Thoughts on well-being, sustainability and those things that constitute a good life beyond consumption.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Let’s Bridge the Two Cultures

Following a recent campus email sharing a blog post by Jack Miles entitled Why Are We Losing in the Middle East? Too Much STEM, Not Enough Humanities,[1] there were two semi-defensive email responses, but no genuine debate or face-to-face conversation.  The author of the opinion piece, speaking about America's response to Islamist terrorism since 9/11, noted that
American leaders might have avoided a series of horrific mistakes if they had relied a bit more on the humanities and a bit less on the STEM.
I must admit that this post offended me.  But mostly, I was disappointed that there wasn’t time for dialog.

I have sensed a growing tension between the humanities and the sciences on campus for some time.  I suspect that this is due, at least in part, to all the attention and money directed at the sciences (renovations to Collier Hall of Science, the new Health Science programs, the launch of planning for a new Health Science academic building, perceived inequities in the SOAR* endowment distribution of research support, etc.).  Couple this with Congressional attacks on funding for the Arts and the dropping of these disciplines in K-12 public schools, I can understand the growing sense of frustration.  It is part of the reason that we are having the CAT-LinC* workshop entitled Reshaping the LinC Curriculum-Revitalizing the Liberal Arts; one of the discussion questions in the workshop announcement makes this clear:
How might the current LinC curriculum help to alleviate concerns regarding the current push to add profession-oriented programs to our curriculum?  If the current LinC curriculum cannot achieve this goal, how might that curriculum need to be re-shaped to alleviate those concerns? 
Implicit in this question (to me, at least) is a concern that profession-oriented programs cannot embody a liberal education.  Furthermore, since most of these new academic programs have direct ties to the natural and physical sciences, it seems that some on campus view the liberal arts as separate from the sciences, rather than the liberal arts being inclusive of them, as was the case historically for the Artes Liberales.

Personally, I like the definition of a liberal education in the 21st century provided by the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U)
Liberal Education: An approach to college learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. This approach emphasizes broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g., science, culture, and society) as well as in-depth achievement in a specific field of interest. It helps students develop a sense of social responsibility; strong intellectual and practical skills that span all major fields of study, such as communication, analytical, and problem-solving skills; and the demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.[2]
Note the inclusion of science and an expectation that the broad knowledge and skills gained during a student’s education actually get applied.  The essential learning outcomes of AAC&U’s Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) project includes “Knowledge of Human Cultures and the Physical and Natural World through [the] study in the sciences and mathematics, social sciences, humanities, histories, languages, and the arts.”[3]  In other words, it isn’t liberal arts and the sciences, but rather a true integration that characterizes liberal education today.

A few years ago, Joyce Hinnefeld (a colleague from the English Department) and I proposed and organized the first Arts and Lectures series on the Intersections between Art, Science, and Nature for which we brought in speakers whose work exemplified the bridging of disciplines.  We concluded another such successful series this year.  Along the way, I have been exploring such bridges in my own teaching and scholarship and have found that historically, there were many connections between the arts and sciences, especially in the “fields” of natural history and medicine.  But over time, the collaborations faded and once symbiotic disciplines have, for the most part, gone their separate ways. 

The Romantic period of the first half of the 19th century has been characterized as an intellectual movement that integrated the arts and humanities and that was heavily influenced by science and nature.  The period also coincided with the Industrial Revolution, and thus, this has been described as an era of discovery of both the beauty and the terror of science.  Mary Shelley wrote of her concerns of human manipulation of nature in Frankenstein (1818).  In his 1829 Sonnet - To Science, Edgar Allen Poe says that science is the enemy of the poet because it takes away the mysteries of the world. He was concerned about the influx of modern science and social science of the times and how it potentially undermined spiritual beliefs.  The world had entered a period where science was no longer simply trying to understand and describe nature, but was now aiming to improve upon it.  And with 21st century technological advances in genetic engineering, biomedicine, and even conservation (for instance, the new efforts in de-extinction and re-wilding), the attempts to improve upon nature continue.

Towards the late 1800’s and through the turn of the century, scientists were discovering things at a record pace, unraveling nature’s secrets at the both the scale of the atom and the universe.  As they solved these mysteries, some of the world’ most prominent of scientists of all time remained ever cognizant of the beauty of what they were studying.  Albert Einstein once said
The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.  It is the source of all true art and science. 
Another nuclear physicist, Marie Curie, noted that
“I am among those who think that science has great beauty. A scientist in his laboratory is not only a technician: he is also a child placed before natural phenomena which impress him like a fairy tale.
Perhaps ironically, both of these individuals were uncovering the fundamental mysteries of atoms and energy that would be used to create the most destructive weapon of mass destruction that has ever been used by humans.  But it was also scientists like Linus Pauling (a Nobel Laureate winner of both the Chemistry and Peace prizes) who in 1958, presented to the United Nations a petition signed by 9,235 scientists from around the world protesting further nuclear testing and published the book entitled No More War!  And today, the American Association for the Advancement of Science has a major initiative and journal on Science Diplomacy aimed at building bridges for peace.[4]

There have been several points in history where scientists have realized the social and ethical implications of their research, and consequently brought their concerns to the attention of the public as well as worked to establish ethical boundaries for the applications of the new knowledge.  The Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA in 1975 is an important example.  Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, heralded as a great literary piece, was also a critical social commentary and strong warning about the use of synthetic pesticides (a product of science during World War II).  Not surprisingly, some in the scientific community did not welcome the book’s publication, but it led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and some of the first pieces of environmental legislation.  The former director of the NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies and a renown climate scientist on the faculty of Columbia University, James Hansen, has become a leading climate change activist and authored a book entitled Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity.  There are many more examples.

Yet the fears expressed by Shelley and Poe around two centuries ago have magnified with each technological advance.  In 1959, Charles Percy Snow (or CP Snow) – a scientist and author -- delivered a lecture in the UK Senate House entitled The Two Cultures and subsequently published a book elaborating on his ideas entitled The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution.  The thesis of both was that “the intellectual life of the whole of western society” was split into two cultures – namely the sciences and the humanities – and that this division was a major hindrance to solving the world’s problems. In 2008, The Times Literary Supplement included the book in its list of the 100 books that most influenced Western public discourse since the Second World War.  One particular excerpt, despite being written about 56 years ago, seems so relevant to the discussions and divisiveness on campus now:
The separation between the two cultures has been getting deeper under our eyes; there is now precious little communication between them, little but different kinds of incomprehension and dislike. 
Neither culture knows the virtues of the other; often it seems they deliberately do not want to know. The resentment, which the traditional culture feels for the scientific, is shaded with fear; from the other side, the resentment is not shaded so much as brimming with irritation.
Stefan Collini writing in The Guardian in August in 2013[5] observed that
Snow had presented the contrast between the scientific and literary cultures as being in part about different responses to the industrial and technological revolutions.
This contrast was also described by Peter Dizikes writing in the New York Times in 2009[6] on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Snow’s lecture:
Scientists, he asserts, have “the future in their bones,” while “the traditional culture responds by wishing the future did not exist.”
I hear this idea reflected often: scientists have a tendency to think that science and technology can fix all of the world’s problems.  In contrast, many in the humanities believe that technology has caused many of those problems.

In one additional 2009 essay written by Lawrence Krauss,[7] it was noted that
Snow argued that practitioners in both areas [the humanities or "cultures" and the sciences] should build bridges, to further the progress of human knowledge and to benefit society.
Krauss goes on to say that Snow did not rail against religion, or any of the humanities, but rather against ignorance.
Until we are willing to accept the world the way it is, without miracles that all empirical evidence argues against, without myths that distort our comprehension of nature, we are unlikely to bridge the divide between science and culture and, more important, we are unlikely to be fully ready to address the urgent technical challenges facing humanity.
Reading the reflections of others about C.P. Snow and the “two cultures” has only strengthened my belief that we need to find ways to reconnect these disciplines, to find ways to cross the vocabulary differences and ideological divides, to have dialog in order to better understand each other and address the critical issues of our time.  The STEM disciplines are integral to a liberal education and facets of the humanities must be woven into how we teach in STEM disciplines. Given the role that science and technology must play in addressing the global challenges of the 21st century (climate change, food and water security, emerging diseases, and biosecurity are just a few examples) and the growing public distrust or denial of science (think climate change, GMOs, and vaccines), it is critically important for all students to be cognizant of the role that they may play – individually and collectively – in these future debates and solutions.  How do we get students to not only think across disciplinary boundaries, but to also gain experience in debating and developing policy, translating technical information to policymakers and the public, and to think about science, not just as something hard or scary, but perhaps as a means of diplomacy?  And how do ensure that future scientists continue to be aware of the moral and societal implications of their discoveries?  These are the curricular discussions about liberal education at Moravian College that I think we should be having.[8]

I leave you with two other random thoughts on why we need to once again integrate the disciplines in a liberal education:

In a study published last year from Michigan State University, researchers found a positive link between childhood participation in arts – especially music – to patents generated and businesses launched as adults. They studied a group of college graduates who majored in science, technology, engineering or mathematics – theSTEM disciplines – and found that exposure to the arts as children increased the chances of ownership of patents or new businesses by over eight times compared to the general public. Furthermore, in their surveys, “80% of STEM professionals report that arts and crafts deliver skills necessary for innovative work in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.”
“Science needs the intuition and metaphorical power of the arts, and the arts need the fresh blood of science.”
  Edward O. Wilson
from Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge [1999]
What science-bashers fail to appreciate is that scientists, in their unflagging attraction to the unknown, love what they don't know. It guides and motivates their work; it keeps them up late at night; and it makes that work poetic.
—  Alison Hawthorne Deming  Writing the Sacred into the Real
In much of the poet Alison Hawthorne Deming’s work, she argues that the farther we remove ourselves from wild settings, the farther we are removed from our spiritual center. She believes the arts allow us to fall again “into harmony with place and each other.” We live in a world that is out of balance (environmentally, and socio-economically).  Artists sense this emotionally.  Scientists know this through data, but need to find ways to express this that doesn’t turn the public off through fear or distrust.  Working together, humanists and scientists can find those words and the rebalancing that we need in our personal and collective lives.

*SOAR = Student Opportunities for Academic Research (an endowment for undergraduate research)
CAT = Center for the Advancement of Teaching
LinC = Learning in Common, the general education program at Moravian College

[4] See; accessed May 15, 2015.
[5] Collini, S.,  “Leavis v Snow: the two-cultures bust-up 50 years on”, The Guardian (8/16/13); available at;; accessed May 15, 2015.
[6] Dizikes, P. Our Two Cultures, The New York Times (3/19/09); available at; accessed May 15, 2015.
[7] Krauss, L.M. “An Update on C. P. Snow's ‘Two Cultures’ " Scientific American (8/17/09); available at; accessed on May 15, 2015.
[8] I have written on these ideas before in a 2004 blog post ( and excerpt of which was published by AAC&U in their magazine Liberal Education:
[9]Michigan State University ArtSmarts Among Innovatorsin Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) March, 2001; available at; accessed on May 15, 2015.


  1. Thank you Diane! This is thoroughly certainly widened my own understanding of the science/arts-culture rift, which, as you argue and present very well, is something of a false rift in need of bridging. I also appreciate your quoting Alison D. in this context. I do find it a bit curious however, concerning the quote by L. Krauss on C. P. Snow regarding ignorance. Krauss argues for bridging science/humanities and yet fails, in my view, although I'm only going by the quote, to recognize his own intransigence. To "accept the world as it (empirically) is" without the "distortions" of myth and religion is to reduce it. I'm hardly arguing for ignorance here, but religion/myth/faith properly understood, has given us the freedom to imagine beyond boundaries (as your Einstein quote I think supports), and in this sense supports science. I may not argue for the miraculous but I do argue for mystery, and yet when I consider the overwhelming odds, the mystery of this creation, and of any of us being here, miraculous seems a useful word. We are all, after all, ungrounded, suspended with no access to a first premise. Both disciplines are human enterprises that depend upon human interpretation. To begin bridging this gap between them will require a degree of humility on both sides.

    1. Stephen,
      Thank you for reading and for both this wonderful addition to the discourse (more than occurred on campus) and contributing to my better understanding this divide. While C.P. Snow called for bridging the cultures, he, like Krauss made some strong statements that only serve to widen the divide because they come across as arrogant and demeaning.

      In reading your thoughts, I realize now that the Krauss quote is not a good one to include in this piece. I am in constant awe of the intricate mysteries and beauties of life and the universe - from the molecular level to the whole of an organism, ecosystem, or beyond. I often think about the miraculous nature of how everything comes together to work so wonderfully and precisely.

      Your comment about having the freedom to imagine beyond boundaries is something I need to think about much more deeply. And yes, humility is a rare trait amongst many scientists.