Writing Sample | First Impression- “The Two Cultures”

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I was introduced to “The Two Cultures” in the first hour of my scicomm MSc, in a lecture on the history of scicomm. “The Two Cultures” was placed proudly on the timeline, alongside documents which were fundamental to the field, so I wanted to study it for myself.

Originally “The Two Cultures” was a lecture, spoken by scientist-turned-fiction-author C. P. Snow in 1959. Snow’s titular cultures were “people of the humanities and literature” and “people of the sciences”. In his lecture, Snow sketched out divisions between these cultures using anecdotes from his experiences as a novelist among scientists and a scientist among literary intellectuals. He blamed this divide on Britain’s education system; to him, the system forced people to specialise too early and prioritised humanities at the expense of science and engineering.

The idea that people specialise in either sciences or humanities is now commonplace, while mass media often places sciences and humanities in separate, unintelligible bubbles. Similar arguments had been made publicly in Snow’s lifetime. But Snow’s name and terms have been firmly stuck to the concept, because of how intensely he made his points. Snow didn’t just say that two cultures existed, he blamed most of the world’s unsolved problems on their existence.

The beginning of “The Two Cultures”, however, is much more specific. Snow’s critics argue that the Two Cultures are restricted to “the 1940’s British upper-class who studied humanities at elite universities and took up political or creative careers” and “the 1940’s British middle-class who became professional scientists”, and are no longer applicable. To critics Snow’s view merely reflects his own life and the tensions between his class, his work in science, and his work in literature.

Initially, I felt the same way. The closest comparison I could make was Freud’s concept of the Oedipus complex. Through a complicated set of early life circumstances, young Freud was attracted to his mother. In analysing this, he extrapolated his personal experience into a universal experience, and developed the opinion that the Oedipus complex was a necessary ingredient of childhood development. Now that idea is part of common knowledge, freely referenced within media.

After reading The Two Cultures for myself, and reading other digests of it, I could see parallels between the two phenomena. I wondered how much of Snow’s lecture was him extrapolating from his personal circumstances, class, and feelings about the world he lived in, then projecting them on to  the world as a universal experience.

However, other reviewers have argued that Snow used the Two Cultures idea to ask a much deeper question about the future of Britain post-WWII. They argued that Snow was really asking whether the scientific education which was fundamental to parts of the war would be built upon for peace, or whether it would be buried in a return to the past. Seen through that wider lens, the Two Cultures still makes important points: its warning about burying science seems prescient today.

Initially, I intended to review the lecture. However, I couldn’t fairly do so, as my responses and judgements have been inextricably influenced by when I read it. This is because many of Snow’s predictions now seem comically naïve, when first seen in 2018. Discussing the disparity between the global rich and global poor, Snow states:

“This disparity between the rich and the poor has been noticed …. because they have noticed it, it won’t last for long. Whatever else in the world we know survives to the year 2000, that won’t. Once the trick of getting rich is known, as it now is, the world can’t survive half rich and half poor. It’s just not on.”

Snow isn’t being illogical by believing that we can reduce the global disparity. But rather than shrinking, this disparity has increased, and the world seems to be pulling further and further away from the collectively-focused conscience that Snow’s solutions require. Similarly, Snow’s main solution to the issue of improving British education was to join forces with educational generalists the USA, and educational specialists the USSR. However, I read this just as the depth of Russian interference with the 2016 election was announced; this jarring context made Snow’s arguments seem nonsensical.

Personally, I found Snow’s solutions interesting, because I usually share his support for collectivism. Generally, I believe that multiple countries joining forces and working together could solve many social problems. At the same time I know these solutions are currently untenable, given how xenophobic many western countries now seem. (Again, see Brexit).

If I could have time-travelled and read this book as an adult before the year 2000, I would have supported Snow’s arguments and optimism more strongly. Just reading it before 2016 would have changed my response. But right now, reading The Two Cultures seems like looking in to an alternate universe.