Did you envisage a flashing list of Operating systems, Languages (C++ / Java) Frameworks, classes,libraries, protocols, formats and commands as an answer to this question? If so, get in line, for this really is a very common and un-educated way of thinking about this field.

You can watch a real master giving that zen here (an MIT class) in the first 20 minutes Lecture 1a (available on the same page), or you can skim through and get my rendition of whatever i learned from that class about teaching and about what he taught, right here in this blog.

Expertise.

Everyone i knew who could code in C, knew the details of what the language could do. Some posers like myself at times try to learn the tiny, ‘hard’ stuff, for the coolness or the usefulness of that knowledge.

But if you think by any chance that folks who know all the answers about those tiny details are the guys who are going to make the next great leap in thinking, thats a big mistake. Its a mistake akin to thinking that your extremely efficient mechanic is going to design the next breakthrough in internal combustion.

What type of people do you really think is going to design that next big thing?

Who are the Wise ?

Accepting poison instead of falsehood

Accepting poison rather than of falsehood

Socrates, arguably the first person from Western civilization to think scientifically about what knowledge really is, once famously conducted an experiment to decide who amongst his contemporaries were really wise.

He was supposedly prompted to do this, by actions of Chaerophon, his friend, who made a trip to the Oracle of Delphi and asks if anyone was wiser than Socrates among the Athenians. The Oracle affirmed that Socrates was the wisest!

Socrates then dedicates a considerable effort to try to understand the statement, in fact it becomes his “mission” in life. He proceeds to interview many people from different walks of life, especially those that are thought to be wise. Socrates finds however that in most cases the people really did not know what they were talking about.

They were filled with “vain ignorance and false claims to knowledge.” Those that scored the highest were artisan, that did best when they would respond
within their limited field of expertise. This supposedly led Socrates to the conclusion that the Oracle was right, but she was right because he was the only one who knew that he did not know.

Details != Wisdom

Technician

Technician

Wisdom

Wisdom

That little detour, i think should probably  suffice to remind you as to why knowing the little details or the tools of our trade (c++, frameworks, Java etc) is not really considered to be wisdom. They are merely details that one has to know to be able to perform one’s work.

This probably is the reason everyone detests a strutting know-it all, because everyone instinctively know they are a farce (as far as real knowledge is concerned) and the real wisdom lies elsewhere. But from a practical point of view you still need all those details to complete your day to day work and hence the dependency on the know it alls and hence the irritation aimed at those poor fellows.

So who are the wise?

The formal and lengthy definition of  knowledge and expertise could be had in the dialogues of Socrates as reported by Plato (his most famous student). But i will summarize the gist of our current discussion as, the wise to be those who innately understands what is involved in using those details.

Folks who understand the whys of a particular type of detail, like C++and the reasons about what brought on these tools and how it evolved and why certain details are included in the designs and the trade-offs made in those design decisions – these folks i would say are the experts / the wise ones.

ie Meta knowledge or Knowledge about the details = Wisdom

Any one who can shine the light on these meta knowledge i would say, are great teachers, much like Socrates tried to do.  Teachers who can do that, are revered and followed upon and are the real carriers of the batons of modern society. I’m sure anyone who reads this can relate to one or the other such wise teachers they would have surely come across in their time.

Getting Back

So to answer my dear wife who asked me, if that revered video in my shiny new iPod touch is going to teach her “coding ?”.

No, it would teach her to rise above coding and be master of all that’s wrongly referred to be “mere coding”. Here are my notes from that video class. [will upload link soon]

ps : Summarisation of Socrates’s search for  knowledge.

4 Responses to “What is computer science ? An ode to teachers”


  1. […] What is computer science ? An ode to teachers […]


  2. […] What is computer science ? An ode to teachers […]

  3. Nelson Says:

    Yeah I think you’re onto something in that analysis. It really struck a chord with some of my thinking recently, having grown more aware of the distinction between knowing the tools and the deeper understanding of why and in what way to use them. I guess. I remember I read somewhere that the genuinely smart people are the ones that don’t go to lengths to appear smart, and I guess that echoes what you’ve said here. Anyway interesting read.


  4. thanks for the kind comment Nelson. I wish more where interested in the whys and wish all of us had more luck in learning from those who truly are so …

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