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Mindstorming the Two Cultures

Joel Rosenberg

Last summer I read two books that significantly changed my perspective on learning: Seymour Papert’s “Mindstorms,” and C.P. Snow’s “The Two Cultures.”

Having worked at the MIT Media Lab, I knew that the “LEGO Mindstorms Robotics Invention System,” a computer-programmable version of the building block toy developed with the Lab, was named after Papert’s book. I also knew that the book had something to do with LOGO, the computer program with the “turtle” that I was taught to draw pictures with on an Apple IIe in elementary school. But I had never really heard anyone talk about the book itself. So I read it. And I was astounded.

LOGO, I learned, is not about drawing pictures. Nor is it about computer programming, though that is superficially its interface. LOGO, it turns out, is meant to give kids an environment in which to learn how to think procedurally. “Drawing” is just the feedback that indicates whether the procedures are behaving as expected, and allows kids to then “debug” their thinking. If the turtle doesn’t do what you want, think about breaking the problem into smaller chunks to isolate where the problem is. If you can’t visualize what the turtle is doing, imagine yourself in the turtle’s place and experience what the turtle is experiencing.

Papert’s powerful idea is to apply “debugging” to all areas of learning so that “right or wrong” is transformed into a continuous process of improvement. The goal is to debug your learning process in general so that you’ll never fear learning anything in particular. Break the problem into pieces. Change your perspective to grasp the situation. I didn’t really learn these concepts until I was a student at MIT.

And that’s what astounded me: Here was a book from 1980, describing a potentially powerful tool for “learning about learning,” a tool that I was familiar with from having actually been exposed to it at an early age, and I hadn’t learned anything even close to what Papert imagined! I was one of the kids in the book -- but my teachers hadn’t read the book! And none of my friends, from all over the country, knew LOGO as anything more than a program for making pretty pictures. It was strange to think of myself as part of a failed, or at least unfinished, experiment.

I read “The Two Cultures” a few weeks after “Mindstorms.” Based on his 1959 Rede Lecture at Cambridge University, Snow outlines the growing chasm between “the two cultures” of “literary intellectuals” and scientists (which includes engineers). Snow earned a PhD in physics at Cambridge, went on to become a somewhat successful novelist, and was a science adviser to the British government during World War II. So he had run in several elite circles by the time he made his observation that the “literary intellectuals” (who represented society-at-large through artistic reflection) knew virtually nothing of science, and the same for scientists of literature (and thus society-at-large).

Snow’s main concern was that the brightest minds of the day had no common ground for communication. His lecture, though, was largely pro-science, and he didn’t hide his belief that while scientists might be better people if they read more literature, it was the non-scientists who had to get with the program if the world’s problems were going to get solved (by science, of course). His bias was exemplified by the line, “If the scientists have the future in their bones, then the traditional culture responds by wishing the future did not exist.” The lecture, not surprisingly, received both strong praise and criticism.

The solution Snow suggested was education. And that’s what I found interesting. Reflecting on my own education, I discovered that while I had gotten comparable doses of English/history and math/science in high school and earlier, there was never any attempt to integrate them, and they were never presented in terms of a bigger picture. And since I had been a technical undergrad at MIT and a “liberal” grad student at Columbia, I knew that at each school the “other” culture was essentially omitted. I became intrigued as to whether education can mend the division it seems to create.

Why even bother bridging the two cultures? On one level I share Snow’s concern that the world’s problems won’t be solved if the two sides can’t intelligently talk to each other. And I used to think that meant, as Snow did, that non-scientists needed to “get with the program.” But on another level, I now think much would be gained if each side better understood what it lacks that the other has.

For non-scientists, that means getting a better feel for process. If non-scientists debugged their learning process, perhaps fewer of them would write off science as “hard,” and would instead look at their understanding as incomplete yet always improving. Funny, since that’s how scientists look at it. If non-scientists then tried seeing the processes in their own subjects, perhaps there would be additional benefits. History might be more useful if taught as a process -- a constantly evolving story -- instead of just a collection of facts. The same might be true of politics and literature. Newton stood on the shoulders of giants; where are the shoulders of non-scientists?

Such a shift in perspective might be all it takes to get scientists interested in these subjects, and add much needed breadth to their understanding of the world. Then, when everything is thought of as a process, where nothing is static, the whole world becomes an experiment. All that’s left to do is hypothesize where things should go -- in politics, in literature, in science -- and then run the test. And that, I believe, should be the goal: a continuous process of improvement, of an undivided culture.