This semester, instead of a full complement of CS or math classes, I’m taking a few liberal arts classes in government and philosophy. One of the classes I’m taking, Constitutional Interpretation (which is really constitutional law), is considered one of the most—if not the most—challenging classes offered by the government department. The professor usually teaches in the law school, but occasionally teaches undergraduate classes; when he does, he usually teaches them the same way he teaches them in law school.
The course is heavily discussion-based; every day in class, we typically debate some aspect of the case we read the night before. This is pretty standard for a lot of liberal arts classes, where the aim is more to explore the contours of a problem, rather than try and find a unilateral solution—which, more often than not, unlike in computer science, might not exist. The difference here is that in most classes I’ve taken, the professor tends to ask as many students as possible to explain their points of view so as to get the widest variety of ways of thinking about a problem. Occasionally, the professor might ask for a point of clarification or point out the equal validity of two opposing points of view, but generally leaves it there.
In this class, however, the professor is ruthless with his line of questioning. One of the first topics we discussed was the idea of judicial review, which is the ability of the Supreme Court to strike down laws passed by the Legislative and Executive Branches as unconstitutional. We consider this commonplace now—indeed, the Supreme Court’s power of judicial review ended segregation, gave women the right to have abortions, and most recently, ended state-level bans on same-sex marriage—and in the class, we had just finished reading the case which established (formally) this idea, Marbury v. Madison. After a few days of line-by-line discussion, we had on the whole concluded that Chief Justice Marshall, who wrote the opinion, made the right decision, both in denying Marbury a writ of mandamus, which is why the case was brought up in the first place, and in striking down a section of the Judiciary Act of 1789 as unconstitutional.
So, when the professor asked someone whether they liked the idea of judicial review, we all expected it to be a small deviation to wrap up the section before moving on. Instead, we got a full-blown debate, where the professor (in an effort to spur discussion), claimed that our granting an (effectively) impeachable, unelected council of constitutional law professors the ability to strike down laws passed by the branches most closely associated with the will of the people—the Legislative and Executive Branches—was not just undemocratic (if not purely aristocratic, in the Aristotelian sense), but elitist. We, the professor argued, didn’t trust the people enough to choose their representatives correctly or according to their principles, and while the people could play with self-government, in the end, we granted an effectively dictatorial force the ability to step in and play the role of the parent.
Of course, there are a ton of arguments that can be made about each of the points he made—for example, where we really disagree with the Supreme Court, we can pass amendments to overrule their decisions (as we did in the case of the Eleventh Amendment, for example)—but the point was to keep us on our feet and make us question ourselves for blindly trusting the decision Marshall made in 1803. It was a riveting discussion, and forced you to stay on your toes; even if you weren’t currently being cross-examined, you could fall under the microscope before you even figured out what was going on.
There are two conclusions that I came to after a few days of this class. The first is simple. Almost every person who argued with the professor—myself somewhat predictably included—started off making an argument that was at best iffy and at worst fundamentally unsound. The professor, who has been teaching law for decades, could easily have attacked our arguments around the edges, pointing out flaws in our metaphors or examples, but instead, he often guided us along to the point we really were trying to make, which was often as easy as questioning the necessity of an unnecessary and flawed premise.
Part of why he did this was probably because that’s his job as a professor. In reality, though, I suspect the real reason was this: when you defeat the best possible version of someone’s argument, it’s a lot harder for the other person to respond, since in doing so you’re proving the best possible version of their point wrong. Any refinements they could try to make would be pointless, since the statements they held as axiomatic were either flawed or wrong. A lot of debate, especially in college, tends to rely on the easier form of the argument, since we often are ourselves ill-equipped to even find, let alone argue against, the best possible version of someone else’s argument (especially while they’re making the argument), but I’ve found that when I was confronted with the invalidity of the best possible form of my own argument, I had a much harder time retaliating, which, in some cynical sense, is essentially the point of any debate.
The other conclusion I’ve arrived at is this. Occasionally, but thankfully not often, when I tell people that I’m in a liberal arts class, their reaction, especially in the computer science community, is to scoff and tell me to enjoy my easy A. This is maybe understandable if you’ve only taken the lower-division classes offered in the liberal arts, but what sometimes baffles me is that people who are themselves pursuing a dual degree in liberal arts tell me that my classes are easy or pointless, or both.
I get it. I’ve taken OS, and I’m currently taking distributed. Classes in computer science are hard, and are often harder than classes in a lot of other majors. And it might even be fair to say that there are definitely majors where there are more easy classes than hard classes, at least from our point of view. But to denigrate an entire field—especially one as challenging as government or philosophy or economics or history—just because you got an A in microeconomics even though you slept through the midterm is at best myopic and at worst wrong. Yes, CS classes are hard, but UT holds itself up to a relatively consistent standard of excellence, and to think that just because we’re 8th in the nation means that our department’s classes are on some mythic plane of existence that towers above the rest is bull-headed.
Perhaps the best solution—and one I’ve advocated for before—is to take more classes in the liberal arts. I’ll grant you that not everyone is interested in, say, art history of the northern Renaissance (any Bruegel fans?), but there’s a lot of stuff out there that, although it might not help you become a better programmer, will almost definitely help you become a more educated and well-rounded person. And if that isn’t the point of college, I don’t know what is.