Don’t Major in Computer Science

I’m reflecting on the end of my four-year college education in computer science, a major by which by all accounts–from the pundits, pop culture, and the Department of Labor–was supposed to be the highest and most fulfilling field of study.

They said computer science was for the geniuses, the whiz kids, the visionaries. Its virtual apparatuses–algorithms, Big Data, artificial intelligence, among countless other buzzwords and fads–were destined to transform the world, so declared computer science boosters in op-ed after op-ed and PR blitz after PR blitz.

Suddenly, it seemed every social problem from traffic congestion to climate change to healthcare could be eradicated through a little bit of software wizardry. We lionized industry captains such as Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk as not only especially skilled entrepreneurs, but the very saviors of humanity in our time.

These cavalier assessments of the significance of computer science are at least partially responsible for the massive numbers of college students entering the field. Some of us really do believe that making computers “do cool things” is good in and of itself, that Making the World a Better Place at some nameless tech conglomerate isn’t just some trite marketing slogan.

Others are in it for the money. It hasn’t escaped anyone’s notice that software engineering is one of the most lucrative careers available to young graduates; stories abound about college juniors getting the right internships and the right connections and landing high-paying Bay Area jobs, right out of school. First-generation college students and immigrants are–quite understandably–turning to computer science as a surefire ticket to financial stability.

If you’re a bright high school senior not quite sure about your interests and passions–as I was, during those spring months when I was sending in my college applications–computer science would seem to present a very convenient solution. It’s the field every smart, mathematically-inclined young adult should study. It guarantees economic security. You’re told the code you write changes the world, so you’ll have no moral scruples about being a well-off computer programmer. You can laugh with your friends at those poor liberal arts majors who chose to study things that are seemingly useless and inane.

But it doesn’t take long to see through the ruse. Studying computer science felt so vapid and uninspiring compared to studying other subjects–government, history, geography–that didn’t have anything to do with math or computers. These other courses were thoroughly captivating, dealing with hard truths and the problems that vex human society and explaining why the world is the way it is. Building linked lists and neural networks, by contrast, felt mundane and elementary–like a boyish engineer playing with his toys.

The problem with computer science education is not just that it is dull. Computer science is so intimately tied to its application within the industry that the university’s function as an impartial teacher is subverted to industry considerations. Consider the computer science department at UT, which is permeated with those interests that reap considerable economic value from its work.

Nearly every piece of the department’s sparkling new building is adorned with corporate sponsorship–classrooms and eateries named after tech companies here, metal displays etched with the names of corporate and individual donors there. The building itself is named the Bill and Melinda Gates Computer Science Complex–named, of course, after the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which showered UT with many millions of dollars to fund the building’s construction.

That aura filters down to the students. Almost everyone cuts class for the biannual job fair, a corporate mecca considered so central to the undergraduate experience that professors freely encourage their students to skip their classes if they conflict. Or, alternatively, students can hang out in the Gates Complex lobby before class, where headhunters often set up booths to take resumes and dispense company propaganda.

Far from experiencing a thought-provoking and well-rounded education, computer science students are subjected to a rat race–to secure seats in the most productive classes, then join the most productive clubs, then find the most productive internships, and finally find the most productive jobs.

I still remember freshman orientation, sitting in the Gates Dell Complex’s main auditorium (no doubt named after some company I’ve forgotten) with a hundred or so of my future peers. Up front, a cohort of enthusiastic student ambassadors–sporting T-shirts emblazoned with Microsoft and Google logos–were listing all of the things computer science undergrads should do: join clubs and research groups; find summer internships; make a bucket list out of the regularly scheduled corporate talks.

I was supposed to like the sound of all of this. Certainly, my colleagues seemed to, as they made mad dashes for the signups and the giveaways. I didn’t fully realize it at the time, but something was nagging me incessantly: was this really the culmination of the higher education experience? Was the purpose of college to sell yourself to corporate employers, to prepare yourself for some future job title?

For quite a few college students, the answer is yes–higher education is but a single step on the path to a dream job conceived of in high school. They have a different worldview, I suppose, and I can’t blame them for trying to get a leg up on their careers.

What everybody should mind, however, is that this kind of education–the career fairs, and the talks, and the donations–is a system designed to cast people into ideal employees. And by their very nature, systems control, constraining one’s views and one’s thinking in order to engineer a narrowly defined set of outcomes. The result is that young adults are getting their minds closed off at the precise time they should be exposed to new ways of thinking and encouraged to challenge the entrenched systems that control us all.

I’m telling you not to major in computer science because I wasn’t willing to play ball. Perhaps I should have studied to become a doctor or a lawyer?

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