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What is an education?

This article describes what I think is the essence of education.

Published on Last updated Hans-Dieter Hiep ORCID logo

In university, one sees students attending lectures and labs, working together on assignments, and doing exams. But—standing still for a moment—what is the purpose of all this business? The answer involves education, in the sense that students are being educated. But what is an education, precisely? In this blog post, I will summarize my views on the matter.

Music Video: Pink Floyd - Another Brick in the Wall (a protest song against corporal punishment)

Some say that an education is more than professional training. By such professional training, I mean equipping students with useful skills such as communicating with humans or with computers, finding interesting or profitable problems to work on that are relevant to society at large, and finding novel, practical, efficient, and elegant solutions to such problems, et cetera. One could speak of skill competency, being measured at levels that indicate how well an individual is able to perform in a particular skill. There are skills which are considered more useful than others in a professional setting, thus correspondingly considered worth more. Following the tradition of New Public Management, one can then do a back-on-the-envelope costs-and-benefits calculation (in Dutch this is called 'studierendement'): surely, becoming proficient in computer science is worth the effort, to both the student at the individual level, and to society at the collective level. But all this skill development should not cost too much: there should be a positive Return On Investment!

Although professional training works, and could be very valuable, it also misses essential points of an education. But what, then, is an education more than training students and developing skills? Below, I shall outline the objectives of an education that go beyond the objectives of professional training. Generally speaking, during academic study, a student:

  • progresses through human development into an independent and disciplined thinker,
  • cultivates a disinterested love of truth,
  • develops a scientific attitude to be able to understand, and be critical of, technological developments in the field, and
  • becomes empowered to defend one's own outspoken position in public.

All these points contribute to an education. Simply put, an education helps students to become self-sufficient. I shall discuss the above points one-by-one, and reflect on each general statement how, in particular, it applies to computer science education.

Independent and disciplined thinker

Small is the number of them that see with their own eyes and feel with their own hearts.
— Albert Einstein

A typical university student (age: 18-25) progresses through the human developmental stage of emerging adulthood and enters early adulthood. In these stages of human development, students improve in functioning (e.g. mastering technical skill), become disciplined actors and critical thinkers (e.g. improving use of language, developing awareness of context-sensitivity, and engaging in self-reflection), and develop a clear sense of self and identity (e.g. by demonstrating intellectual curiosity and creativity). An excellent education aims to improve not only a student's capability in technical skill, communication, comprehension, and reasoning ability—but also in attaining and maintaining a position of (financial) stability, physical and mental health and safety, the perseverance to overcome challenges, and the resilience to handle failure gracefully.

In computer science there are lots of different technical skills and languages by which a student can develop, e.g. there are many programming languages, logical languages, and mathematical languages to study and practice with. Each language comes with its own set of challenges: some are easier to learn and others are more difficult. The required level of discipline varies: some languages are rigorous and exact, while others are more lenient and fuzzy. In a well-rounded curriculum, there should be a lot of room for exploration and creativity: I believe that the best form of learning is rediscovery, in which (practical and theoretical) results, and their importance, are arrived at by oneself.

Ideally, the objective of education is not to learn just new languages, but also to reflect on the learning process itself and learn how to learn. Each language is a tool to achieve this objective. The end goal is attained if a student is able to confront challenges and tackle difficulties encountered during learning, which often necessitates independent study and a disciplined approach to thinking and working. A mean to this end is progression through gradually more difficult subjects in time. To keep progressing further, it seems that the following factors are crucial for student engagement: confidence, interaction, and autonomy (CIA).

Confidence. A lack of confidence hampers student engagement with the subject. Confidence can be increased by allowing students to revisit the necessary background knowledge, allowing students to check their own work, and giving hints towards a solution to exercises in case students are blocked for too long. Confidence can be decreased by obscurity of reference material, a lack of (direct or indirect) feedback, or information overload.

Interaction. Ideally, students are intrinsically motivated to independently study the subject material. However, sometimes students need help from, and interaction with, their social surroundings. One effective way is to work together, in the sense of mentorship, to guide students through the material by means of a dialogue. Sometimes students can help one another (which ideally is useful for both), but this requires 'matching up' students at different levels. It is a clear signal of insufficient interaction if interaction only starts after a final examination.

Autonomy. Ideally, each student can autonomously choose their next direction to explore in the subject (depending on their starting point). Sometimes it is a joy to discover that one has entered a dead-end: a valuable lesson! But finding oneself too often stuck in dead-ends is risky. Hints or nudges towards the right path are helpful to avoid going too far astray—however, these hints or nudges should never be enforced, and only offered as advice.

Disinterested love of truth

If an opinion contrary to your own makes you angry, that is a sign that you are subconsciously aware of having no good reason for thinking as you do.
— Bertrand Russell

Truth exists regardless of one's expectation. Something is not true because one wants it to be true or profits from it being true. One should seek the truth from a position of freedom: disinterestedness in the sense of free from bias or (self-)interest. It may be difficult to engage all students in cultivating curiosity for why something is true. This could be the result of students being subjected to a prior non-free learning experience, where students were instructed to 'just remember' what was said and take it for granted, or to 'just do' what an assignment asks for—rather than stimulating students to raise questions and take the initiative to study the subject more deeply. Surely, it is easier to let students stop thinking, than not!

To cultivate a disinterested love of truth, one question to keep in mind is: what is true? Or even deeper, what is truth? It is not wise to claim that something is true in the absolute sense, or that only one person knows the truth: truth is something each student has to find out for themselves. The most reliable form of truth, looking from an epistemological point of view, is experienced individually: to be convinced of truth requires honest, independent, and disinterested verification by means of individual mental construction (theory), or direct experience by ones own senses (practice). As a lover of truth, viz. a philosopher, a student seeks answers to questions of truth through diverse means. This requires students to carefully and critically assess their own perception, memory, and (prior) beliefs and skills. Every (including one's own) testimony, evidence, judgment, theory, or ideal should be regarded critically, or even skeptically when in (self-)doubt.

However, criticism and skepticism is bottomless, and students also need to be able to overcome the Münchhausen trilemma: even the most rigorous methods for attaining truth have limitations, and there are no absolute or complete methods for obtaining truth or certainty. Generally speaking, one should be interested in comparing the authority (in the sense of convincing force) of different arguments, and should be able to follow and participate in academic debate that has culminated or is culminating in consensus.

Some questions fundamental to computer science are: what are the foundations of computer science? What are the limits of computing? What are the limits of logical, mathematical, and scientific reasoning? What languages can (not) be used to express ideas clearly? When comparing two entities, what differences are significant (or not)? What basic facts about computer science are relevant, and how does this depend on the context? What research agendas are out there and are they conflicting or complementary? What distinguishes fashions and opinions from necessities and facts? How can one turn vague ideas into concrete conceptualizations? What academic debates were relevant in the past, are still relevant today, and will become relevant in the future? Et cetera.

Scientific attitude

The originator of a new concept [...] finds, as a rule, that it is much more difficult to find out why other people do not understand him, than it was to discover the new truths.
— Hermann von Helmholtz

It is important for students to develop a scientific attitude that is critical of technological developments in the field. A scientific attitude is exploratory in nature and embraces exciting speculation, necessitates experimentation, but requires one to be scrupulous in publicly making claims, and only to present findings that others can independently verify. Ideally, a scientific discovery lays bare not only the presence of a mechanism, but also its underlying structure that explains why predictions are reliable and how they are correct. Technological progress should be considered within a wider ethical context, also keeping in mind the actual and potential detrimental effects on human society and nature.

Especially in the field of computer science, a critical outlook on technology is important, since not all developments in our field are necessarily beneficial to all of humankind or nature. For example, most computer technology only benefits a tiny portion of humanity: is this fair, or not? Are practitioners that apply the results of computer science misguided or misinformed, even when they form a large majority influencing consensus and best practices, or not? Consensus is not a replacement of truth, but standing up against consensus might be risky for one's career or public standing (e.g. nobody likes the partypooper).

Video Clip of Kindergarten Cop (1990) with Arnold Schwarzenegger

Especially in computer security, sometimes one needs courage to raise issues and be very confident of one's case, also considering the potential (legal) repercussions instigated by large companies and governments. But also in theoretical computer science, it is too easy to forget 'the bigger picture' and lose oneself in a deluge of technicalities: how can one be certain that the subject is studied as simple as is possible, without being too simplistic? The cases above necessitate a scientific attitude, to ensure that one only takes positions that can withstand reasonable doubt.

Critical thinking is an important skill, especially in an academic discipline such as computer science. Many computer scientists fall in the trap of making things too complicated (unfortunately, myself included). How can one prevent such tendencies? Working on complicated and obscure subjects may scratch one's own itch of intellectual curiosity, but the trap is that it makes the field more difficult for outsiders to enter. It requires a good education to appreciate the fine balance between necessary complexity and accidental complexity of programs, theories, and systems. The key is that simplicity and elegance, while difficult and hard to attain, pays off by making it easier to explain to others what one did.


Don't for heaven's sake, be afraid of talking nonsense! But you must pay attention to your nonsense.
— Ludwig Wittgenstein

Finally, empowering students allows them to defend their own, outspoken position in public. A reasonable position is supported by rational and well-founded argumentation, presented in an orderly (no chaos), timely (not too long), and, ideally, beautiful manner. To appreciate reason as a means of establishing truth, one has to be receptive of criticism, to be open-minded towards the possibility of finding faults and flaws in one's own position. A good defender is capable of seeking out opponents, even if those opponents are established authorities, and engage in a mutually respectful, decent, and civilized debate. But, every defeat is a learning opportunity: losing is fun!

There are many opportunities in computer science for taking in and trying to defend a position, for example in designing programs (and surviving programming errors), theories (and surviving inconsistency), and systems (and surviving design flaws). There are qualitative and quantitative approaches by which any idea can be evaluated, such as (among many others) program correctness and efficiency, system resilience, error tolerance, usability and extensibility, and theoretical elegance and simplicity: an educated person is able to appreciate these fine details.