My next reading project will be The Two Cultures by C. P. Snow. It's a famous critique of the humanities/science divide. I've heard it referenced many times but never actually read it. It's often noted ruefully by scientists that you can be considered truly sophisticated. Chad Orzel has often noted this. In certain circles, people would look at you funny if you confessed to being unable to grasp history or literature or fine arts, but they would chuckle appreciatively if you said that you never got math or science. Snow apparently had a lot to say about this.
Of course, one theme of this blog has been the increasing emphasis (in many but certainly not all) elite circles on STEM over other subjects. At first glance it might seem like disinterest in science is becoming less socially acceptable, and science is no longer a second-class subject in the eyes of "sophisticated" types. Certainly administrators and politicians are pouring money into STEM. However, much of this emphasis on STEM is happening in the context of democratizing STEM, of bringing egalitarian impulses to bear on a specialized, technical, difficult subject. Nobody said that the democratized STEM graduates will be admitted to the fancy cocktail parties. I don't get to go to many of those myself, but my limited observation of that world suggests that classical music is still more popular than planetarium shows. Democratizing STEM is how we will fill technician jobs with the more worthy among the masses, and elevate a precious few to elite research positions, so that the elite world can be legitimized by its ostensible openness. That doesn't mean the opera will be replaced by public lectures on science by Neal de Grasse Tyson. Science popularizers will be invited to go to receptions and schmooze the donors in private banquet halls with violin music after their lecture to the public; the public science lecture will NOT be the treat for the donors.
So, in a strange way, although this is allegedly the moment of STEM's ascendancy, I think that democratizing it will ironically reinforce its tradesman-like status, not elevate it. I will be curious to read Snow and see what he has to say about it.
Monday, November 28, 2016
Sort of related to They're Not Dumb, They're Different, in which outsiders critiqued physical science instruction and what they found off-putting, I occasionally have people come up to me and tell me that they might have majored in physics if only physics professors had [FILL IN THE BLANK]. But I don't think I've ever seen a physicist come up to someone in another field and say "You know, I would have majored in your subject, but..." I think they do this because STEM is on a pedestal and physics places itself on a pedestal among STEM disciplines. It would almost certainly be considered rude if we went up to people in other fields and did the same.