Douthat on the Humanities and Small Liberal Arts Colleges…

Today’s Douthat Column in the NYT is excellent. My readers may know that I attended Amherst College (mentioned in the column) during the 1970’s and can attest to the popularity of the humanities there, at that time. He points out the statistics that show the trend towards the other of C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures. Indeed, when I was at Amherst, I very much wanted to major in political science. It was my parents who pushed me to major in chemistry.

But….it strikes me that Douthat, in despair at the moral crisis of the West, is really just urging us to return, metaphorically, to the modern version of monastery retreats, as the Irish monks did during the Dark Ages when they purportedly saved western cultural tradition.

I don’t think that this will do. Climate Change will not wait for a future Renaissance to arrive. Neither will the thousands of nuclear warheads that sit on alert. It is vital that science and engineering thrive for the future of the planet and the humanities.

Thinking about the Two Cultures

I’ve been thinking a lot about C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures lately. Snow, in his seminal mid-twentieth century lecture (followed by an article and two books) put forward the notion of a dialectic between the social sciences and the hard sciences. One of his most famous quotes concerns querying some literary friends about the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics in response to their complaints about the general ignorance of scientists about literature. The upshot is that they didn’t know about entropy or the 2nd Law.

Here at Krasnow, we have, only in recent years, become a true locus for advanced studies as we added, first a center for social complexity and second a department of computational social sciences to our existing center of mass in neuroscience (writ large). These days research at Krasnow spans Snow’s two cultures pretty effectively, but largely without the communications divide postulated in Two Cultures.

Why is this?

For one thing, I think it’s a result of an unspoken norm at Krasnow to strive mightily away from the technical jargon of one’s field. For another, it’s the result of another de facto agreement to actually communicate intellectually outside one’s comfort zone. Taken together, the result is what has been called a “third culture”. From my own perspective as Institute director, this third culture is one where intellectuals actively appreciate the connection between human creative and artistic expression and the neural activity of brains that produce those expressions. Hence high culture becomes an emergent of interacting human minds, rather than a no-go zone for those well-steeped in the hard disciplines. At the same time, intellectuals in the social sciences are willing to explore and leverage the tools of hard science (especially computation and complexity theory).

C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures–FT vs NPR

Somehow both the Financial Times and NPR’s Science Friday have both decided that it’s time to return to pondering C.P. Snow’s famous “Two Cultures” lecture in which he postulates a problematical divide between scientists and scholars in the humanities. Actually the occasion is the 50th anniversary of that seminal lecture. It’s never lost its relevance.