The “Two Cultures” Today
Constellations Issue 2
I was a student at a time when the Faculty of Arts did not differentiate between humanities and social sciences and was, for a while, somewhat ambivalent about where I really belonged. I had begun with a love for all things literary and then did my higher degrees in history. But I never lost my interest in politics, economics and human geography and continued to read books about those subjects. But my education was weak in the mathematical and physical sciences and I have long regretted that neglect.
Soon after I began to teach history at the University of Malaya, at the time when it was still in Singapore, I read the essay by C. P. Snow entitled “The Two Cultures”. It was a very strong attack on British university education that emphasised, according to Snow, the humanities at the expense of the physical sciences. Snow was a fine scientist who wrote best-selling novels as well as books about literature. He claimed that the snobbery about the superior classical education at Oxford and Cambridge universities had handicapped the work of the best British graduates and harmed the country’s progress. He thought the Soviets and the Americans did better because they gave equal weight to the physical sciences.
The reaction that followed his essay led to greater support for science and engineering education, and the corrections that were made over the next five decades led to the opposite imbalance. For some time now, anything to do with science tends to be highly regarded and humanities education is sometimes treated as unaffordable luxury. What is striking today is that more people are aware that a further correction is due. The pendulum is swinging back because more societies now realise that their people have lost some of their humanity. Thus the example of an engineering-centred NTU giving new life to a wide range of subjects related to the humanities deserves admiration.
This time, it is the scientists who discerned the lack of a humanities background in their education and have asked to develop a better balance in their basic knowledge and training. Their concern is justified by the realisation that the gulf between the two cultures has diminished us all as caring human beings, whether in our relations with nature or with other humans of a different religion, gender, class, or skin colour. After a century of the most rapid progress that humans have ever known, there are now large areas of destruction and deprivation that remain almost unstoppable. Is this, at least in part, because the humanists have been forced to surrender their sensitivities to allow tunnel-minded scientists to have their ways unchecked?
The evocative images that now expose those global ravages may be good news to us in the humanities but that would be meaningless if we are merely asked to reduce the damage that has been done. What is more important is that we understand how the humanities have stood at the core of our learning for most of recorded history. That was neither an accident nor was it evidence that mankind had been too conservative for too long and did not know any better.
We need to remind ourselves that the classical learning that produced the core values of the civilised world was rooted in the realms of philosophy, poetry, religious faith and a sense of history. It is remarkable that human beings in different corners of the globe had found similar paths to becoming civilised, and that most of them achieved what they did about the same time more than two thousand years ago. Whether through competition or cooperation, our ancestors enriched their lives by embracing comparable ideas of morality, inventiveness and beauty. Through faith and creative thinking — and reinforced by reflecting on past experience — they all advanced knowledge and refined their ways of thinking. We should never forget the high standards of relational behaviour they attained and how easy it could be, when these are forgotten, for people to return to barbarism.
Students and scholars in the humanities should proudly reflect on the deep historical origins of modern progress. Not all classical writings inspired change and we know that some of our ancestors were intolerant and stuck in the mud. But we must not forget that it was among the classical scholars that crucial questions were asked about the nature of the universe. It was the best of them who developed the mathematical skills to find the answers. That same heritage of enquiry had devised the logical and scientific methods that led to a wide range of revolutionary advances, including in the course of the 19th century the extension of scientific methods to the field of economics that led to rise of the social sciences.
In short, while we may agree with C. P. Snow that some classicists were too conservative and backward looking, it would be a mistake to think that the humanities could only be useful again because some scientists now believe they might need them to improve the quality of their products. What is increasingly clear is that the world cannot become a better place if it is left to those who are focused on technological progress alone. The diminution of human values impoverishes all of us. It is the responsibility of those educated in the humanities to reconnect with the most advanced scientists and to demonstrate how they can work together to make our lives more meaningful.
This article was first published in the print edition of Constellations issue 2.