C.P. Snow's 'two cultures' now

"The two cultures" have no less need for getting together in the world's behalf than they did when C.P. Snow imprinted this phrase on the language two decades ago. It was in a celebrated lecture, "The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution" that Snow -- later to become Baron Snow of Leicester -- attacked the division between natural science and the humanities. Science was in the vanguard of progress, providing hope for meeting such problems as the plight of the developing countries, which Snow was so early to recognize. The literary culture of the humanities, whose exponents were so often ignorant of elementary scientific principles, was a backward-looking drag on the march toward the future.

For all the arguments and some telling rejoinders made to Snow at the time, he was on to something. His passing this week has brought tributes and recollections that suggest just how extraordinarily placed he was to get the "two cultures" debate going. As a novelist, he was part of the literary culture. As a physicist and official in the government and industry, he was part of the scientific culture and the public arena where he felt if could have such profound effect.

At the moment, indeed, science and technology seem to be in the saddle if not exactly riding mankind. The teacher of English who becomes a computer programmer is a sign of the times.

But the sciences have reigned academically before, as when the United States woke up to the need for better science instruction in the schools after the Soviet Union launched its sputnik. And there have been countercycles or at least counterripples, with educators and members of the public calling for restoration of humane values; tracing the Vietnam conflict in part to an ignorance of history ; seeing that the great legacy of Western art and thought is, no less than the sea or the land, a "common heritage of mankind" to be preserved and shared; and increasingly recognizing that there is a legacy of Eastern art and thought, too, that should be part of everyone's intellectual storehouse.

There could well be a future, when automation's long promised reduction in working time becomes widespread, in which more and more people will be able and eager to bring a new renaissance for humane learning and for the people trained in it.

Yet the definition of this learning will have to expand to include more of the scientific and technical understanding, if not laboratory data, that is needed to grasp and appreciate what is happening on our planet and beyond -- and to join the necessary public participation in decisionmaking on such emerging issues as genetic engineering and "appropriate" energy and technology.

Universities are refashioning curriculums with such needs in mind. There have been notable programs bringing together the arts and technology, the sciences and religion.

The meetings of minds, the handclasps of specialists must continue. The two cultures, which in antiquity were as one, can be companions in tomorrow's world.

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