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What the idea of the “two cultures” is really about

By William Deresiewicz

March 3, 2013


 

 

I’ve written several posts recently (this one, this one, and this one) about the difference between science and the humanities. Rub those terms together, and you inevitably engender a third: C. P. Snow’s famous notion of the “two cultures,” first articulated in 1959 and a commonplace of educated discourse ever since. Literary culture on the one hand, and scientific culture on the other, Snow lamented, are failing to communicate. A scientifically trained civil servant who also wrote novels (rather bad ones, apparently), Snow left no doubt as to who was to blame: “Intellectuals, in particular literary intellectuals, are natural Luddites.” A scientist would be ashamed to admit that he hadn’t read Shakespeare, but where’s the humanist who can explain the Second Law of Thermodynamics?

The breasts have been abeating ever since. If only humanists weren’t so obtuse! If only we could “bridge the two cultures”! The trouble with that noble desideratum is that no one’s ever known what it means, least of all Snow. Never mind the objections raised by F. R. Leavis and Lionel Trilling, two of the leading literary critics of Snow’s day. There aren’t two cultures, Leavis pointed out; there are many—not only beside and between science and the humanities (most notably that habitually slighted tertium quid, the social sciences), but within each one, as well. As for that alleged literary culture, Snow seems to have meant traditional upper-class English culture—the culture of people who might have studied literature at Oxford or Cambridge but were hardly in the business of creating it. The latter, Trilling notes in response to Snow’s charge that the great English writers failed to adequately respond to the Industrial Revolution, could hardly have been more aware of the changes that science had brought to society (think of Blake or Dickens or H. G. Wells), an observation that can be extended to the writers of our own day.

No, the biggest problem with Snow—the problem he bequeathed to all who’ve taken up his cry—is that he doesn’t have the vaguest idea what “bridging” or “bringing together” the two cultures would actually entail. His essay contains not a single solid suggestion—not even a liquid or gaseous suggestion—as to how he thinks contemporary science should, as he puts it, “be assimilated” into art. As for higher education, a major part of his concern, his famous jibe about the Second Law of Thermodynamics, is not the beginning of a program; it is the whole of it. But why should humanists be taught the Second Law of Thermodynamics? (It’s the one that talks about entropy, by the way.) To ingest a particle of “cultural literacy” in the pointless, superficial, E. D. Hirsch sort of fashion? Anyone who sees that as something worth spending one’s time on is not a person to whom I would entrust the “Shakespeare” part of education, either.

The idea of “bridging the two cultures” is a solution in search of a problem. They don’t need to be bridged. They’re both doing fine on their own, because they each do very different things. But “bridging the two cultures” is not really an idea at all. It’s a feeling, and the only reason Snow’s formulation has persisted is that the feeling has. Actually, it’s two feelings: the anxiety on the part of humanists and artists that science has rendered them irrelevant, and the smugness on the part of technologists that the arts and humanities ought to shut up and let them get on with the business of running the world. Both are inane, and both reflect misguided notions about the roles of the respective disciplines. We don’t need to solve the “problem” of the two cultures; we need to stop talking about it.


William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here. He is a contributing editor of the magazine.


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