EXPANDING SCIENCE AND THE DECLINING CENTRE.

As though the scientific edifice of the modern world were not, in its intellectual depth, complexity and articulation, the most beautiful collective work of the mind of man.

C.P. Snow The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. Rede Lecture 1959

It is pleasant to think of Snow contemplating, daily perhaps, the intellectual depth, complexity and articulation in all their beauty. But there is a prior human achievement of collaborative creation, a more basic work of the mind of man (and more than the mind), one without which the triumphant erection of the scientific would not have been possible; that is, the creation of a human world, including language. It is one we cannot rest on as something done in the past. It lives in the living creative response to change in the present.

F.R.Leavis .Two Cultures? The Significance of Lord Snow Richmond Lecture 1962

But the religious virtue of knowledge was become a flunkey to the god of material success.

D. H. Lawrence The Rainbow

I was at school in Northern Ireland when the furore over Leavis’ radical dismantling of C.P.Snow’s Rede Lecture (known as the Two Cultures lecture) took place. Not that as a schoolboy I knew much about it. Nevertheless the time was coming when one had to choose between specialising in Science subjects or the Arts. There was no doubt which of the two was considered superior. Science was given an intellectual weight beside which the arts were made to seem to be rather light and flimsy; my interest, however, was in the arts and I concentrated at school and then university on English Literature and History.

This dispute might seem long gone, an academic affair that has become outdated, of interest only to academics. Not so! It is still very much with us.

Ostensibly Snow’s argument seemed attractive. There was a gap and the gap should be narrowed between education in the sciences and education in the arts. It was begun at school and went on into life, making for two groups of educated people who could not share intellectual and cultural interests. If it had been left at that fair enough.

But the thrust was plain. Scientific education should be backed at the expense of the arts because it was the sciences rather than the arts that contributed to the good of society. “Scientists had the future in their bones” whereas the literary representatives of what Snow called “traditional culture” are “natural luddites“. The arts were fine but only as something ornamental, an attractive display that added grace to life. Real knowledge, real progress belonged to Science and to adjusting our education so that more science got taught, there was greater specialisation in science. Ultimately this would lead to greater prosperity and the material improvement of life for all and this is what was primarily needed.

Well the argument is still with us. The other day Sir Patrick Valance involved in the health response against Covid pleaded for more iintegration of science and politics. Government responds by launching a new Office for Science and Technology Strategy declaring its aim to make Britain “a science super-power”.

Leavis’ argument however was concerned less with the need for more Science( which he did not dispute) more for the importance for society to develop critical intelligence rooted in culture. For only a rooted culture could provide us with a centre which materialism could never provide -though it might dissipate such- and Snow’s educational remedies were externalist ( note the image of the “edifice” in the quotation) directed towards science and technology creating the jobs that would give the population sufficient “jam” (yes, that was his term!) to live on.

I won’t go into the “nitty-gritty” of the argument here though I plan to discuss it further in future posts. For me however, as a young man seeking his way in life when I eventually studied the matter in more depth on reading the two sides it was Leavis who stood not only for humanitas but for the human spirit. Snow’s focus was purely materialist. For him it was a question as to what the country needed materially for its advancement and only that,. Leavis’ challenge was :

” what we need and shall continue to need not less, is something with the livingness of the deepest vital instinct for the sake of our humanity, for the sake of a human future … to maintain the full life in the present -and life is growth- of our transmitted culture”

It might be said he understood, as Snow did not show any sign of doing, that Science and material welfare could not provide a country with a centre. He understood, that is, what Yeats meant, when he wrote:

 "Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold 
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. 
W.B. Yeats The Second Coming.

It was this awareness that drove me as it had done many others influenced by Leavis, perhaps the greatest teacher of English, as well as the greatest critic we have known in the last century, to become a teacher of English, because in English we saw a meeting ground with pupils and students wherever they were at; for the value of absorbing literature is perennial not because of its external benefits but because it develops us in our sympathies and understanding in the common pursuit of true judgement. And without that pursuit strongly pursued society wilts.

It was Snow of course who succeeded Endorsed by Harold Wilson who offered him a place in his government and spoke of the “white heat of the technological revolution” as something the country must embrace. Polytechnics, admirable institutions designed to provide a technical education, became universities. Universities packed with specialisms became multiversities designed to give their paying career savvy- students the vocational preparation they needed. Arts students were poor relations.

University once meant a centre for the gathering of knowledge in an attempt to integrate knowledge: a collocation of specialisms cannot offer that. In the meantime religious faith has dwindled and cultural choice is more and more directed by market values. Political debate is concentrated on economic matters and “culture wars” are responses to bitter divisions over questions of rights- divisions stirred by social media.

The question of restoring the centre is one of urgency; but it cannot be done without faith and rooted intelligence.

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