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Students Need Both Knowledge and Facts

As the new school year starts, an old complaint resurfaces. A recent opinion piece has said once again that US higher education is failing US employers. Students are graduating without knowing how to write, how to do a critical analysis, how to think. The complaint is that students are learning facts (or maybe not even learning those) but not how to survive in the real world.

In everything, it would seem, there must be balance. I have taught more than once our junior level course on professional issues. Part of the reason for this course is to have students learn and think about how to make professional decisions about policy in the computing world. Some of these students will become managers and administrators. They will have to decide how to distinguish between company use and personal use of company resources. They will have to work up policies for complying with law on intellectual property. And as managers they may have to learn how to deal with squabbles among the people they supervise.

I start this course each time with a list on the board of key phrases and references that are the background to how we create policy. "Peter Zenger", "clear and present danger", "due process", "trademark", "patent", "trade secret", "copyright", "due diligence" and so on. I teach at a US university, and our background begins with US policy, so your mileage may vary, but there will be a similar set of standards wherever one happens to be. I also point them to my university's policy statement that (unlike at some other institutions) says that the student owns his/her own work submitted as assignments for classes.

I don't expect these students to become lawyers, and I usually do not have a specific policy position I expect them to adopt. I do hope, though, that they get a background in how policy is created. If they embark on a software project that includes work from other people or other companies, they will need to know something about how to judge who owns what. That, certainly, involves critical thinking. On the other hand (and this is the real point of this blog), critical thinking has to start from a background of history and of society's accepted norms. When lawyers and money get involved, the wink-wink-nudge-nudge "I didn't know that I had to care about that" argument no longer works. That's where it would help to have a basic notion of what "we" consider "due diligence" in ensuring that what we are doing is ok.

Santayana had it right (even if misquoted often): "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." This extends beyond history. Those who cannot do arithmetic are unlikely to be able to analyze competing economic trends to determine a proper course of action. Those who don't know examples, precedents, and past history cannot reason by analogy when confronted with new situations.

It takes both a knowledge base of facts and the ability to reason about those facts in order to be successful. Yes, there needs to be a balance between getting students to learn basic fact and getting them to think, but both are necessary.

Duncan Buell
CSTA Board of Directors

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