computer science is alive with a diverse array of people; just among the four people mentioned in this article there’s a mathematician, a jazz guitarist and composer, a philosopher, several visionaries, and one of the most brilliant entrepreneurs the world has ever seen. These eclectic people don’t fit in with the stereotypes of homogenous geeks and social outcasts that our culture applies to people who are exceptionally “good with computers.”

Each of these people left a permanent mark on the world. Their ideas were shaped by how they saw human and machine interactions and inter-human interactions. Their inspirations and visions were as revolutionary as the creations of Pablo Picasso or John Coltrane. Yet, outside of the Computer History Museum, very few people have ever heard of these remarkable people.

The study of computer programming and computer science touches on nearly every aspect of human activity; including philosophy, mathematics, art, music, psychology, sociology, and much more. The practical results of computer science impact nearly every aspect of our lives and these principals are applied in order to make computers progressively more compatible with people and the way that people understand the world. To write off the study of computer science as an optional career path for “nerds” is narrow-minded.

Every educated person should study computer programming and computer science. In return, they’ll gain a greater appreciation and understanding of what it means to be a human in the 21st century, and they’ll have the power to contribute meaningfully to creating a better and more creative future.

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