On Campus
May 12, 2009, 08:52AM

Bridging the Gap

It's been fifty years since C.P. Snow's influential talk "The Two Cultures."

Promoters of the humanities argue that a “learning for its own sake” liberal arts university provides its students with critical thinking skills that are widely applicable, regardless of their later career choice. But if this is true, why don’t I trust a random sociology major to provide me an accurate balance sheet model? Conversely, would I rely on a chemical engineering graduate to give me a one-sentence description of “deconstructionism”?

While administrators and legislators have been promoting more professionalization in college education, the exact opposite should be happening: we should argue for an authentic liberal arts education that encompasses the tradition humanities core curriculum with a broad and basic scientific background along the lines of MIT’s General Institute Requirements.

Such a graduate would be equipped to handle any task that the modern world demands, whether it’s to write a report for a policymaker or to hunker down behind a microscope, because he or she would draw on the best of both traditions while avoiding their weaknesses.

When the problems we’re confronted with require technical solutions to social problems — healthcare, the economy, energy, the environment — we do little right in reproducing the past’s myopia through a balkanized education system. Interdisciplinary programs are poor substitutes by providing too little of all. Higher education should be laying a much firmer foundation of the breadth of human knowledge — the original intent of the classic university — in both science and the humanities.

The humanities guide our values, but we need science to understand the world and what remains possible. Technology gives us tools for solving problems, but we need the humanities to understand which ones we want and how to apply them. Those that bridge the two cultures and understand the interaction at the link will be best able to tackle tomorrow’s difficulties and lead us through the next century.

There are still unanswered questions though. How do we fit our technical solutions into the other cultures of the world? Will we be able to guide tomorrow’s advances into an agreement with our values and vice versa?

Most importantly: how do we continue to bridge the gap between the humanities and science so they not only start speaking to each other, but also inform and advance the other?


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