Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Book Review: The Two Cultures

C. P. Snow delivered a lecture to an audience of intellectuals at Cambridge in 1959 about the “two cultures” of the humanities and the sciences. His essential thesis was that the West was suffering—and would continue to suffer—from this disconnect between the two groups. He followed up this lecture with a second in 1963, responding to some of the criticisms and comments he received regarding the first lecture. These two lectures comprise The Two Cultures, and they are well worth reading today. The book also includes a long introductory essay, which I confess not to have read because I don’t like people explaining to me what something means if I can figure it out for myself.

As a technical writer, I have a special connection to this topic simply because my job is to translate between the two cultures. The other professionals that operate on the border between the two are science fiction writers.

When I was an undergrad pursuing a B.A. in English Lit, my peers didn’t seem to mind so much that I was taking science and history classes in an effort to become an SF writer (didn’t work, but what’d I know?). However, my experiences when going for a tech writing M.A. made the arts-sciences divide clearer to me. I noted the occasional distaste or fear that the literary types in the English department had for things technological, and can only second Snow’s findings.

The sad part is that the humanities-sciences divide has become, if possible, even more prominent than it was in 1959. Snow was speaking of his own Great Britain at the height of the Cold War, just as America was starting to get serious about science and technical education with the post-Sputnik
National Defense Education Act. This was before the social upheavals of the 1960s and the arrival of the environmental movement in 1970, which only sharpened the divide between the perceptions of scientific and arts-focused people. Science, in some circles, has been seen as a positive evil rather than a liberator from illness and toil that characterized most of humanity’s history. Of course Snow notes this tendency even then:

Did anyone think that, in the primal terms in which I have just been discussing the poor countries of the present world, our ancestors’ condition was so very different? Or that the industrial revolution had not brought us in three or four generations to a state thoroughly new in the harsh, unrecorded continuity of poor men’s lives? I couldn’t believe it. I knew, of course, the force of nostalgia, myth, and plain snobbery…

Now we know something of the elemental facts of the lives and deaths of peasants and agricultural laborers in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England and France. They are not comfortable facts. J. H. Plumb, in one of his attacks on the teaching of a pretty-pretty past, has written: ‘No one in his senses would choose to have been born in a previous age unless he could be certain that he would have been born into a prosperous family, that he would have enjoyed extremely good healthy, and that he could have accepted stoically the death of the majority of his children.’…

The average length of life was perhaps a third of ours, and appreciably less, because of the deaths in childbirth, for women than for men (it is only quite recently, and in lucky countries, that women, on the average, have had a chance of living as long as men).

This longing for an innocent time is not so new, but it continues, especially in the light of the global warming movement, which seeks to dismantle our technological society (or tax it to death, which amounts to the same thing) because of the “evil” we are perpetrating on the environment. The real problem, of course, is that widespread technical and scientific ignorance is becoming rampant, leaving average citizens unable to logically or empirically judge the claims of a vocal group claiming to speak in the name of science. The people who win the global warming debate will most likely be those with the loudest voices and most political clout, not necessarily those with the best science.

As Snow notes, sometime during his lifetime, “intellectual” came to mean only the influential people in the arts community, not the sciences. Indeed, those who attained the title of intellectual have taken pride in the fact that they aren’t conversant in the methods and practices that make our technological civilization possible. This does our society no good if we intend to raise children who can continue build the widgets, gadgets, and doohickeys (note the technical jargon there—the sign of a true “intellectual”) that make life bearable, if complicated.

Here’s my take on the divide, having worked and socialized with both communities. The artsy among us are dealing with the universal emotions and experiences that every person can relate to. They speak or write in the common tongue, more or less, or portray their ideas in gripping visual and moving images. Their outcomes are stories or messages that tell other people what events mean in human terms. In these ways, they have an advantage. The technically inclined among us are able to analyze, visualize, and quantify how the universe changes around us. They, too, use English, but it is often of a specific, deliberately non-emotional sort to others of their kind because to do otherwise would be to interfere with their ability to learn what they set out to learn. The techies among us can use symbols and logic and numbers in a way that is as natural to them as describing two people falling in love might be for artsy folk. They have the ability to see, understand, and mold the basic forces that inhabit our universe, and our world would be much poorer without them.

It is my pleasure and privilege to translate the activities of NASA’s engineers into words that non-techies can understand. If Mr. Snow gets his way, more people will be educated to the point where the “non-techie” difference is negligible. Consider the characters of Star Trek as exemplars of Snow’s vision: they are all supra-competent techies, but they have the ability to remember, appreciate, and apply lessons from the artistic culture. Our future should be so lucky. Looks like I’ll have to do some more reading on education to try and find ways to implement Snow’s vision. It’s not like I’ve got any power, but I can at least offer some informed opinions.

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