The Two Cultures, Then and Now | Books and Culture

In “The Two Cultures” in 1959, C.P.Snow lamented the growing, almost wilful, mutual incomprehension that divided science and the humanities. Despite an initially muted response the lecture and subsequent article became famous and even today remain the touchstone for this perennial (and occasionally tiresome) debate.

Snow also had another, more pragmatic concern; because the political elite was drawn almost entirely from the humanities, they were in his view ill suited to make best use of the stunning advances in science and technology.

As Alan Jacobs argues in “The Two Cultures, Then and Now”, this concern didn’t necessarily accord all that well with the facts.

I don’t suppose anyone today would say that the problem with our politicians is that they are too deeply immersed in humanistic learning. Even in Snow’s time and in Britain, the picture was far more complicated than he let on. When Snow delivered his Rede Lecture, the prime minister of the United Kingdom was Harold Macmillan, an Old Etonian who read classics at Oxford (and received a first-class degree); Macmillan fit to a T Snow’s picture of the “traditional culture,” But by the time Snow died in 1980, the holder of that office was Margaret Thatcher, who often said that she was less proud of being the first female prime minister than of being the first with a science degree. I suspect that Snow, a lifelong member of the Labour Party, was not especially consoled by Thatcher’s status as a chemist. Moreover, the P.M. who made Snow minister of technology and elevated him to the peerage was Harold Wilson, the most academically gifted of 20th-century British politicians, who read Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at Oxford and then became a lecturer in economic history there at the ripe old age of twenty-one.

At any rate, for much of the essay Jacobs concerns himself with what seems to me far more interesting territory. The problem, as he sees it, is not so much this intermittent antagonism between the two cultures but the degree to which our current education systems cripple both.

He opens with a quote from C. S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength, a “curious authorial aside” on the main character.

It must be remembered that in Mark’s mind hardly one rag of noble thought, either Christian or Pagan, had a secure lodging. His education had been neither scientific nor classical—merely “Modern.” The severities both of abstraction and of high human tradition had passed him by: and he had neither peasant shrewdness nor aristocratic honor to help him. He was a man of straw, a glib examinee in subjects that require no exact knowledge (he had always done well on Essays and General Papers) and the first hint of a real threat to his bodily life knocked him sprawling.

Jacobs seizes on “severities”.

In a sense, Stephen Pinker is right: Science is not the enemy of the humanities. Rather, the sciences and the humanities share a common enemy: an educational system that, despite its ceaseless rote invocations of the value of “critical  thinking”—overwhelmingly evades the “severities” that might equip people to deal seriously with the world and its manifold challenges. A rigorous education in any field challenges its students: it doesn’t let them get away with easy answers; it doesn’t reward “glib examinees”; it forces second and third thoughts; it demands revision and correction, and presses people even to start over from scratch when that’s necessary. People trained in this fashion will be ready for surprises, will expect the unexpected, will adapt to circumstances.

I think that’s absolutely right. Certainly my own experience supports it. Admittedly, for various personal reasons I was far from an easy, or even enthusiastic, student but the fact remains my university courses in language and literature were for the most part lamentably wishy-washy.

The second way in which students are stifled by the current system is through its narrow, often pedantic specialisation and “professionalism”.

Eiseley believed that artistic, humanistic, and scientific achievement alike are driven by the power of human imagination—and that the contemporary academy, with its relentless enforcement of disciplinary boundaries and its cult of “professionalism,” is draining imaginative power from the sciences[.]

He contrasts scientists such as Darwin, Einstein, Newton and scientist-artists such as da Vinci with this sad, grey specialisation.

All show a deep humility and an emotional hunger which is the prerogative of the artist. It is with the lesser men, with the institutionalization of method, with the appearance of dogma and mapped-out territories that an unpleasant suggestion of fenced preserves begins to dominate the university atmosphere.

This openness, this purity of interest in understanding for its own sake is contrasted with the impact of “big science”, “big government” (and, one might add, “big business”) on the academy through a further quote from Eiseley: “[T]he availability of huge sums attracts a swarm of elbowing and contentious men to whom great dreams are less than protected hunting preserves.”

All true, I’m sure. Jacobs ends by tying these considerations into Snow’s fears about which of the two cultures is best placed to be in charge.

Finally, to circle back to what Snow most cared about, as I feel I should, I want to say that people who have learned these lessons in severity and imagination, whether in the sciences or the humanities, will, I think, have a real chance of developing the political virtues that we need.

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2 thoughts on “The Two Cultures, Then and Now | Books and Culture

  1. I think you are right. It is not two cultures in the sense of science versus humanities but two cultures in the sense of those who believe in intellectual endeavor as a challenge and those who see it as something else (whether a stepping stone, an item in a resumé, or a stage in obtaining a professional license). John Kennedy once explained the aspiration to excel by saying “We do it not because it is easy, but because it is hard.” I think that sentiment is entirely foreign from modern Western concepts of education and living. And it’s not just (or even mostly) the literature/history/philosophy majors who are the slackers. I know many scientifically educated professionals who spend their lives as time-servers and spend not an extra second beyond their job thinking of either a New Frontier or a Classical Text. Maybe this is not even a new problem though. Maybe those who noticed the casual waste that most educators permit are the exception. Or maybe it’s the decline of the West. If so, it couldn’t come at a worse time because, it seems to me, existential threats, both ones that need technical expertise and ones that involve the organization of people and their need for an ideal bigger than lazy narcissism, are staring us in the face.

  2. I don’t think it is new, DK, but I’m pretty sure it’s getting worse, at least in the developed world. Perhaps I’m too jaundiced, or naive about how things used to be, but I think the pursuit of knowledge and understanding for its own sake, for the sheer pleasure of it if you like, is rare.

    Such quaint attitudes are probably most often found amongst amateurs (in the old lovely sense of that word), whether they’ve been through the formal mill or not.

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