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The Two Cultures (Canto Classics)
The Two Cultures (Canto Classics)
C. P. Snow
Cambridge University Press, 2012
179 pp., $19.99

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Two Cultures?: The Significance of C. P. Snow (Canto Classics)
Two Cultures?: The Significance of C. P. Snow (Canto Classics)
F. R. Leavis
Cambridge University Press, 2013
121 pp., $16.99

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Alan Jacobs


The Two Cultures, Then and Now

The sciences, the humanities, and their common enemy.

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In 1880, Huxley took up Arnold's famous claim that an ideal education should be devoted to "the best that has been thought and said," and should seek to achieve a "criticism of life," and offered this retort:

But we may agree to all this, and yet strongly dissent from the assumption that literature alone is competent to supply this knowledge. After having learnt all that Greek, Roman, and Eastern antiquity have thought and said, and all that modern literatures have to tell us, it is not self evident that we have laid a sufficiently broad and deep foundation for the criticism of life which constitutes culture.
Indeed, to any one acquainted with the scope of physical science, it is not at all evident. Considering progress only in the "intellectual and spiritual sphere," I find myself wholly unable to admit that either nations or individuals will really advance, if their common outfit draws nothing from the stores of physical science. I should say that an army, without weapons of precision, and with no particular base of operations, might more hopefully enter upon a campaign on the Rhine, than a man, devoid of a knowledge of what physical science has done in the last century, upon a criticism of life.

When Arnold responded to Huxley, two years later, in the Rede Lecture at Cambridge—Snow's "The Two Cultures" was the 1959 installment of that same lecture series—he immediately recognized that this was not a general or abstract question about the knowledge most worth having but rather an intensely practical question about how young people are to be educated. (It's worth noting that by profession Arnold was an inspector of schools; and his father, Thomas Arnold, was the most famous headmaster of Rugby School.) "I am boldly going to ask whether the present movement for ousting letters from their old predominance in education, and for transferring the predominance in education to the natural sciences, whether this brisk and flourishing movement ought to prevail, and whether it is likely that in the end it really will prevail."

His answer was basically twofold. First, he pointed out that he advocated the "scientific" rather than the merely impressionistic study of literature and the arts; and second, he argued that while study of the sciences could fill the mind with facts, the humanities could move the human spirit and empower it—could build up in young people "the power of conduct, the power of intellect and knowledge, the power of beauty, and the power of social life and manners … . Human nature is built up by these powers; we have the need for them all." And we feel the need for them, which is why, Arnold believes, people offered the chance to study either the sciences or the humanities will frequently opt for the latter.

Arnold's is the serious version of this argument; the comic version is provided by Bernard Nightingale in Tom Stoppard's 1993 play Arcadia:

A great poet is always timely. A great philosopher is an urgent need. There's no rush for Isaac Newton. We were quite happy with Aristotle's cosmos. Personally, I preferred it. Fifty-five crystal spheres geared to God's crankshaft is my idea of a satisfying universe. I can't think of anything more trivial than the speed of light. Quarks, quasars—big bangs, black holes—who gives a shit? How did you people con us out of all that status? All that money? And why are you so pleased with yourselves? … If knowledge isn't self-knowledge it isn't doing much, mate. Is the universe expanding? Is it contracting? Is it standing on one leg and singing "When Father Painted the Parlour"? Leave me out. I can expand my universe without you. "She walks in beauty, like the night / Of cloudless climes and starry skies, / And all that's best of dark and bright / Meet in her aspect and her eyes." There you are, he wrote it after coming home from a party.

Bernard's quarrel with Valentine Coverly, a young scientist who's just trying to research grouse populations in peace, reminds us that if the debate didn't start with Snow and Leavis it didn't end with them either. The hoary old conflict was even re-enacted in 2013 in the pages of The New Republic, with Stephen Pinker playing the role of the condescending and only apparently fair-and-balanced Snow—his essay is called "Science Is Not Your Enemy: An Impassioned Plea to Neglected Novelists, Embattled Professors, and Tenure-less Historians"—followed by Leon Wieseltier's remarkably faithful imitation of Leavis' "impermissible tone." When will enough be enough?

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