the new Two Cultures

In 1959, C.P. Snow thought he observed “two cultures” in universities and intellectual life. “At one pole we have the literary intellectuals, at the other scientists, and as the most representative, the physical scientists. Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension.”

As evidence, he cited the fact that humanists would privately decry the “illiteracy of scientists,” yet when Snow asked them to define the Second Law of Thermodynamics, “the response [would be] cold and … also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?”

Conjecture: today many humanists and “literary intellectuals” would acknowledge that they have never read Shakespeare–or at least not since a high school English assignment that has no bearing on their interests. This would not be embarrassing. Many people in many disciplines may still have to look up the Second Law of Thermodynamics (now easily done, on their phones). But a different “gulf of mutual incomprehension” runs through the university today.

At one pole are researchers who are generally optimistic that technology (broadly defined) can solve problems. They think that once we’ve found a good technical solution, it should go to market so it can reach many people. Therefore, it’s appropriate for corporations and wealthy individuals to fund research, for research to move from universities to firms, and for the government to support and even to subsidize all of that.

At the opposite pole are scholars who perceive technology as a threat to cultures and nature, who critically assess market capitalism, and who see a government that supports it as the neoliberal state, captured by business.

The first pole is anchored in business schools, engineering schools, and other applied science disciplines, but it has adherents in many fields. The second pole is anchored in the cultural disciplines within the humanities, but it attracts support from some social scientists and pure natural scientists. The gulf runs right through fields such as education and public policy.

And between the two, C.P. Snow’s “mutual incomprehension.” Also, I think, a degree of disapproval is directed in both directions. If you’re at the technology-solves-problems pole, you may think that public-spirited researchers invent tools that help people and make sure that those tools are used. Spending one’s time reading and writing books may seem self-indulgent. If you’re at the opposite pole, you may think that a scholar of integrity is independent and critical of the major institutions of the society.

In one way, though, the situation is asymmetrical. I think that almost everyone realizes that universities produce pharmaceuticals, algorithms, hardware breakthroughs, materials, and a range of other products that ultimately get bought. But the critical end of the pole is sometimes invisible. Some technologists are unaware that there’s a critique of technological capitalism underway in their own universities. And humanists are partly responsible for their own invisibility, because they don’t engage the public debate effectively.

See also: college and the contradictions of capitalismwhat are the humanities? (basic points for non-humanists)the public purposes of the humanities (a brief history)does naturalism make room for the humanities?innovation in technology and the humanities.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.