How to bridge the Two Cultures?

Lisa Jardine, centenary professor of renaissance studies at Queen Mary, University of London, put forward an interesting essay on Radio 4 on Sunday, looking at CP Snow’s ‘Two Cultures’, and the rise of technocratic government (you can read her essay here). She said:

The scientist, novelist and British civil servant CP Snow is probably best remembered for his controversial lecture The Two Cultures And The Scientific Revolution, on the gulf of incomprehension separating the arts and sciences, delivered in 1959. In it he argued that in spite of the increasing importance of science, British intellectual life continued to be dominated by the traditional humanities. Today his argument continues to resonate, though perhaps now economics has joined science as a specialist field which baffles those who have received only an arts education.

A year after his Two Cultures lecture, Snow expanded on his argument and gave it an added sense of urgency in his 1960 Science and Government lectures, delivered at Harvard. He warned that at a time when specialist scientific understanding was indispensable, those charged with taking vital political decisions had no proper grasp on the issues. “One of the most bizarre features of our time,” he wrote. “Is that the cardinal choices have to be made by a handful of men who cannot have a first-hand knowledge of what those choices depend upon or what their results may be.”

She continued:

[I]t is, in my view, high time that we renewed and intensified our efforts to realise Snow’s as yet unrealised goal. Because as I see it, the issue today is not whether the sciences or the humanities get more funding out of the shamefully small pot currently allocated to higher education. It is rather whether the educated elites in both sectors are prepared to stand side by side to insist that informed, educated debate is needed wherever political policy has to be formed in so-called “technical”, “specialist” areas of life. Which today means those number and formula driven disciplines with which the humanities-trained struggle to engage.

In current debates about GM crops, nuclear energy and climate change, the public at large – including governments and senior administrators – are liable to be swayed by the most persuasive of the advisers or interest groups, because they are not equipped with the knowledge or the reasoned strategies needed to judge. Many of them are dismayed by any argument that involves number and maths.

Currently, this tendency to be swayed by experts is most clearly to be seen in the field of economics. Recently two nations within the European Union, Greece and Italy, have replaced their elected prime ministers by so-called technocrats – men with a significant track record in finance, but not experience of government at local or national level.

In the case of Italy, the entire cabinet consists of financial specialists. The non-elected prime minister’s people head “governments of national unity” which pursue policies for which nobody in the electorate voted. Indeed, they are not expected to consider the interests of the public, except insofar as introducing austerity measures sufficiently swingeing to satisfy the international markets is supposed ultimately to ensure the solvency of the nation as a whole.Are we really comfortable leaving grave political decisions to technocrats whose successes have been measured in terms of investment yields?

The rule of a few wise men is oligarchy, not democracy. So democracy depends upon our being able to sustain informed debate in the fields of science and economics. Each and every one of us has to take responsibility for the decisions that shape the future of the nation as a whole. But we will only be able to do that if those we have elected to govern us can master the technical aspects of difficult decision making – and if we in our turn are able to follow their arguments.

How could we create a better dialogue between the two cultures? I would suggest the divorce begins at A-Level and continues at university, and is the product of over-specialisation forced on young people too early. Focusing entirely on one subject throughout university leaves people unprepared for the complexity of life. It reduces the richness of their experience, denying them the opportunity to consider ideas and research from other disciplines. And it inspires the ridiculous ‘culture wars’, where the sciences and humanities see each other as rival countries to be attacked or raided, because there are so few people who are comfortable in both worlds.

One solution might be to move to a system closer to the American model, where students can major in one subject while still being able to study and attend lectures on other subjects. It could even become compulsory for undergraduates in sciences to take one course in humanities, and vice versa.

And we need more generalists, more people able to see the benefits, and to understand the aims and language, of both cultures. We have many excellent examples of that at Queen Mary. Another great example is Jonah Lehrer, the writer of Proust was a Neuroscientist. If you haven’t read the book, I very much recommend it: he looks at 12 or so figures from modernist literature, and shows how their ideas anticipated recent advances in neuroscience. His aim, explicitly, is to build a ‘third culture’ that bridges the arts and sciences. (The image at the top is from Scientific American, and is designed by Matt Collins).


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