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Two Cultures

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Over at Arts and Letters  Daily, there was a link today to an article about C.P. Snow’s famous essay on the mental and cultural divisions between “literary intellectuals” (in which he included all the Humanities) and “natural scientists.” Called “The  Two Cultures,” it outlined what Snow thought at the time were the major reasons for division between the two principle systems of knowledge in modern society, and what he thought ought to be done about them.

The first thing I noticed in this article was the way in which Sno’s stereotypes of the two groups–Snow himself was a natural scientists–would not fully fit the world of academia today.   For one thing, nobody would call most Humanities intellectuals “conservative” these days, nor would one expect that there would be mostly socialists in physics departments.

That said, what was clear was that the very core of the break is today what it was then–not so much that the two sides don’t understand or respect each other (as Snow thought), but that the natural sciences side is firmly convinced that there is no content in the Humanities at all, that the Humanities are easy and any fool can understand them, and if you can’t, then it’s because those pesky Humanities intellectuals are being deliberately pretensious and obscure.

If one thing has come throught on this blog repeatedly, it’s that people outside the Humanities are absolutely convinced that studying the Humanities must have something to do with…well, anything but actually studying the Humanities.

People are so convinced of it that they’re convinced I’m saying it when I’m not.   Cheryl seemed to think that I had said that people would make moral decisions based on the Great Tradition.  Robert grumbles that no such moral system can be constructed from the tradition and that the Great Tradition isn’t good at helping us make up our minds in matters of moral choice.

The Humanities are supposed to be studied to make us more moral, or to teach us to love to read, or for any of a dozen reasons that have nothing to do with what they are. 

If there has been one really big change since C.P. Snow’s day, it’s that the assumption that there’s no there there in the Humanities has come to be shared by the general public, and not just by natural scientists.  Hell, it’s come to be shared by some people–like professors of history, literature and philsophy–whose very life work is to concentrate on and illuminate the there.

Of course, Snow was right enough on one point.  There’s something significantly wrong when well-educated people can’t explain and understand basic scientific concepts the existence of which significantly impact their existence.   Sometimes that lack of understanding leads to immediate and unhappy consequences.  The chances your child will end up with a case of whooping cough these days is correlated with the number of  PhDs in your neighborhood–the “vaccines cause autism” and “vaccines aren’t worth the risk of an allergic reaction” scares arose and exist in groups of people who are highly educated in the Humanities and Social Sciences.  Your garage mechanic down the street tends to take his doctor’s word for it that the chances of dying of pertussis are astronomically greater than the chances of getting a bad side effect from the pertussis vaccine.

Even so, the problem from the other direction is worse.  It isn’t that natural scientists and social scientists think that the work of the Humanities has been taken over by big companies determined to make a buck by putting us in danger–which was the basis of the conspiracy panics around vaccines–but that natural scentists and social scientists don’t think there’s anything to study in the Humanities at all.

That’s why the continual demands that the Humanities “do” something—make us better, make us moral, whatever. 

Part of this is a confusion between pure and applied knowledge, and maybe people are confused about this even when it comes to the natural sciences.  Most physicists, for instance, aren’t in the least bit interested in practical applications of the things they learn.  They don’t even know there are any.

The public, however, sees those applications once the pure knowledge has been absorbed by and applied by engineers.

But although we can certainly use the techniques of philosophy to help us construct moral codes and political institutions, we don’t study philosophy in order to do that.  We study philosophy in order to learn to understand how human beings have engaged in that activity and what they’ve come up with because of it and how that activity works.

This study will not tell us a single thing about what is actually moral or immoral.   It will not help us to be moral.   It will not “defend democracy” or any other political system.  It will not–and cannot–tell us that democracy is a better system than any other.

We study the Humanities for the same reason theorectical mathematicians study math and abstract physicists study physics–to know.  Period.  The knowledge is out there to be discovered.  We want to discover it.

There’s a version of this that every writer gets at some point or the other–the assumption on the part of the general public that anybody can do that kind of thing.  It’s so easy, I’d get around to doing it in my spare time if I had any.

You’re a writer?  I’ve got this great idea for a novel I’m going to get to as soon as I retire!

Yes, and I’ve got th is great idea for brain surgery I’m going to get to as soon as I have a spare second–I’ll start by operating on you.

With students and with too many professors these days, professors who come to the Humanities without actually having an education in the Humanities–the assumption is that “English” (by which they mean the study of English literature) is all about opinion, and did you like the book, and did you think it’s interesting. 

If you want to see shock, just get a picture of the faces of my students when they get their first papers back in Intro to Lit.  I had a class once whose average grade was 10.

Out of 100.

Oh,  I know,  I know.  I’m on this a lot.  Maybe it’s that I’m getting close to the point where I think I’m going to give up.  It gets difficult to teach students in an environment like this.  I know I’m sick to death of defending the study of literature to people whose only criteria for excellence is “will it make me money?”

I’m equally sick of listening to people tell me that the only reason to value Shakespeare, or Piero della Francesca, or Bach, is if their work will hasten the arrival of the revolution–and since it won’t, I should be conentrating on Rigoberta Menchu instead.

Okay, this is a depresseding post.

But the book is going well, and I’ve go true financial crime to read, so there’s that.

Written by janeh

May 2nd, 2009 at 9:56 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Two Cultures'

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  1. Where it doesn’t involve actual math, everybody thinks what other people do is “easy.” Art is easy. Writing is easy. Sociology is easy. Interior design, animal husbandry, middle management, raising children, you name it.

    Viewing the surface of any expertise from the outside and declaring the depths “easy” is a fool’s game. I think it’s part of the American mythos that “I could do that if I wanted to” including being President. On the other hand, we’ve got “if you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?”

    It’s not just literature being asked to justify its existence with return on investment. I don’t know if it makes you feel any better, but pure research has always been the poor stepchild of science. Even though it demonstrably leads to innovations that improve life, health and wealth for all of us, the bean-counters will always ask “what is it good for?” and cut funding.

    As for the “will it make me money?” question, the answer is Yes. The study of literature will let you talk to the people who HAVE the money on a more equal footing. Just like the guy who robs banks because that’s where the money is, dealing with the people who have the money will multiply opportunities to make some of it yours.


    2 May 09 at 11:31 am

  2. OK, but no one tells me I have to master theoretical mathematics or abstract physics to get a high school diploma, or even to teach in college. You had a program for the humanities once which wouldn’t have let me teach military history at a university level if I hadn’t studied music and dance. (“Would that work in reverse?” he wonders.)

    I’m a little hazy because I went to a 6-3-3 system, but no doubt there’s English Lit every year. Math, Science and History might only get three of the four–sometimes not that–but sure as you’re trapped in high school, you’ll start every fall with a new required reading list, which by itself would account for a lot of long faces in September.

    Without math the kids are going to have real problems with inflation, interest, volume measurements and even comparing monthly and weekly salaries. If we could get them to grasp science, they might actually DO the math on wind turbines and biofuels, which would have an interesting effect on the Greens. History, we fondly hope, will make us a little more aware of which ideas have already not worked out. I’d like to think a better grasp of it would help our current predecessor and would have helped his two immediate predecessors to avoid some of our current messes. (Too late now.) So all three have effects on real-world behavior (we hope.)

    Basic reading skills are for Grades 1-6. Say a year for critical reading and a year for composition, and you’re still only to Grade 8. What’s Dickens doing in high school, and why is he more important than DNA, the Constitutional Convention and volume measurement?

    Either the study of the Great Tradition affects behavior or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, then it’s one with trainspotting. That Homer understood the Greek pantheon and the symbolic value of six types of tree is not by itself a reason why I should, let alone must.

    And you don’t want English Literature to be rated as a hobby like birdwatching or painting toy soldiers. No: Literature is important because…Why? Literature, I’m told, helps me to understand what it means to be human. I thought Biology did that: it’s the whole walking erect and opposable thumbs thing. The whole “understand what it is to be human” bit is only a contribution if it means “will change how you behave.”

    For myself, I think it can make a difference, and does affect behavior. If it affects how people think, and what they think, it will have real-world behavioral impact. And in that case, precisely what IS taught becomes important, as does its limitations. The lack of a moral center has to be kept in mind, and it’s time that someone recalls that “well-written” and “significant” are not the same thing. A lot of “bad” writers, measured by the Lit-O-meter have had some important things to say about people, and an impressive sentence length and a full stock of allusions is no proof the author has anything to say at all. And if it affects behavior, then hard questions have to be asked about the ways in which behavior is affected, its limits, and whether some books might well be inimical. So rather than address these, suddenly we flip back to studying literature for itself. A semester of art. A semester of music. Year after year of English Lit.

    It has real world impact, or it’s trainspotting. Please decide.


    2 May 09 at 3:36 pm

  3. Are you entirely sure you have the point clear in your own mind? In one post, you’re arguing for learnng for its own sake, and in another, you’re saying that a lack of education in the humanities will lead to people making wrong decisions out of pure ignorance about what’s happened in the past. I can actually agree with both those points – and discussing the implications of ignorance of humanities on what is considered proper (moral) behaviour in a society doesn’t mean you can’t believe that the humanities should be studied because they are there, like Everest.

    I always rather identified wih the two cultures idea, probably because I spent my undergraduate years wavering (and being pushed) back and forth between the Faculties of Science and Art. I still remember the time I was told how cold and money-grubbing and narrow I must be since I was studing science instead of ‘arts’!

    I personally tend to think that a certain type of academic writing associated with at least some of hte humanities is about 99% jargon and 1% content, but some of it is no doubt profound and I don’t think I’d be able to toss off a paper or two, much less a book, if I ever get some time to spare. I tend to think the reverse – something someone else can do must be very difficult, but anything I can do must be so easy anyone else can do it too. That came out a bit odd – I don’t mean I think I’m a genius; I mean that once I figure something out, it seems obvious and I don’t understand why others can’t do it. I don’t assume the same about things others can do and I can’t.


    2 May 09 at 5:40 pm

  4. Can I point out that the standard time for a BA or BS in Australia is 3 years. I believe that Australian universities do not have distribution requirements.

    And Cheryl, do you remember the Sokal Hoax? That was 100% jargon.


    2 May 09 at 9:26 pm

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