May 7 marked the 50th anniversary of C.P. Snow’s influential talk, “The Two Cultures.” In his lecture and subsequent book, the English writer and physicist described the widening gulf between the humanities and science.
For some reason, what people thought of as “intellectuals” ignored the contributions of scientists even though much of humanity’s knowledge marches along the path of the technical arts. C.P. Snow succinctly expressed himself with a story:
“A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists.”
“Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative.”
“Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?”
As someone trained in science, when I first read of this exchange I was encouraged that this was a historically recognized (albeit unsolved) problem. After all, what was called “natural philosophy” is one of the only genuinely universal forms of knowledge.
Like F = m·a or s = dQ/T, science’s enduring statements will be true whether we’re in a Bangladeshi jungle, on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, or on the other side of a Galilean moon. You can’t say the same about the aesthetics of St. Peter’s Basilica without the baggage that Western civilization brings.
Scientific laws govern our existence and technologies rely on our ability to understand and manipulate the rules of nature. Without true scientific and technical scholarship, our world would not have steadily increasing life expectancies, 160-story buildings sprung from the middle of the desert, an ability to track our friends’ whims from across the world, or machines in our pockets that would have been considered supercomputers thirty years ago.
One could reasonably declare the war between the two cultures won. The humanities have slunk into a fifty-year morass from which they have yet to emerge from, while the vast majority of the world’s recent progress has advanced through innovations in technology. Science is — and has been — ascendant.
And yet, I would still claim an educated (American) person is someone who has read Shakespeare.
We live in a society of common values. We built our institutions to support the principles we have agreed upon. To wantonly ignore the urban history that produced a city like Boston or to tinker in the lab while neglecting the great lineage of thought behind scientific enquiry are both types of ignorance similar to that of C.P. Snow’s partygoers.
Promoters of the humanities argue that a “learning for its own sake” liberal arts university provides its students with critical thinking skills that are widely applicable, regardless of their later career choice. But if this is true, why don’t I trust a random sociology major to provide me an accurate balance sheet model? Conversely, would I rely on a chemical engineering graduate to give me a one-sentence description of “deconstructionism”?
While administrators and legislators have been promoting more professionalization in college education, the exact opposite should be happening: we should argue for an authentic liberal arts education that encompasses the tradition humanities core curriculum with a broad and basic scientific background along the lines of MIT’s General Institute Requirements.
Such a graduate would be equipped to handle any task that the modern world demands, whether it’s to write a report for a policymaker or to hunker down behind a microscope, because he or she would draw on the best of both traditions while avoiding their weaknesses.
When the problems we’re confronted with require technical solutions to social problems — healthcare, the economy, energy, the environment — we do little right in reproducing the past’s myopia through a balkanized education system. Interdisciplinary programs are poor substitutes by providing too little of all. Higher education should be laying a much firmer foundation of the breadth of human knowledge — the original intent of the classic university — in both science and the humanities.
The humanities guide our values, but we need science to understand the world and what remains possible. Technology gives us tools for solving problems, but we need the humanities to understand which ones we want and how to apply them. Those that bridge the two cultures and understand the interaction at the link will be best able to tackle tomorrow’s difficulties and lead us through the next century.
There are still unanswered questions though. How do we fit our technical solutions into the other cultures of the world? Will we be able to guide tomorrow’s advances into an agreement with our values and vice versa?
Most importantly: how do we continue to bridge the gap between the humanities and science so they not only start speaking to each other, but also inform and advance the other?
In a world where tomorrow’s solutions require exponentially more technical knowledge, C.P. Snow’s fifty-year old lament remains as fresh as ever. The Two Cultures continues to be a problem worth thinking about.