Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Two Cultures

When you think of the long and gloomy history of man, you find more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have ever been committed in the name of rebellion.
~ C.P. Snow

Snow was introduced to me initially by my Classics professor in college. I was taking an introductory course when I changed majors, one of these unstructured meet-and-greet forums for the professors of the Humanities department.

The class met one night a week, was a single credit, and it was graded pass/fail. Every three weeks the professor would cycle to a different member of the Humanities faculty. We mostly discussed the types of classes offered and were let out early.

I had just switched out of an intensive major in health sciences and would be getting a joint major in humanities. Since I had more than fulfilled all of the science requirements for my new dual-discipline major, I had a year and a half of what we science students called “blow-off classes.” The orientation class was no different, but one professor took it seriously… and I learned that he took everything seriously.

This was years ago, before I met my wife, but I remember it like it was yesterday. He came into class in what I would later found was his typical tweed suit complete with shirt and tie. To this day, he’s the only man who wears a tie that I have ever respected, besides my father. He began his lecture with a question: “What is an intellectual?”

I quickly raised my hand and said something like “An individual who is recognized for their intelligence.” He said that was an acceptable definition. Then he went around the room, ending with me, asking for the name of someone we think is an intellectual.

Only four of the five students signed up for the class had shown up, and the answers everyone gave were awful. I remember only one of them: Ken Jennings, the guy who (at the time) was winning on Jeopardy a lot. I remember scoffing at the same time the professor did.

When it came to be my turn, I had settled on Gore Vidal. When he asked me why I chose him, I said that I believed he was a man whose ideas were ahead of the times in which he had them, and that America is still trying to catch up. He nodded and just moved on.

The Professor then proceeded to instruct us to read the one book we had been required to buy for the class, a short work by C.P. Snow entitled “The Two Cultures.” Everyone groaned. Reading for an orientation class? This guy was nuts!

I think I was the only one who read it. It was an interesting, if not dated, work. It hearkened back to a time when scientists were cold and heartless drones doing their busy work in the labs, while the artists and religious scholars warned of the cold and distant nature of science. It is a book that may have been very accurate at one time in England (mid 20th century), but was probably never relevant to America.

The specifics are immaterial. The idea of the book is one of eternal and universal social importance: there are two dominant attitudes which pervade society, and both are doomed to misunderstand the other.

America’s situation is different: most liberal artists have jumped on board with science, despite having only a cursory understanding of it, while the entrepreneurs and business men have associated themselves with religion, and not science. This is all an incidental alignment which stems from the Cold War: capitalism allied with religion to ward off the dirty communist atheists and their army of liberal ideas (which were in turn adopted by the fringe, such as artists and academics).

It is strange that we find ourselves in this scenario, because the main premise of “The Two Cultures” is the notion that, if only those who studied science and humanities worked together, we would be able to solve the problems in our world.

This has turned out to be partially false: what divides America is intellectualism versus anti-intellectualism. The intellectuals have long since synergized the two fields of art and science, but they meet constant resistance from the woefully uneducated ranks of consumers and believers.

Business and religion share a common need: stupid, obedient people. Businesses need dumb customers who will buy whatever they are told, and religions need followers who will believe what is preached. As businesses seek brand loyalty and religions try to fill the pews, it is up to scientists and artists to encourage skepticism.

None of this was discussed in the short time we spent talking about the book, but I did expound upon these ideas in the assigned essay. I ended up taking both classes he taught: Greek and Roman Philosophy, and Greek and Roman Religion. His door remained open to me long after I graduated, and I track him down whenever I encounter something from the ancient world that I don’t understand.

I wish everyone had experts they could consult whenever they misunderstood something. With all the university budget cuts, professors being denied tenure, and academic hiring freezes, there will be a glut of educated individuals with lots of time on their hands. Finding an intellectual with time to shoot the shit will be a lot easier.


  1. It is interesting how atheists and intellectual feel persecuted in the US.

    I am from Europe and I have the impression that most European countries are governed by a consensus of rationalism - indifference to religion.

    Sometimes, the churches put on a fight when they feel that their former privileges are taken away or when society evolves towards a direction they do not like (gay marriage, work on sunday), but in general we do not feel they are the ones who are in command.

    This, however, was done following the example of the american declaration of independence. So I wonder why it is that non-religions Americans feel so prosecuted by religion. I always thought that the american religious bodies have even less influence than in Europe.

    Or is it just a question of evolution: in the past, the churches had a lot of power in Europe, but it was taken away from them in the course of the 19th and 20th century. So we feel "liberated".
    As opposed to this, the churches never had much power in the US, but they start organising lobbies, etc, so the US citizens feel they gain influence and feel oppressed?
    It would be interesting to quantify the objective influence of religious institutions in both continents as opposed to the "felt influence"...

  2. In the 80's, there was a strong push by a movement called the "Religious Right." It was an uneasy alliance between Republicans (who were traditionally business-friendly, classical liberals) and religious movements that have grown in the US.

    Opposition to abortion, gay rights, women's rights, and other issues that most rationalists support comes primarily from this union. There is also a strong push by the Religious Right to rewrite history, to claim there is no seperation of church and state, and that the founding fathers created a Christian nation (both resoundingly false).

    More people in America believe in angels than evolution. What more proof does one need that religion is running amok?

  3. "With all the university budget cuts, professors being denied tenure, and academic hiring freezes, there will be a glut of educated individuals with lots of time on their hands. Finding an intellectual with time to shoot the shit will be a lot easier."

    And that's why I'm delaying my foray into academia in order to get a vocational skill. :-) Also, the timing just isn't right for me personally.

    Anyways, I have a blog back up and going - and I'm waiting for my favorite skeptic (well, after Lee from Strawmen Cometh) to come and raise heck.


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