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 Edward Teller's Memoirs.

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Sunday, December 4, 2016

Two Cultures: Where's the other one, dude?

I finished reading C.P. Snow's Two Cultures essay of 1959.  It isn't quite what I was expecting.  I've always heard it described as a lament of the divide between the two sides of academia.  I was thus expecting some sort of essay along the lines of a defense of broad liberal arts education, and I was dreading the platitudes.  Instead, it seems to be more of a critique of the UK's historic emphasis on humanities over the sciences in their elite educational establishments, followed by a comparison of the ways in which the UK, US, and USSR educated people in the 1950's and a discussion of alleged needs for more scientists and engineers in the UK. He's not trying to integrate science and humanities so much as get STEM up on the pedestal.  He might insist that it's a call for equality, but there's precious little discussion of the UK's needs in any area outside STEM, or a comparison of how other countries educate people in subjects besides STEM. In many ways it could be read as an early "STEM crisis" narrative.  However, it's difficult for me to extract much from that for comparative purposes, because I'm mostly only familiar with American "STEM crisis" narratives, not the UK analogues, so I can't really say if this essay is sign of everything happening before and happening again, or a sign of genuine change.

Here are some interesting tidbits that I can take away from it:

First, Snow acknowledges that the Industrial Revolution happened in the UK despite the lack of a first-rate basic science establishment in the 18th century, and without much involvement from college grads.  This is an important thing, one under-appreciated by the STEM crisis hand-wringers.  I made this point before regarding Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon.  I wish he'd considered what this might mean for future economic development.  We academics over-estimate our own importance, and he went from academia to the Ministry of Labour and then a post as a civil service commissioner.

Second, the differences that Snow notes between the US, UK, and USSR systems, regarding their relative levels of specialization, seem to remain true today.  To this day, Russian scientific research institutes often have incredibly narrow names and mandates.  They don't produce mechanical engineers; they produce graduates in computational thermal systems analysis, and structural mechanics, and so forth.

Third, he traces the cultural differences between science and humanities to the fact that the humanities scholars study the human condition, which tends to inflict pessimism, while scientists believe that technical solutions to problems are possible.  On that point I agree with him completely.  I wish he'd said something interesting about how to educate people who integrate those mindsets on some interesting level, not just "OMG, I'm, like, so broad-minded!  Because I see multiple perspectives!"

Fourth, I give Snow credit for recognizing that the production of Einsteins is not the main task of a STEM education program.  He believes that the "alpha plus" types will do fine as long as they're put in some sort of half-decent academic environment.  It's hard to screw up with them.  It's also pretty hard to screw up the "alpha" types.  (He seems to have adopted the language of Huxley's Brave New World here.)  He recognizes that the hard part is training people in the third tier, some of whom will do technical work but many of whom will go on to do managerial or business ("human") work in the technical fields.  I give him credit for recognizing that that's more important than trying to ensure that a system maximizes the output of top talent.  With the top talent you mostly have to get out of the way, and it's only the dilettantes who worry about how The System is allegedly so unfair to would-be Einsteins.  He doesn't have much in the way of practical advice on how to do it, but he gets full points for at least recognizing it.

He has one spectacularly wrong prediction:  He predicted that since human ability is pretty much the same everywhere it's inevitable that the gap between the rich industrialized world and the rest of the world would evaporate by 2000.  While he was right on the even distribution of ability around the world, he under-estimated the systemic, cultural, and institutional factors that are needed to develop successful industrial sectors.  That said, he was at least right that the poor countries would start to compete with rich countries; by 2000 the off-shoring of factories was well underway, and this November we felt the effects of that in the US election.

So, in sum, Snow's "Two Cultures" lecture isn't what it is usually cited for being about, but it contains an interesting bunch of tidbits.  I purchased an edition with several more essays and lecture transcripts, so I'll have more to say about Snow in the coming week.

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