Merging C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures
Lionel Van Deerlin Professor of Communications and Public Policy,
San Diego State
Posted: March 17, 2011 12:12 PM
Fifty years ago, physicist-turned-novelist C.P. Snow talked about “two cultures” of physicists and writers and the “hostility and dislike” that divided the world’s “natural scientists — its chemists, engineers, physicists and biologists — from its literary intellectuals.”
He found it strange that more scientists weren’t artists and musicians and more artists lacked a similar interest in the sciences. What happened to the classically trained person? he mused. In his day (turn of the 20th century), all these subjects were “branches of the same tree.”
Yet for the last 100 years or so, it seems, things have not changed. Society rarely blurs the lines between the disciplines of art and science. You are either going to grow up an artist or musician or a scientist or mathematician — as Snow said, two distinct cultures.
That cultural divide, Natalie Angier of the New York Times reported, “continues to this day, particularly in the United States, as educators, policymakers and other observers bemoan the Balkanization of knowledge, the scientific illiteracy of the general public and the chronic academic turf wars that are all too easily lampooned.”
Can we change this divide? Can we eliminate the silos in our curriculum? Can we reinvent our systems of education to give our young people what they need to be a productive member of our society and economy?
The IIT Institute of Design in Chicago, reportedly has found a way to “bridge the chasm between business and design.” It defines design as “a core methodology of innovation” and as such, it argues, represents the key to new inventions and innovation itself. Business schools across America are rethinking their curricula, too, as the Master of Fine Arts is as valued to business as the revered MBA.
Dartmouth is exploring “Mathematics Across the Curriculum,” linking mathematics with a humanistic discipline in over sixteen disciplines, and the University of Michigan launched something called “The Millennium Project” to merge humanities courses into their engineering curriculum.
Angier reported, “The most ambitious of these exercises in fusion thinking is a program under development at Binghamton University in New York called the New Humanities Initiative,” which bring the arts and humanities faculty together with faculty from all the sciences to offer interdisciplinary seminars with the hope of creating whole brain, creative thinking.
With the proliferation of the Internet, the computerization of news archives and libraries available on the Internet, literally thousands of references are available at the click of a mouse. Thus the challenge today is not acquiring information; it is determining which information is relevant.
In an age where we are discovering that everything is connected to everything else, what we really need to do is create the interdisciplinary curriculum that emphasizes the new economy, the role of technology and the spirit of enterprise — specifically creativity and innovation.
This is what the 21st century companies are looking for.
In a recent report from the Conference Board, 80% of the companies participating said as much. But this generation and succeeding ones will have to be able to draw from both sides of their brain to enter the creative and innovative workforce. Like the great engineers and scientists of an earlier age, they will need the thinking skills to be both right-brained and left-brained with the capacity to look first at the whole picture, then the details.