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Date: Thu, 31 Oct 2002 09:10:00 -0500
From: Ruben I Safir
Subject: [hangout] Libral Arts and Computers
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October 31, 2002 To the Liberal Arts, He Adds Computer Science By STEVE
PRINCETON, N.J. -- TALL and slender with a flowing beard, dressed in a
gray sweater and jeans, Brian Kernighan works his audience with a fast
patter and a ready smile. The challenge he has set for himself is to
demystify computing for a classroom full of liberal arts undergraduates
It so happens that Mr. Kernighan, 60, is a renowned computer scientist,
a member of the Bell Labs team of the late 1960's and 70's that
developed and nurtured the Unix operating system and the C programming
language, innovations with a far-reaching impact on computing. He is
also a best-selling author of technical books on programming that have
sold millions of copies and been translated into more than 20 languages.
None of that really matters in this course, "Computers in Our World."
The students are headed toward degrees in politics, history, English,
art history, psychology and economics. Unlike many college students in
the dot-com boom years of the late 90's, they have no plans to make a
killing, or even a living, in the technology business.
Yet at a time when the corporate world and Wall Street are in the funk
of a technology hangover, the students in Mr. Kernighan's class have a
perspective that seems a levelheaded antidote to the prevailing gloom,
based on conversations with a few of them. They have no illusions that
computing is a silver bullet for the economy or a sure-fire path to
riches. But they grew up surrounded by personal computers and
cellphones. E-mail, instant messaging, Web searches, online shopping and
swapping MP3 music files are second nature to them. They understand that
computing is the modern tool used for everything from Hollywood special
effects to unraveling the secrets of the human genome.
They don't believe that digital technology is inundating modern life at
the alarming speed of "a Bengali typhoon," as Wired magazine once put
it, but view it more as a rising tide whose impact is spreading
steadily. Computing, they figure, is a good thing to know more about and
to understand in a deeper way - while satisfying that pesky requirement
that all Princeton students must take a course in "quantitative
Mr. Kernighan, it seems, has made some encouraging progress with the
fall semester class. The students do projects like making their own Web
pages and writing a few simple programs. And they speak of a new
appreciation for computers and moments of epiphany along the way.
"I've always used computers, but I had no prior knowledge of what goes
on inside them," said Lori Piranian, a freshman. "Taking the course has
given me a new respect for computing. It's amazing what goes into a
computer and the history of how we got to where we are now."
Mr. Kernighan's course is a kind of intellectual smorgasbord, combining
public policy - like technology's impact on privacy, copyright and
antitrust matters - with large helpings of practical knowledge of how
things work, from operating systems to disk drives. Still, some students
said that the single class session that made the strongest impression
was Mr. Kernighan's lecture on binary numbers, also known as binary
digits or bits. In his talk, Mr. Kernighan explained that everything a
PC does - handling text, music or video - is all just a matter of
processing 1's and 0's to the machine. The difference between today's
multimedia notebooks and the room-size calculators of computing's early
days, he notes, is mainly faster bit-processing engines and increasingly
"What you come to understand," said Joseph Falencki, a junior, "is how
simple, yet how complicated, a computer really is. That was the 'aha'
moment for me."
After a late-October class, Mr. Kernighan explained that his goal in the
course was to impart an intelligent skepticism about computer
technology, an informed sense of its possibilities and limitations. "And
you can't do that in the abstract," he said, which is why programming
and projects are essential elements in his course. Smiling, he mentioned
the often-quoted line from the science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke:
"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
A wonderful phrase, Mr. Kernighan said, "but there is no magic."
Mr. Kernighan acquired his taste for teaching while on a year's leave
from Bell Labs in 1996 at Harvard, where he taught an introductory
computer science course. "I got an enormous kick from it," he said. "To
me, it felt the way it must be for an actor onstage - the rush when it
clicks, and the letdown when it doesn't."
So four years later, when Princeton asked him to join the faculty, Mr.
Kernighan agreed and said he wanted to teach computing to liberal arts
students as well as his Advanced Programming Techniques course in the
computer science department. His former colleagues were not surprised
that he turned to teaching, including teaching nontechnical students.
"It's pretty clear that Brian has a continuing interest and commitment
to education - writing well-read books was how this was first
expressed," said Dennis Ritchie, creator of the C language. Indeed, the
best-read of his books is "The C Programming Language," written with Mr.
Ritchie and first published in 1978. To professional programmers, the
book is known simply as "K & R." Most of the text, the programming
examples and problems came from Mr. Kernighan, whom Mr. Ritchie calls "a
fluent and charming writer on technical subjects."
Mr. Kernighan genuinely enjoys translating his technical field and
explaining its significance for humanities students. But in his
understated way, he also thinks it is something that must be done and
perhaps contributes to the greater good. "For better or worse, the
people who become leaders and decision makers in politics, law and
business are going to come from schools like Princeton," Mr. Kernighan
said. "What I'm trying to do is give them some of the tools of the trade
that will make it possible for them to think intelligently about this
technology for themselves."
Such sentiments place Mr. Kernighan within the camp of computer
scientists who believe that computing deserves a place in general
It is a point of view with a rich history, dating at least as far back
as the 60's at Dartmouth. As the impact of computers spread through
society, two professors, John G. Kemeny and Thomas E. Kurtz, decided
that Dartmouth students should have hands-on experience with computers.
With the university's full-fledged support, they designed a computer
time-sharing system and a simple programming language, Basic (Beginner's
All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code), which proved to be an enduring
contribution to computing. Stripped-down versions of Basic became the
programming choice of the microcomputer industry in the mid-70's. One
variant, Microsoft Basic, was the founding product of the world's
biggest software maker.
Some computer scientists have pushed ever since to make computing a
central part of a liberal arts education. In 1999, a report by the
National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences,
titled "Being Fluent with Information Technology" called for a broader
definition of computer education that would emphasize not just practical
skills but also concepts, principles and ideas. That is, precisely the
sort of course Mr. Kernighan is teaching at Princeton.
In an October class focusing on computer operating systems, he began
with a newspaper article on the challenge Microsoft faces from Linux, a
descendant of the Unix operating system that is distributed free and
written and debugged by a volunteer community of programmers.
(Incidentally, Mr. Kernighan gave Unix its name back at Bell Labs in
1970.) The governments of China, Germany and other nations are using and
promoting Linux as an alternative to Microsoft's Windows operating
system. "It's that important to them, to become less dependent on
Microsoft," Mr. Kernighan said. "To do that, they will use Linux instead
of a program written by one of the premier technology companies in the
Twenty years ago, Mr. Kernighan observed, "Only nerds cared about
operating systems." Now, he added, the subject is a public-policy issue,
even front-page news occasionally.
He traffics in metaphor and analogy. The operating system is a juggler,
keeping several different programs running at once - like balls in the
air. He compares file folders, which show links to files on the hard
disk, to a library card catalog, which "is not the books but the
structural information that tells where things are,'' like the file
folders in a computer system.
There is no mention in class of Mr. Kernighan's distinguished
background. But most of the students have run a Google search or two on
Mr. Kernighan and seem somewhat impressed. "He wrote that book on the C
language back at Bell Labs a long time ago, before I was born," said Ms.
Piranian, who is all of 18. -- __________________________ Brooklyn Linux
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