Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading Against Method by Paul Feyerabend.

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Thursday, December 8, 2016

C. P. Snow: Goldmine

The C. P. Snow anthology that I'm reading includes a long 1970 essay titled "The Case of Leavis and the Serious Case."  The first third of it is about some sort of interpersonal literary dispute that isn't worth parsing.  However, after that he starts discussing the English educational system, and he quickly gets into pay-dirt.  I do not know if his assertions are factually correct, but his analysis and attitude are interesting.

He starts by noting that admissions to the Oxbridge schools had become more meritocratic in the 20th century, but the earlier era had actually produced finer intellectual leading lights.  Whether or not we buy his declension narrative, his other observation is an interesting one:  In the less meritocratic era there were both finer intellects but also more dull-minded party boys of the elite classes.  I've made a similar point before about the effects of competition in simultaneously weeding out most of the dull-minded but also keeping people from showing their true distinction.  De Tocqueville has also offered similar observations; leisure matters for intellectual accomplishment.

That said, Snow does not uncritically embrace the cultivation of excellence; he fully spells out the dangers of educational inequality.  He cites the warnings of a state school official in a low-income area of England, and says that:
...there is no chance of human harmony in England until we pay whatever price we must (not only in money) to avoid the rancour of the educationally neglected.
It would be a mistake to read this solely as a call for access and credentials; below I will quote verbatim some of the fiery things that Snow had to say about excesses of egalitarianism.  But certainly we cannot afford to let an entire class feel neglected.  Indeed, I believe that America's white working class knows on some level that America's educational elites do not truly consider them to be diverse, no matter how poor they might be, and that this bears some connection to the recent election result.  Also, while conferring credentials is not the same as spreading knowledge, ignorance is dangerous; consider the words of The Ghost of Christmas Present:
This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.
Even more sobering, Snow (rightly!) admires the achievements of the Soviets in cultivating pockets of intellectual excellence.  One needn't be an apologist for Communism to appreciate Russian contributions to mathematics, theoretical physics, and other fields in the 20th century.  However, any advocate for excellence over access should pause and contemplate what it means that one of the most miserable totalitarian states in history chose to develop excellence over equality, and had the means to do it better than the West.

Regardless of where you come down on those issues, Snow is unsparing in identifying the dangers of egalitarianism in education:
Education cannot become an elaborate masquerade to disguise the fact that some are more gifted than others.  Social justice is not comfortably reconciled to intellectual excellence; as a harsh possibility, it may not be reconcilable at all.  Certainly the extreme of egalitarianism isn't.
I don't care what we call such places [for the very brightest to develop their full potential], nor where we put them.  But, unless we have them, we shall already, within a generation, have made ourselves more stupid than we need to be.
Social justice is a great value, and we shall be judged by how much of it we can achieve.  But we shall also be judged by what we add to the world's mental life: and that depends on what opportunities we can make for our gifted.
Personally, I would take at least as much care of them as we take of potential athletes.
Surely all academics can agree on the last point!

More great quotes:
You can abolish an elite only by not educating at all.
But for all our purposes, human and social as well as narrowly academic, we need a sprinkling of good intelligence to remind us what rigour is.  It would be very easy to become flabby.  Perhaps especially easy in the flux and confusion of the next ten or twenty years.

There are two other great observations in this essay.  First, Snow noted that university students in all subjects were (in the English system, which is more elitist than the American one) coming to college with improved median skills in math, which would equip them to grapple with the computers and statistics that would be integral to social decisions in the coming decades.  While one could debate the extent to which the educated layman's mathematical knowledge is either useful or adequate for grappling with those matters, his foresight concerning both statistics and information technology was interesting.  There's virtually no matter of human administration today that people don't seek to reduce (not always rightly) to a "data-driven" one.

Finally, Snow identifies a more interesting distinction between the Two Cultures than he had in previous writings:  Scientific culture is cumulative, while the arts and humanities are innovative.  A scientist needn't read much of the original literature from an earlier era to understand a subject; those parts that have survived into current literature will suffice in many ways.  There are, of course, insights to be gained from old literature, but in terms of mastering enough knowledge to work on the subject and contribute, the original literature is at the very least an inefficient path to productivity.

In the arts and humanities, on the other hand, the primary sources are the essence of the subject.  You cannot learn about the Trojan War without reading the Iliad.  Yes, you could read modern archaeological investigations to learn what is currently known about the possibility of an actual war in an actual city called Troy in the approximate time and place where Homer set it, but if you want to learn about the (real or imaginary) war that has captivated the imaginations of countless generations you must read the original.  Likewise, you could learn something about Romeo and Juliet from West Side Story, just as you could learn something about Pyramis and Thisbe from Romeo and Juliet, but in each case you get only an imperfect shadow; there is no substitute for the primary source if you want to learn the story.  Stories may carry influence, but each story is a work in its own right, and what is lost in a subsequent work is not objectively an improvement but simply a case of subjective decisions on what to carry and what to omit.

The cumulative nature of science, the fact that what we carry forward has (hopefully) passed the test of time, is part of its strength.  But if the cumulative development of science is a testament to one aspect of human ingenuity, surely the endless emergence of new artistic and literary works is in its own way a testament to the endless bounty of the human mind.  I am unconvinced that the two cultures need each other for their own advancement (too often that point is made as a form of mushy ecumenicalism) but I am fully convinced that the human mind needs both in order to realize its full potential.

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