Computer Science 50 is an introductory college course. It meets on Mondays and Wednesdays in Sanders Theater from 1 to 2 p.m. It has a 90-minute weekly section. The assignments are nine problem sets, two quizzes, and a final project.
CS50 is versatile: both a gateway into the discipline of Computer Science, and the baseline for a skill set that is becoming ever more valuable. CS50 provides practical skills applicable in the professional as well as the larger academic world. By this account, the class fits comfortably into the scope of the liberal arts, successfully combating the myth that such an education does not or cannot offer practical skills. It requires no prior knowledge, and is generalizable to many ventures because it teaches how to represent information in a new form, just like chemistry, music, or sociology.
Outside of the classroom, however, CS50 is anything but the liberal arts course its creators proclaim. Its unprecedented corporate sponsorship ensures that the course has an unmatched visibility on campus.
No other course gives away and sells merchandise en masse to its students and fan base. T-shirts, umbrellas, aprons, stress balls, M&Ms, and other CS50 paraphernalia are ubiquitous on Harvard’s campus.
No other course makes the first five weeks—that is, the add-drop period—significantly easier than the proceeding eight weeks of the semester, luring less confident students until it’s too late to turn back.
No other course has disciplinary procedures that bypass the Ad Board.
No other course has seen reports that TFs are instructed to decline to give comment on the course to The Crimson before conferring first with the professor.
A liberal arts education necessarily enables students to make their own choices about their studies, free of social and pre-professional pressure. At a liberal arts university, corporations should not be able to buy students’ attention and interests.
The exceptional status of CS50 creates a dynamic between members of the CS50 in-group and those who do not take the course. Though we acknowledge the value of CS50, its lavish promises of social, academic, and professional success go far beyond reality, often implying that such well-being is accessible only through its doors. In this way, CS50 resembles a proselytizing faith-based religion more than the liberal arts college course it claims to be.
The creators and proponents of CS50 may contend that their practices are different from other courses’ only in scale, or that they have earned the right to their celebrity status because of the course’s popularity. The apparatus of CS50, however, poses a real threat to fundamental principles of freedom of choice and access to a liberal arts education.
By channeling corporate influence onto campus, making unfounded exclusive promises, and bending the university’s rules, CS50 violates its liberal agenda. To preserve its students’ autonomy and protect them from undue peer pressure, we ask the administration to reconsider its indifference and detachment to the growth of CS50—a course equal in its credits but unequal in its capital compared to Harvard’s other offerings. Rein in the unfettered campaign materials, resultant coercive social dynamics, and CS50’s privileged status on campus.
When students turn in their study cards this Thursday, we hope that those who chose CS50 do so purely out of their own interest, not the surrounding pressure and corporate glamour. Visit IdidnottakeCS50.tumblr.com and facebook.com/notCS50 to hear more varying perspectives and contribute to this conversation yourself.
Phillip C. Golub '16 is an English concentrator in Dunster House. Ege Yumusak '16, an inactive Crimson magazine editor, is a philosophy concentrator in Leverett House.
The CS50 ModelCS50 is not a fluke. The methods that turned the course into an academic juggernaut with top Q ratings and astronomical enrollment figures—in spite of ostensibly abstruse subject matter and an infamously taxing workload—can be applied across the Harvard curriculum.
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