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 REFRACTIONS

BY HENRY PETROSKI

POLARIZING CULTURES

A 1959 warning about the arts-science divide deserves a new look.


HENRY PETROSKI - C.P. Snow Predicted China Would Prosper Through Engineering. This year marks the 50th anniversary of C. P. Snow’s famous lecture on “the two cultures.” Delivered at the University of Cambridge in 1959, the Rede Lecture introduced the concept of distinct intellectual cultures and set off a heated and sometimes vitriolic debate over the relative importance of the sciences and the humanities and their contributions to civilization.

Snow, who was trained as a physicist and worked with scientists and engineers during World War II, was also an accomplished novelist. His first-hand experience in both camps gave him special access to the very different and typically separate academic and social circles in which scientists and literary intellectuals traveled. He thus had a unique perspective on their interests and behavior.

It was Snow’s claim that, as a rule, members of these disparate cultures did not know the first thing about the other’s fundamental contributions to intellectual life, and that they therefore could not communicate meaningfully with each other. This was an especially unfortunate situation, in Snow’s opinion, at a time when the best minds of the developed world should have been working together to ameliorate problems facing developing nations.

In a famous passage, Snow accused the literati of being ignorant of the meaning and implications of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which he considered to be as essential a part of an educated person’s vocabulary as the plays of Shakespeare. Likewise, Snow maintained, the typical scientist was unappreciative of the great works of literature, considering books to be valuable only if they had direct relevance to a research project.

According to Snow, literary intellectuals, personified by those in the humanities, had virtually no appreciation of the importance of the Industrial Revolution and its great potential for bettering the conditions of people around the world. Snow’s categorization of engineers is somewhat ambiguous; but understandably, he grouped them with the scientists, feeling that engineering problems could be as “intellectually exacting” as pure scientific ones.

The publication of Snow’s lecture touched off a debate that epitomized the gulf between the sciences and the humanities. At many institutions, there were already physical barriers to interaction between the cultures, often in the form of a busy thoroughfare separating science and engineering from the rest of the campus, if not an entirely separate campus.

When they did meet during the turbulent ’60s and ’70s, established adherents of the separate cultures often talked past each other on matters of politics, war, and style.

But the culture wars became a thing of the past to newer generations of academics who had marched together in protest. When in the mid-1980s I mentioned Snow’s “two cultures” lecture in an essay on technology being the new liberal arts, I received a request from a young assistant professor for a reference to it. Snow’s lecture had become obscure and nearly forgotten, and little has been made of its 50th anniversary.

Among the things that caught my eye on a recent re-reading was Snow’s remark about engineering education having been held in lower esteem in developed than in undeveloped nations. He noted 50 years ago how countries like China recognized the importance of the Industrial Revolution and how it would be engineers who would bring the fruits of its technology, and thereby a better quality of life, to Chinese citizens. Snow also noted that the study of engineering was not only encouraged but also respected in developing countries.

C. P. Snow’s prediction of the industrialization of China has, of course, come to pass with a vengeance. He may be a voice from the past, but his reflections on technology and culture merit our reconsideration today.

Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. His forthcoming book deals with the two cultures of science and engineering.

 

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