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May 3rd, 2003

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01:42 pm - The two cultures (2)
The point I was leading up to in the last post was that one of the contributors says:

"CP Snow was concerned, as I recall (it's been a long time since I read his book) that we were graduating students who knew *either* Shakespeare's plays, *or* the Second Law of Thermodynamics--and that these were two entirely separate groups of people with little or no overlap.

"But, today, we've solved that problem. A high proportion of today's graduates know *neither* Shakespeare's plays *nor* the Second Law of Thermodynamics. What they do know is some postmodernist metatheory which convinces them that they have no need to learn anything substantive--either in the sciences or in the humanities."

The interesting thing about this is that Snow's thesis is blatantly wrong, let alone the modern commentator's. And my assertion in the previous sentence is testable too (yay! science points!)

Test it yourself. Do you know anyone (children and people who for some reason haven't received much education excepting) who can't provide each of these two questions with a pretty fair answer:

'What is entropy?'

'Who said "To Be or Not To Be" and what was he on about?'

I picked these two to match CP Snow's claim, but you can substitute your own questions. Another good one for humanities graduates would be 'what do the letters in the equation "E=MC squared" stand for?'; and for scientists 'What is Dante's Inferno?'. Remember I'm only asking for fair-to-middling answers.

I don't mean that this proves humanities graduates are expert scientists, or that science graduates are all super-sensitive poets. But it does show that human beings are a lot bigger than the categories that other people want to slot them into. We aren't 'two entirely opposed groups of people with no overlap', and we can talk to each other with a modicum of mutual respect.

I agree that post-modernism is rubbish though.

(3 comments | Leave a comment)


Date:May 8th, 2003 02:13 am (UTC)

From Pligget

There's a definite insecurity component - like anything else with tribal overtones. People who consider themselves members of a particular camp - science or humanities, christian or muslim, tory or socialist, Man Utd or Arsenal - believe that their side is the guardian of the truth. This relieves them of the insecurity of questioning their assumptions.
To an extent, your question about entropy and TBONTB makes a valid point about the universality of some concepts, but it doesn't really solve the problem of snobbery. Even though both sides would make perfectly adequate stabs at an answer, certain (insecure) Shakespearean scholars would scoff at the boffin's simplistic interpretation of Hamlet's soliloquy, just as some (insecure) physicists would tut-tut at the artist's anecdotal treatment of the laws of thermodynamics.
The way I look at it, it should be the responsibility of both tribes to make their stuff understandable to the other tribe. In other words if someone doesn't understand something in depth, it's not their own fault - it's the fault of the person failing to communicate it to them.
If this approach were adopted, there would be constant pressure bringing the opposing camps together until we were (bursts into song) "all in one big melting pot..."
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Date:May 8th, 2003 06:30 am (UTC)

Re: From Pligget

>> if someone doesn't understand something in depth, it's not their own fault - it's the fault of the person failing to communicate it to them.<<

I really agree with that, as an educator and as a writer.

Date:May 13th, 2003 08:22 am (UTC)

Oh dear....

Oh dear, I'm going to have to disagree here. Twice.

My experience is much closer to that of the modern commentator (and this is not just me trying to be superior - I'd be borderline pass at best on 3 of your 4 questions).

More importantly, I disagree that a failure to understand something is necessarily the fault of the person explaining it. Surely there are lots of things (most things actually, I think) which are genuinely hard to understand ? Sharing understanding requires lots of effort by both parties, and even then there's no guarantee of success: the explainer may not be good enough at explaining, sure, but maybe the explainee is too stupid to understand, or didn't try hard enough, or whatever.

OK, I might as well stick my neck out even further. I think the view that a lack of understanding is always the fault of the explainer is symptomatic of the modern (and, I think, bad) approach of treating education solely as a consumer activity: pay your fees, turn up to the lectures, and you'll come out the other end an expert in whatever it is. It's all part of the "you can be whatever you want to be" lie.

Whoops, went over the top a bit there. Still, I'm sure you can pick out the argument from the ranting - if not then sorry - my fault.... :-)


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