Tear Down That Wall! B.C.P. Snow 60 Years On

In a previous blog post (The Red Brick Rubric), I described the role of the industrial revolution in increasing the number and breadth of universities in England; bringing higher education to the masses. Aside from the steadfast conservatives at Oxbridge, this was widely seen as an inclusive, progressive step in the evolution of higher education. However, as Baron Charles Percy Snow so masterly conveyed in his seminal 1959 lecture “The Two Cultures”, the industrial revolution was also chiefly responsible for one of the biggest splits to ever befall academia.

The disconnect between scientists and literary academics is well known, however its origins less so. Indeed, there is a tendency to assume that such a split has always existed in the collegiate world. Not so. In classical Greece, during the Renaissance, or any period before circa 1800 in fact, mixing between science and the arts was commonplace; polymaths abounded. Not until the 19th century did the two cultures begin to drift apart. Scientists were the only intellectuals that embraced the industrial revolution. All other academic fields either failed to understand, or never attempted to understand this phenomenon. This fact is remarkable enough, that the majority of intellectuals failed to notice the biggest upheaval in society since the emergence of agriculture!  Alternatively, they did notice, but simply didn’t like what they saw.

How then, can we bridge these gaps? I fear we have a lot of catching up to do, especially given our current position. We are in the midst of another technological revolution. In time, our current revolution will produce its own divisions if we are not careful. Indeed the tell-tale signs are already beginning to show if we look at the adoption of data-management software across the disciplines. We do not want to repeat history trying to make amends for history.  Academia is more than the sum of its parts; if we are not working as one cohesive unit, we are all doing a disservice to the stated goals of higher education.

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