Science, business and the humanities: CP Snow’s ‘Two Cultures’ sixty years on   | #education | #technology | #training


CP Snow was a Cambridge scientist, a civil servant, and a novelist. He was, therefore, well placed to observe the gap between science, on one hand, and the arts and humanities on the other hand. He named it the “two cultures” divide, and his observations on it, in which he lamented the divide’s growing extent, formed the substance of his much-discussed Rede Lecture for 1959, subsequently published as a book. 

His principal anxiety was that, whereas scientists can take a knowledgeable interest in the arts and humanities, the reverse is rarely true, and this is a problem because almost everyone in government in his day, whether politicians or civil servants, tended to be arts and humanities graduates, with little understanding of science but complete control of science policy and most of its funding.

The problem Snow identified had grown out of the extraordinarily rapid expansion of scientific knowledge in the period – less than a century – before he delivered his lecture, while the fundamentals of elite education, predicated on the classics and humanities, had not changed much. At the date of his lecture, science subjects were still looked down upon as “bangs and smells”, and were lumped together with engineering and technology as the domain of nerds with dirty fingernails and rows of pens in their top pockets, a far cry from the languid cravat-wearing aesthete with a volume of Shelley in one hand and a cigarette-holder in the other.

The real problem was that the depth and complexity of science had quickly resulted in a proliferation of specialisms, sometimes not fully accessible even to specialists in neighbouring areas of the same science. Competence in any area of, say, physics required a training and possession of mathematical abilities beyond the reach of most. This is even more true today. When Snow delivered his lecture, the Standard Model of the atom was still being formulated and the development of instruments of investigation was rudimentary in comparison to now, unsurprising given that when Snow wrote it was not much more than thirty years since quantum theory had been given, what might be called, its official imprimatur at the Solvay Conference of 1927.

In one very important respect, however, Snow’s “two cultures” division was incorrect. There was, in fact, not a division between two cultures but instead a three-way split, a triangle of cultures, though the third vertex of the triangle was so far beneath notice at the time Snow wrote that – rather as one would expect from an Oxbridge don of the day – it did not occur to him to include it. This third vertex is business. If the humanities student looked down his nose at the science student, neither of them even noticed the student of accountancy or commerce at the College of Further Education out in the suburbs.

This was the lingering attitude of snobbery about “trade” that had its origin in the far distant past – in the classical Greek disdain for anything banausic, for buying and selling and taking an interest in money. Pythagoras said that people fell into three classes, mirroring those at the Games: competitors, spectators, and those who came to hawk their wares under the stands. He likened philosophers to spectators; in Greek “to spectate” is theorein, the source of our “theory”. Plato was disgusted by the sophists who offered to teach, for a fee, how to make a bad argument beat a good argument.

Statue of Plato, Athens (Alamy)

The unnoticed third vertex in Snow’s account has since risen into great importance in the triangle. Indeed, there has been a remarkable transformation in the respectability of business; successful businessmen and women are admired, the importance of business to the national economy is fully recognised, the wealth of top business people has risen hugely and given them significant influence in society and politics. Things had long been different in the US; there, money-making from business had been admired and encouraged at least since the years following the Civil War. In the unrestrained conditions of the expanding frontier and its abundant resources, together with a flow of both skilled and cheap labour through immigration, business millionaires became America’s aristocracy. That was still not the case in Snow’s Britain at the time he wrote. In the following decades it has become so; and it has radically changed the “cultures divide” he described.

It is still the case that few people can say what the Second Law of Thermodynamics is, which was Snow’s challenge to those who complained that scientists do not read poetry. But business entrepreneurs were not slow to recognise and profit from the scientific and technological advances which have transformed the world over the last half-century. It has made many of them rich, and they fuel the digital revolution by their energetic desire to see faster, smaller, more powerful, more capable technologies operative in many areas of activity. Meanwhile science – genetics, biochemistry, neuroscience, particle physics, cosmology – has continued to race ahead and astonish, with its applications via technology already outstripping our ability to manage its impacts (think of the potential downsides, along with the upsides, of artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, brain-chip interfaces, military robots, and the like).

The alliance between science and business and the prominence of both explains why the two areas of greatest pull in higher education are STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – and business studies. Between them they are the culturally dominant elements of the triangle, when in Snow’s day this role had been occupied by the humanities. In consequence, the humanities are withering. Parents and school advisers, together with the facts of life about what today’s economies need in the way of skilled workforces, between them push and pull students into STEM or business studies in large and increasing numbers. In some universities the study of modern languages, literature, history and philosophy has vanished altogether; classics vanished from almost all universities long ago. The forces at work are Darwinian, and understandable.

You might cite the immortal words of Mandy Rice-Davies, “He would say that, wouldn’t he”, in response to what I – as a lifelong student of the humanities, and founder of a university college called New College of the Humanities (now part of Northeastern University) – am about to say here. But note the concluding sentence of the preceding paragraph: I acknowledge the Darwinian imperatives, and do not propose to argue for a reassertion of the situation prevailing in Snow’s day. But allow me to recount an anecdote that explains why concentrating just on two vertices of the triangle at the expense of the third – humanities – is a mistake; as follows.

When Ronald Reagan was President he proposed that the US should develop an anti-ballistic missile system based on satellites in earth orbit – the so-called “Star Wars” initiative – so that an attack on the US by the Soviet Union could be interdicted in space. It eventually transpired that the suggestion was merely a propaganda device to turn the screws on the Soviet Union; there was, it seems, no real prospect of such a system being created. In the anxious debate that the suggestion prompted, however, one withering contribution was made by the physicist Steven Weinberg (pictured below, centre), who had won the Nobel prize for his contribution to showing how the weak nuclear force, responsible for radioactive decay in atomic nuclei, can be combined with the electromagnetic force that governs interactions between charged particles, thus yielding the “electroweak” force. He said (I paraphrase): “It does not bother me that the President doesn’t know any physics, but it does bother me that he doesn’t know any history or philosophy, because if he did he would not dream of increasing tensions in the Cold War in this way.”

Queen Beatrix with Christian de Duve and Steven Weinberg (centre)(Alamy)

This is a telling remark. History and philosophy – and one might add literature, languages, the arts – give us the insights, the overview, the understanding of human nature and the human condition, and with them the experiential and ethical dimensions of both individual and social existence, that provide context for how we use science, how we do business, how we direct public policy, and most importantly, why we do what we do in these respects. Weinberg’s point concerned the larger human and social context, exactly the subject matter of historical and philosophical reflection.

The lessons learned in study of the humanities can be richly suggestive. Consider history: the Bronze Age Collapse around 1200 BCE was in significant part the result of disruption of supply chains, destroying economies and the political structures based on them. The French Revolution had, as a major cause, the social and economic injustices felt by those at the wrong end of a too great rich-poor gap. Personality politics rarely end well, from Caesar to Ceausescu. And so on. All three examples carry hints for very present discontents in our world.

Consider philosophy: ideas, beliefs, ideologies are the springs that vitalise society. Examining them and their implications, challenging them, exploring what is really at stake in this “-ism” or that, postulating fresh ways of thinking and seeing, are essential to a civilisation’s health. Think of what happens when an orthodoxy is imposed by force, and only one set of ideas is permitted and no discussion allowed, as in Kim’s North Korea. Think of the stagnation of any society under the heel of a monolithic ideology; history offers plenty of examples.

Consider literature: the stories we tell in novels, plays, poems, the cinema, are a million windows into human experience and feeling, extending our capacity – if we are attentive – to understand and sympathise with the variety in human motivation and to become acquainted with choices, perceptions, attitudes, ways of life, that we would not otherwise encounter. The same applies to learning languages, to appreciating the arts, to becoming receptive and perceptive as a result of being transported over the landscapes of human experience by all these expressive, communicative enterprises.

To become a research scientist, a chemical engineer, a financial advisor, one needs training. The complexities of science and business demand specialisation. A training is essential if one is to be successful in most of these fields. Therefore, training is important. But training is not education, and as the foregoing remarks show, what the humanities offer is education: the nourishing, equipping and expanding of mind and its capacities.

Oddly enough, a survey of what a complex modern economy requires shows that many of its arenas require precisely the sensibility that the arts and humanities offer to develop. They include journalism, politics, law, the civil service, creative industries, publishing, advertising, arts promotion and management, events, entertainment, human resources, education, performance, museology and curating, design, the tourism and hospitality industries, many aspects of retail, and more – the list is long.

And this is to leave aside one enormously important point that most thinking about training and education ignores, with the result that the idea of “education for its own sake” has so significantly diminished. This is that people are not only their careers; they are not only infantry on the economic battlefield. They are also spouses, parents, voters, travellers, lovers, gardeners, readers, neighbours, dreamers, consumers, tennis players, cinema-goers, and much else again – life is many things, and being awake to its variety and its possibilities requires much more equipment than just a training for a specific career. 

My idea in founding the New College of the Humanities was to make a statement about two things: the importance of the humanities, and the fact that they can and should be combined with a full acknowledgment of the importance in our time of the other two vertices of the triangle, STEM and business. So I made it a requirement that throughout their undergraduate studies in the humanities my students take, for an additional diploma, courses in science literacy – so that they would have an intelligent layperson’s overview of the main developments in science – and basic business studies, equipping them to understand entrepreneurship, the essentials of marketing, how to read a balance sheet, what is required in the world of work, and general financial literacy. In a world now so dependent on digital technologies, literacy and competence in these is a necessity too. 

The thought was that the demand for appropriate preparation for life after formal education should not entirely displace the opportunity to explore ideas, the past and literature, but that what the humanities offer should be recognised as of great value in itself, and can readily be combined with practical considerations. Education and training do not have to be mutually exclusive. My design was to provide the opportunity for the humanities’ intellectual maturation and fertilisation, with an adjunct of practical knowledge, to overcome the false dichotomy of the two.

It is a principle of education – viewed as the cultivation of a well-furnished and highly able mind – that the beneficiary of it should develop a rich sense of context and connection. Someone interested in, say, medieval monasticism or Presocratic philosophy might relish the study of it for its own sake and find it absorbingly interesting, but might also see surprising relevances to his own life and times. This explains how, in the 18th and 19th centuries, Britain governed an empire by teaching Greek and Latin classics to those sent out to run it. For when you read and discuss the classics you read history, philosophy and literature, and through them you read about and discuss government, military affairs, ideas of justice and morality, statesmen and the way they handled problems, successes and disasters and what prompted either, subtleties of human nature, celebrations of virtue and condemnations of vice, poems of love and of mourning, the absurdity of certain beliefs, the nobility of certain ambitions – and much besides of relevance to both the social and individual scales of life. 

Of course, much of this might have gone over most of the heads of lazy and self-interested boys at their public schools – we see an example of this vividly in our own day, alas – but enough stuck so that the administration of empire was not always and everywhere a prejudiced and exploitative disaster. In any case, the point is that the aim of imparting the benefits of an education in the humanities might succeed often enough that the candles of civilisation will continue be carried, alight, over the floodwaters of time. Even if almost every educational institution should shed its commitment to the humanities, salvation would reside in that “almost”.

There might be another spin of the triangle’s orientation which changes which vertex is uppermost. Suppose most productive activity is taken over by artificial intelligence systems, with the result that more than enough wealth is generated to allow most of the population a comfortable national wage without having to work for a living. Then the arts and humanities will be at a premium, the practice and study of them the main avocation of many, the value of intellectual and educational attainment as great as the value of money-wealth is now. It is far from an impossibility that this might happen. It would be good if a flourishing tradition of the humanities were to survive into such a time.

CP Snow wished to see the two cultures divide closed, or at least narrowed. I say that that the three vertices of the triangle should be kept connected, because to lose the perspectives offered by the humanities would render our society technocratic and banausic merely, a fate it is already not far from. Snow’s anxiety was that science would be mishandled by uncomprehending humanists, whereas today the anxiety is very different; it is that technology and the imperatives of “bottom lines” will determine all our choices for us. 

Perhaps one can sum up the matter by saying that whereas science and technology is about capability, and business is about profit and cost, the humanities are about value. That is a vertex of the triangle we cannot afford to lose.


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