Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Bridging the gap

Charles Percy Snow was that rarest of intellectuals in 1950s-1960s: A physicist, a civil servant and a novelist. Nothing stuffy about his little book, The Two Cultures, which I read in the mid-1960s as a young teacher, and which I just read again yesterday. As befits a person trained in science, he said what he wanted to say with as few words as necessary. What he had to say was just what a young, scientifically-trained, fledgling intellectual wanted to hear: science had every right to be in the House of Intellect, not as some embarrassing cousin kept locked out of sight in the cellar or attic, but right there in the parlor with the pipe-puffing literary profs. Scholars of the humanities and scientists had very little to say to each other, said Snow, and they were both the poorer for it. Even at my small liberal arts college, the science and humanities faculties might as well have lived on different planets. I was determined that wasn't going to happen to me, not just because C. P. Snow said it was a bad thing, but because I was too much of a flitterer to settle down in any one place.

Snow's book, as everyone knows, made a very big splash. Perhaps no other book of 58 pages has ever precipitated a greater deluge of print. Colleges and universities rushed to repair the split that Snow so concisely diagnosed, but a curriculum could not remedy the problem when the faculty was so profoundly divided. Requiring science courses of liberal arts students, or humanities courses of science students, merely exposed them to another "culture" -- like a semester in Spain -- but did nothing to integrate intellect. I watched -- I was part of -- a slew of curricular experimentation, trying to solve the "two culture" dilemma. In particular, with a colleague from the English Department, and another from the History Department, we talked the college into supporting an interdisciplinary program of Heuristic Studies, which focused not on content but on ways of knowing: Language, Structure, Classification, Theory Making, that sort of thing. It died with the Countercultural Revolution.

A half-century later things seem to be in about the same place they were in 1959, when Snow wrote the book. The sciences and humanities are as divided as ever. The so-called Third Culture has had minimal impact on undergraduate education.

I'm not sure any curriculum can create an omnivorous, integrating mind. The best a college can do is provide a lively faculty, a good library, and a variety of engaging intellectual activities. Some students will find their way to a satisfying intellectual life of their own devising. Some will have ladled into their heads a glob of this and a glob of that. And some will spend four years drinking beer and hanging out.