Frederich Nietzsche is well-known for his phrase “God is dead”. But what is not immediately evident from that quote is its context. Nietzsche, a son of a Lutheran pastor, was certainly not a Christian, as shown by his later writings. But in the passage quoted before, in The Gay Science, Nietzsche was responding equally to Christian ideas as he was the idea of scientific positivism.
In his parable, Nietzsche addresses the concept of transcendental “truth” or “meaning”. The shift from Christian theology to scientific, rational ideals was, to Nietzsche, one that merited much examination. Nietzsche critiqued a reliance on the empirical sciences for the ultimate idea of “truth”. An empirical, positivist view of the world, to Nietzsche, was not enough to save it from “plunging, continually… as through an infinite nothing”. And the madman, when he realizes that others do not understand him, leaves. He claims that his “time has not yet come”.
So what does this have to do with the pedagogical practice of Computer Science?
At the risk of sounding like Nietzsche’s madman, I have always been somewhat wary of the emphasis that people tend to place on STEM. STEM has always been “good”. It’s role in society is rarely questioned for its usefulness, and in fact, the discoveries made in STEM are often held as the unequivocal “truth”.
As an undergraduate in college, I am currently going for a degree in both Computer Science and Comparative History of Ideas. Despite the number of jokes I hear about having “one useful major, and one ‘fun’ one” (especially from STEM majors), I maintain that computer science is only granted the privilege of being called “useful” because of the internalized attitudes of scientific positivism that pervades contemporary thinking. This thinking is very rarely questioned, and because of this, the pedagogy of STEM has become overemphasized in discussions of education.
I see this attitude reflecting in the very language used in many of my classrooms. “You are the future of the world,” my professors often say. “You can go and make money, and do good.”
Companies such as Google and Mozilla echo this idea. “Doing good is part of our code,” and “don’t be evil” are both slogans that play off of the moralistic notion that computer science equals human progress equals good. But is this really the case?
Recently, of course, these ideas have been challenged because of the recent events concerning the NSA and the PRISM program. Perhaps these issues are not forces of “good” being used for “evil”, but rather a part of what “advancing” human society means. Maybe computer science should not be represented as an advancement that is intrinsically tied to “good”, but instead a responsibility – just like so many other fields.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I do not want to underplay the potential that computer science has in shaping the future. It’s actually quite the opposite. As society grows more and more dependent on STEM and specifically computer scientists (albeit through a self-perpetuating system), I believe that computer scientists will have a critical role: they will inherit the responsibility of making ethical decisions that affect the rest of society.
In teaching STEM, it is valuable to keep in mind that nothing about it is an inherently “good” topic. “Good” does not necessarily mean what is best for our economy. It does not necessarily mean creating revolutionary new technology, or making steps in “human progress”. The notion of “good” is being shaped by us – in the laws we make, in the people we choose to idolize, and in the very language we use to teach others. And as computer scientists, or perhaps teachers of computer science, let us not underplay our own responsibility in defining the role of STEM for the future generations. Part of this might mean agreeing that “thinking well is not the province of any one discipline,” as DavidHemmendinger says in “A Plea for Modesty”. Part of this might mean acknowledging that computer science is a niche field (and perhaps not the most important part of one’s education), as my peer Jessica does here. Part of this might mean keeping students informed on current events such as the PRISM program and the NSA, or incorporating a wider range of ethics classes as core to the field of computer science.Which ever path we decide to take, it is valuable to realize that our words and actions can allow us to, at the very least, choose the direction in which we will “plunge, continually”.