Civitas Institute for the Study of Civil Society

May 2009

Media information: immediate release


From Two Cultures to No Culture


The fiftieth anniversary of one of the most celebrated lectures of the twentieth century is being marked by Civitas with the publication of a collection of essays entitled From Two Cultures to No Culture.


On 7 May 1959 C.P. Snow delivered a lecture in Cambridge entitled 'The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution'. Snow warned of a gap that had opened up between scientists and the 'literary intellectuals' that made it almost impossible for the two groups to communicate. Snow complained that literary intellectuals were not only ignorant of science but contemptuous of it, as if scientific knowledge were unnecessary for a good education. Snow believed that improvements in the teaching of science were required in order to address the world's greatest problems, and that both the USA and the USSR were ahead of Britain in that respect.


Snow spoke with the authority of a man with a foot in both camps, as a trained research scientist and a successful novelist, and his lecture provoked worldwide coverage. However, in 1962 it received an extraordinary response from the influential literary critic F.R. Leavis, who delivered an attack on Snow of unprecedented ferocity, describing Snow as being 'intellectually as undistinguished as it is possible to be' (p.8).


What is education for?


The Snow/Leavis controversy has provoked debate ever since between the supporters of both men's positions as to the real purpose of education. Should science or the humanities be given precedence? Should education aim at the moral formation of the individual or address the world's practical problems?


From Two Cultures to No Culture contains two of the most articulate expositions of each point of view, by Roger Kimball and Raymond Tallis. Frank Furedi considers the implications of Snow's lecture for the current education debate, while Robert Whelan argues that the choice is no longer between two cultures but between an education system based on academic rigour and no culture at all:


'The problems that now characterise our education system are no respecters of subject boundaries. English dons are confronted by students who have never read a play by Shakespeare right through, and for whom a novel by Henry James would be unimaginably hard. A history don at Cambridge told me he is teaching undergraduates who do not know what the Renaissance and the Reformation were, or which came first. Secondary schools complain that they have to do catch-up when children join them from primary schools. Universities complain that they are having to run foundation courses to teach students the basics of writing an essay. It is more than a case of dumbing down: the school timetable is now seen by politicians as a weapon to deploy in fighting all sorts of battles that have nothing to do with education, from social cohesion and anti-racism to obesity and teenage pregnancy. Boosting self-esteem is more important than telling children which answers are right and which are wrong. The situation is so serious now that it has gone from being a topic for educationalists to debate to an issue of whether or not the culture we have inherited from our parents is going to be passed on to our children.' (pp.23-4)


Science vs. magic


Robert Whelan argues that the introduction of the new science GCSE, that conflates chemistry, physics and biology under 'scientific literacy', has rendered the position of science in the curriculum especially fraught, in a way that would have caused concern to C P Snow, whose scientific eminences was the product of the grammar school and public library system (pp.20-22). This is happening at a time when the concept of science as a way of understanding the world around us has come under unprecedented attack:


'Science now faces the charge that it is only one way of understanding the world, and not necessarily superior to rival conceptions such as magic and witch-doctors. Science is seen as depending, for its validity, upon such Western concepts as "proof", "reason" and even "truth". Science is only "true" when its claims are supported by authority figures in Western societies. Magic may be equally "true" in traditional societies that look up to witch-doctors. These claims are not being made by cranks and fringe figures-or perhaps I should say not exclusively by cranks and fringe figures. Some of those who support this interpretation are at the heart of the cultural establishment, including university professors. They show that this new hostility to science is part of a more general hostility to Western values and institutions, an anti-Enlightenment hostility that questions the notion that men and women are capable using their intellectual and moral capacities to progressing from barbarism to civilisation.' (pp.29-30)


For more information contact Robert Whelan on: 020 7799 6677


From Two Cultures to No Culture: C. P. Snow's 'Two Cultures' lecture fifty years on by Frank Furedi, Roger Kimball, Raymond Tallis and Robert Whelan is published by Civitas at £12.25 inc. pp. ISBN: 978-1-906837-04-4. Tel 020 7799 6677.


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