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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 C. S. Lewis' That Hideous Strength (1945), a young sociologist named Mark Studdock finds himself drawn deeper and deeper into a web of evil, and seems to possess no resources of intellect or will that would help him to resist that evil. Lewis' portrayal of Mark is anything but flattering, but it is not without compassion, as we see in this curious authorial aside:

It must be remembered that in Mark's mind hardly one rag of noble thought, either Christian or Pagan, had a secure lodging. His education had been neither scientific nor classical—merely "Modern." The severities both of abstraction and of high human tradition had passed him by: and he had neither peasant shrewdness nor aristocratic honor to help him. He was a man of straw, a glib examinee in subjects that require no exact knowledge (he had always done well on Essays and General Papers) and the first hint of a real threat to his bodily life knocked him sprawling.

If we can set aside what looks like a mere prejudice against the social sciences, I think we can find in this passage some useful wisdom. In a sense, Stephen Pinker is right: Science is not the enemy of the humanities. Rather, the sciences and the humanities share a common enemy: an educational system that, despite its ceaseless rote invocations of the value of "critical thinking"—overwhelmingly evades the "severities" that might equip people to deal seriously with the world and its manifold challenges. A rigorous education in any field challenges its students: it doesn't let them get away with easy answers; it doesn't reward "glib examinees"; it forces second and third thoughts; it demands revision and correction, and presses people even to start over from scratch when that's necessary. People trained in this fashion will be ready for surprises, will expect the unexpected, will adapt to circumstances.

And there is one other matter to be considered. It was considered by the anthropologist and essayist Loren Eiseley in what I believe to have been the best response to Snow's lecture, an essay that appeared in The American Scholar in 1964 under the title "The Illusion of the Two Cultures." Eiseley believed that artistic, humanistic, and scientific achievement alike are driven by the power of human imagination—and that the contemporary academy, with its relentless enforcement of disciplinary boundaries and its cult of "professionalism," is draining imaginative power from the sciences:

Happily, the very great in science, or even those unique scientist-artists such as Leonardo, who foreran the emergence of science as an institution, have been singularly free from this folly. Darwin decried it even as he recognized that he had paid a certain price in concentrated specialization for his achievement. Einstein, it is well known, retained a simple sense of wonder; Newton felt like a child playing with pretty shells on a beach. All show a deep humility and an emotional hunger which is the prerogative of the artist. It is with the lesser men, with the institutionalization of method, with the appearance of dogma and mapped-out territories that an unpleasant suggestion of fenced preserves begins to dominate the university atmosphere.

In a passage that has become even more powerful and relevant in the intervening decades, Eiseley comments that "it is one of the disadvantages of big science, just as it is of big government, that the availability of huge sums attracts a swarm of elbowing and contentious men to whom great dreams are less than protected hunting preserves." And in what seems to me the key point in the essay, he writes that in the money-driven world of "big science,"

some minds exhibit an almost instinctive hostility toward the mere attempt to wonder, or to ask what lies below that microcosmic world out of which emerge the particles that compose our bodies, and that now take on this wraithlike quality.
Is there something here we fear to face, except when clothed in safely sterilized professional speech? Have we grown reluctant in the age of power to admit mystery and beauty into our thoughts, or to learn where power ceases?

If I were ever rich enough to endow a science building at a university, I would insist that that last sentence be engraved over its doors.

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