17.515 a more complex responsibility

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk)
Date: Mon Jan 12 2004 - 07:20:32 EST

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 17, No. 515.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist@princeton.edu

         Date: Sat, 10 Jan 2004 09:45:28 +0000
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: a more complex responsibility

In his 1970 Turing Lecture, "Form and Content in Computer Science" (Journal
of the ACM 17.2, April 1970, pp. 197-215), Marvin Minsky makes a number of
very strong criticisms of computer science, chiefly what he then thought to
be its unhealthy preoccupation with form over content. His focus is
important to consider, for it (I think) indicates the basis for a deeper
alliance between CS and humanities computing than is usually proposed --
deeper than simply the common use of formal methods. But here I'd like to
go deeper still via his remarks on the responsibility of the computer
scientist in education as a whole. Forgive me for quoting his remarks at

The essence of the matter is in the first paragraph of the relevant section
(pp. 204f):

>Education is another area in which the computer scientist has confused
>form and content, but this time the confusion concerns his professional
>role. He perceives his principal function to provide programs and machines
>for use in old and new educational schemes. Well and good, but I believe
>he has a more complex responsibility -- to work out and communicate models
>of the process of education itself.

What this amounts to is the idea that in teaching our subject we are
fundamentally engaged in teaching our students how to learn and think about
the world. Minsky lists a number of statements typical of the view he had
developed with Seymour Papert:

>--To help people learn is to help them build, in their heads, various
>kinds of computational models.
>--This can best be done by a teacher who has, in his head, a reasonable
>model of what is in the pupil's head.
>--For the same reason the student, when debugging his own models and
>procedures, should have a model of what he is doing, and must know good
>debugging techniques, such as how to formulate simple but critical test
>- - I t will help the student to know something about computational models
>and programming. The idea of debugging itself, for example, is a very
>powerful concept -- in contrast to the helplessness promoted by our
>cultural heritage about gifts, talents, and aptitudes. The latter
>encourages "I'm not good at this" instead of "How can I make myself better
>at it?"

>These have the sound of common sense, yet they are not among the basic
>principles of any of the popular educational schemes.... This is not
>because educators have ignored the possibility of mental models, but
>because they simply had no effective way, before the beginning of work on
>simulation of thought processes, to describe, construct, and test such ideas.

In other words, computational modelling provides us with a most powerful
means of education.

>We cannot digress here to answer skeptics who feel it too simpleminded (if
>not impious, or obscene) to compare minds with programs. We can refer many
>such critics to Turing's paper ["Computing machinery and intelligence",
>Mind 59, October 1950, pp. 433-60]. For those who feel that the answer
>cannot lie in any machine, digital or otherwise, one can argue ["Matter,
>mind and models",
>http://web.media.mit.edu/~minsky/papers/MatterMindModels.html] that
>machines, when they become intelligent, very likely will feel the same way.

One can enjoy Minsky's typical strong-AI bravado without taking it as
necessary for us to profit from his early insight into a "more complex
responsibility" -- and mighty engine to power a broader social role.
There's hubris and truth in his concluding sentence:

>The computer scientist is the one who must study such matters, because he
>is the proprietor of the concept of procedure, the secret educators have
>so long been seeking.



Dr Willard McCarty | Senior Lecturer | Centre for Computing in the
Humanities | King's College London | Strand | London WC2R 2LS || +44 (0)20
7848-2784 fax: -2980 || willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk

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