[SIGCIS-Members] Importance of history to practitioners

Cary Gray cggray at mac.com
Thu Nov 17 07:21:27 PST 2016

I'd like to respond to a number of points, from the perspective of a computer scientist who has long been dismayed at how the field teaches about the past--or fails to do so.

First, regarding historical content in other science fields:
My experience as an undergraduate (around 1980) was that elements of history were naturally incorporated in the majors' introductory sequences for both chemistry and physics.  I definitely recall the material from the freshman chemistry survey.  It was common for the physics curriculum to recapitulate the later developments in the field by spending a year on classical methods before upending all of it in a sophomore-level semester of "modern physics".  The labs for the modern physics course I took included versions of many of the fundamental experiments of that revolution.  I think that jolt was significant in shaping the perspective of a few generations of physicists.

I can speculate on several factors that might have led to a decline in that material.  My sense is that college-level science curricula have generally become more applied, partly because the intro courses are dominated by students who do not aspire to becoming chemists or physicists (pre-meds, engineers).  I suspect that the rise of Advanced Placement has reduced the share of majors who take the introductory courses in college, and it is easy for me to imagine that the high school environment would have less motivation to bother with the historical perspective.

The place of history in math seems to wax and wane; it has at times been fashionable, but is currently not.  The math major at the college where I most recently taught is currently capped by a historically framed survey/review of the field; many of the students respond enthusiastically to putting it all together and say they wish they'd heard more of that perspective sooner.  (Whether they'd have cared for it sooner is less clear.)  But, a few years ago, external reviewers deprecated the capstone as out of step with what is going on elsewhere.

Regarding history in computing:
I should remind the readers of this list that what interests computists is not the same as what interests historians:  the guilds have different systems of values.  (Recall the lament from Donald Knuth a couple of years back, which is what brought me to this list.)  And "computing" is a very big tent; one of the problems in curricula (and in professional societies) is that there are very different--and sometimes incompatible--ideas of what it is we are about.  We often seem to be unsure just who we mean by "we".  We claim different titles (CS, CE, SE, IT, IS), and even under those headings we differ as to whether we are practitioners, researchers, or educators.  And our perspectives on education range from highly instrumental to strongly liberal. 

Much of what I've seen of history in both computing textbooks and trade books has been weak to inaccurate.  It is probably fairly long lead time to see improvement in books, but in the near term I think that there is a place for an effort focused on equipping faculty; I think that will require both putting together resources they can use and more outreach to "sell" the need.  The workshops hosted by CRA a few years back were valuable, but we still need something much broader and sustained.  I'm interested in finding other folks who are interested in working on materials for and outreach to both teachers and researchers.

	Cary Gray
	cggray at mac.com

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