01 November 2012

Motorway Musings: Two Cultures and Traditional Halls

"We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbour," wrote G.K. Chesterton in his 1905 book Heretics. In a chapter entitled 'On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family', cited approvingly by Stephen Fry's eponymous character in 1992's Peter's Friends, Chesterton points out how city life can have the paradoxical effect of narrowing our minds:
"It is not fashionable to say much nowadays of the advantages of the small community. We are told that we must go in for large empires and large ideas. There is one advantage, however, in the small state, the city, or the village, which only the wilfully blind can overlook. The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us… 
There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing which is really narrow is the clique.  
The men of the clan live together because they all wear the same tartan or are all descended from the same sacred cow; but in their souls, by the divine luck of things, there will always be more colours than in any tartan. But the men of the clique live together because they have the same kind of soul, and their narrowness is a narrowness of spiritual coherence and contentment, like that which exists in hell.”
I was thinking about this on the bus the other day, pondering differences between Ireland's and England's educational systems, and scientism, and the roads that lie before us. 

A Lesson Learnt Before a Sun-burning Day on a Crowded Black Beach
Many years ago, chatting to two smart and wonderful English girls in a Roman underground station I was struck by how, though they were clearly rather better versed in matters scientific than me, they seemed to lack the most basic knowledge of their own country's history or literature. 

Since moving to England, I’ve noticed this phenomenon time and again, as intelligent people with scientific or technical training all too often seemed to subsist on caricatures of history, geography, literature, and philosophy, while equally smart people educated in the humanities look embarrassed when their absolute ignorance of matters scientific is brought to light; some just shrug, and say they're not good with numbers.

That’s not to say that this phenomenon is alien to Ireland, but I’ve long found it to be far more pronounced in England. If Philip Larkin was right in saying that educated people should know three things – what words mean, where places are and when things happened – it rather looked as though there was something amiss with English education.

It doesn't really take a genius to see what's going wrong. English education tends towards early specialisation, such that first year history students – for example – in English universities generally tend to be slightly better than their Irish counterparts. I've known people to study three humanities A-Levels, and others to do four scientific ones. There's much to be said for this, of course, but specialisation has a price, and that price is all too often a rounded education.

In contrast, Irish students tend to study a range of subjects. People who start science degrees with Leaving Cert maths, physics, chemistry, and biology in the bag will also usually have studied English, Irish, and French or German. Those who start arts degrees with English, history, geography, and a couple of languages in their pocket will also have done maths and quite probably a science subject. And, of course, they'll all have done a whole medley of subjects right up to their Junior Cert.

Sometimes this knowledge can be pretty shallow, of course, but still, there's some sort of balance there, an attempt to educate children in a general way.

The more focused English system seems to lend itself far more than the Irish one to people seeing themselves as 'science people' or 'arts people'. It's as though the arts ones have persuaded themselves that they simply can't do science or handle numbers, and faced with this cowering ignorance, the science ones have become convinced that their type of knowledge is the only type that’s reliable.

People do make up lost ground as they get older, but too many years in the English education system have convinced me that though there are loads of well-rounded English people, intellectually speaking, they're seriously outnumbered by those at the extremes.

I remember being surprised and impressed back in the day to meet undergraduates who'd managed a mixture of science subjects and humanities in their A-Levels. They seemed a gloomily rare breed.

(I'd like to see the figures on this, of course, as my impressions might well be deeply unrepresentative, but still,  that's how it seems to me. And, well, I was on a bus while pondering this, so please forgive my broad-brush approach here. I don't know how many spreadsheets I could have summoned on my phone through a ropey connection.)

Two Cultures
The current fashion for popular science books, and the elevation of reasonably articulate scientists to the status of public gurus are clear symptoms of this; it’s as though the arts people feel inadequate, but lacking the skills and experience to educate themselves about science, they settle for trusting those they see as better informed than themselves. And of course, without suitable training and extensive reading, they're hardly equipped to establish just how credible certain scientists are. They all seem impressive, talking about things largely alien to the innocent arts people...

It's hardly surprising then there are no shortage of science people who'll look down on their arts counterparts, given how much ground has been surrendered.

And contemporary information fetishes – without an appreciation of the skills needed to interpret that information – don't help in the slightest. Insofar as there are celebrity historians to rival the science gurus, people can think of them as mere fact-bearers, not really getting that history's as much about approaching, sifting, handling, and contextualising facts as it is about simply finding them out. The facts don't speak for themselves, after all. History and science aren't just about knowing things: they're about thinking historically and about thinking scientifically.

Things haven’t really improved since C.P. Snow banged on about the Two Cultures in 1959. Establishment Britain’s still ruled by those from humanities backgrounds – not one senior government minister has a third-level science qualification – but in terms of popular culture it’s as though things have swung from one unhealthy extreme to another. 

In 1967, G.R. Elton was able to say with a straight face that “Modern civilization […] rests upon the two intellectual pillars of natural science and analytical history,” but a lazy scientism is in the ascendant now; in a world where Oxford dons can describe philosophy as “a complete waste of time” we run the risk of kicking away the philosophical and theological foundations of both pillars, and smashing the historical one into rubble.

Threads Plucked from the Tapestry of our Common Culture
All of which leaves me depressed at the way that high university fees seem to be increasingly driving English students to try to study close to home rather than – as was often the way – as far from home as they could possibly get. 

The system of university halls of residence – especially traditional ones, modelled on Oxbridge colleges – has long struck me as one of the very best features of English education, its real value being in how it forced all sort of students to live side by side, and to learn from each other. It’s an arrangement that mitigates to some degree the English tendency towards a fragmented intellectual culture.

Hall life isn’t always smooth, but there’s something to be said for a system where people of different backgrounds, different worldviews, different interests are simply forced to get on with each other. It’s normal in halls to see people who might identify themselves as Christians, socialists, Muslims, liberals, Thatcherites, Scots, environmentalists, Jews, scientists, vegetarians, lesbians, Buddhists, northerners, communists, Hindus, atheists, nationalists, Arsenal fans, and all manner of other ways sitting down to dinner with each other, and talking into the night about what they have in common and where they differ.
That’s not to say that birds of a feather don’t tend to flock together, but in the confines of halls, people just have to get on. Students rarely have the option of sealing themselves off into like-minded cliques, and so firm friendships form between historians, microbiologists, linguists, psychologists, medical physicists, economists, oncologists, political scientists, embryologists, anthropologists. engineers, lawyers, physical chemists, theologians, botanists, philosophers, mathematicians… and do so across cultural, religious, and political divides.

I was lucky enough to live in halls for years, and think there’s a lot to be said for the kind of place that enables and promotes such interdisciplinary mingling; it’s a shame that it doesn’t happen more often, and it disheartens me that the more students stay at home, the fewer students will gain from the deep and diverse friendships that can be forged in traditional halls. The bridge that joins Britain's two cultures seems increasingly frail, and each brick that falls away weakens it further, impoverishing us all.

Or so I thought while slowly making my way up the M6 on Tuesday.


Recusant said...

So true... When I chose my A-levels I was torn between languages and music or science and maths, but it didn't make any sense to do a mixture, because I would have been unable to get on to any degree course. My A-level maths teacher (who was in her 40s) told us that when she chose her A-levels what she really wanted to do was art, but she also really liked maths but it was impossible to study both because the school divided the arts and sciences into blocks for timetabling and is was impossible to mix them. And a friend at uni who had done AS levels told me that he chose a rather more interesting combination (I can't remember exactly but he had an AS in drama and was studying Zoology) because he was assured that AS levels where there to help you get a more rounded education, but that he struggled to get accepted to university because his biology A-level wasn't backed up by another science. As he now has a PhD in Zoology his mixed bag of qualifications doesn't seem to have harmed him in the long run, but very few were prepared to take the chance.
I read the following with some surprise the other day: "I'm not sure that anyone in the world of literature knows how far out of the world of literature most people are. It's perfectly likely that, if they didn't do English at A-level (and most people don't), a senior NHS manager, a child-protection officer, a forensic psychiatrist, a clinical psychologist or police chief will never have read a classic novel or any poetry whatsoever. It says something about th way we see literature that no one finds this either surprising or alarming." (Davis, Jane. The Reading Revolution. In: Stop what you're doing and read this. London: Vintage Books, 2011.) Well, I am both surprised and alarmed.

A few years ago I heard, on radio 4, something about a decline in the number of polymaths. It was suggested that this was to do with how research was funded. If someone gives you a grant for a specific purpose, you can't go back to them after three years and say, "Well, I haven't found a cure for cancer, but I have written a violin concerto, painted some rather nice pictures and discovered 3 previously unknown species of insect."

I am a scientist, with 4 scientific A-levels and 2 such (undergraduate) degrees. I love books, I love history (I've been reading it in my free time since I was about 10 and we learned about the Civil War), I've recently discovered theology, philosophy and anthropology, would like to study ethics, and when I'm not being a pharmacist I do translations from Spanish to English.

If I only had friends who were scientists, I think my life would be much less rich. Especially because of the positivistic scientism we have drummed into us from such an early age.

Jill said...

Excellent post. Thanks very much for sharing.