Learning from our past will allow us to move on from the two cultures debate

Lord David Willetts, Chair, British Science Association and former Minister for Universities and Science

Imagine you’re walking down the street on a sunny day, and a stranger is walking towards you. What do you do? You’re probably going to politely ignore them, giving them a small glance as you walk past. As Imran Khan mentions, this is what sociologist Anthony Giddens, in his book The Consequences of Modernity, calls ‘civil inattention’.1 You have basic trust for the stranger that they won’t harm you or enter your personal space – partly because experience demonstrates it is safe and partly because it would be tiring and stressful to constantly analyse every detail of your surroundings. This trust only breaks down if they act in a threatening or unusual manner or if you have recently been mugged. Then you pay lots of attention.

Steve Miller and Jane Gregory have applied this theory to science thus: most of the time, the public trusts in the idea of science and allows scientists to do what they do in the background without impinging on people’s daily lives. It’s only when science goes wrong that the public becomes concerned.

If, indeed, as Imran also says, 71 per cent of UK adults do not feel able to discuss or engage with science, the irony is that as a society we use and trust science on a daily basis – from checking a weather forecast to Googling for local restaurants. We interact with the products of science without considering their development, whether that is through the food we choose or the prescribed drugs we take. We are so used to trusting science, that it is just a stranger to us.

So if science shapes our modern culture, why do citizens not feel able or inclined to discuss or engage with it?

I think this is a consequence not only of modernity but because so many of us are trapped in the divide between the two cultures – the sciences and humanities. It is a result of what Professor Athene Donald rightly describes as separating us into sheep and goats (for your information I am a goat, I didn’t study science at university). This means that many people cannot give science a glance as they lack the confidence to do so.

When British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow delivered the Rede Lecture in 1959 in Cambridge he probably did not expect we would be talking about it more than 50 years later. Snow coined the term ‘two cultures’ and talked of his despair at the growing gulf between the humanities and the sciences in intellectual circles. In his lecture, Snow argued that this gulf was a barrier to scientific progress and could even represent a threat to the survival of western civilisation. He also suggested that western societies were ruled principally by humanities graduates, who were not effectively equipped to understand what science had to offer. Literary critic, F. R. Leavis attacked Snow for showing limited evidence of any scientific training and that he, “[exhibited] an utter lack of intellectual distinction and an embarrassing vulgarity of style”.3 As Athene Donald notes, this exchange was itself rather similar to one between T H Huxley and Matthew Arnold a hundred years earlier. Again the same issues arose and, although Arnold was far more courteous than Leavis, there was just a hint that even the great Huxley could be patronised when it came to real decisions about the shape of the school curriculum.

We have made significant progress since Snow delivered his lecture. He criticised the humanities for a supercilious disdain for science. If that were ever true, it is not true now. In fact now the serious practitioners of these different disciplines have a high regard for each other. When you look at the big challenges facing the world it is clear that you need to draw on insights from a range of different disciplines. There are amazing technological advances but they won’t be adopted unless there is an understanding of how humans will adapt or reject them and how they fit in to our culture – why aren’t we all wearing Google glasses? Scientists and scholars of the humanities understand this and in my experience usually have great respect for each other’s insights.

But the problem which Snow identified of a deep and early division between these disciplines in our education system does still remain. Snow knew what had to be done – break down the silos of the sciences and the humanities that are still in existence today. He wrote, “The chief means [of change] open to us is education, mainly in primary and secondary schools, but also in colleges and universities. There is no excuse for letting another generation be as vastly ignorant, or as devoid of understanding and sympathy, as we are ourselves.”4

At around the same time as the two culture debate was raging, a Committee on Higher Education was commissioned by the British Government. It was chaired by Lord Robbins and aimed to review the pattern of full time higher education and advise the government on its long term development.5 The Committee reported in 1963 and called for a massive expansion in the number of students and the creation of new universities.6 The so-called ‘Robbins principle’ declared that university places “should be available for all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so.”7 In 1963, there were 216,000 students in full time higher education and in 2010-11 there were over 1.67 million.8 The Robbins Report and subsequent government reports into higher education have helped to move us from an elite to a mass system which is now heading towards a universal higher education.

There was however a second equally important thesis in his report. Robbins was very concerned about over-specialisation at undergraduate level and in schools. Robbins believed that Snow was right to warn of the dangers of the two cultures and believed a common culture could be achieved through broader undergraduate study. Excessive specialisation was a theme running through the report: undergraduate degrees were frequently too specialised and that led to schools focussing on narrow A-level combinations. In the early 1960s, only six per cent of A-level students passed with at least one arts and one science subject.9 The report was clear about the consequences such a narrow focus would have:

“We do not believe…that it is in the public interest that a student of natural science or technology is frequently not competent in even one foreign language, a student of economics is often without the desirable complement of mathematics, and a student of history or literature may be unaware of the significance of science and the scientific method.”10

When Robbins revisited the subject in 1980, he argued fervently that, “sixth form specialisation … runs the acute danger of becoming an active agent in the disintegration of our common culture. A heavy responsibility rests upon those universities whose entrance requirements encourage or even countenance this tendency.”11

I reviewed the Robbins Report in 2013 while I was Minister for Universities and Science, to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Robbins was right in saying that we want scientists with an understanding of English Literature, scholars of political science that can understand the scientific method and engineers that can speak another language. No subject or body of subjects should exist in a vacuum.

Universities play a vital role in our society and culture – they contribute to our international reputation, produce world leading and cost-efficient research and will help the UK thrive in a global knowledge economy.

Although higher education institutions and British society at large have changed enormously since the 1960s, the work of both Snow and Robbins still has relevance to the challenge of how we harness secondary and tertiary education to embed science as a fundamental part of our society and culture.

Over half of school leavers in 2011-12 who received two or more passes at A-level received qualifications in at least one arts and one science subject. This is important progress. Yet, we still have too much specialisation in our education that tends to channel students into either humanities or science subjects – words versus numbers.

In 2011, Google’s Executive Chairman, Eric Schmidt, warned that the UK has stopped nurturing polymaths. “There’s been a drift to the humanities – engineering and science aren’t championed,” he commented.12 A scientist who dropped history or English at the age of 16 has lost out and so has another student who sticks with these but drops maths or physics. It is a very unusual feature of English education and we really ought to tackle it.

Many young people stop studying science and maths aged 16 and start to view them as strangers in their lives. We have an obligation to equip future generations of young people with basic scientific literacy – questioning, investigating, reasoning, evaluating evidence, understanding risk and uncertainty. They must be comfortable with science and excited by discovery, whether they choose a future path in science or not. One of the best ways to engage people with both the sciences and the humanities is to stop the excessive specialisation in schools.

As Universities and Science Minister, I saw students coming up against the barriers that this divide creates. British students that study in the US often say one of the reasons they do so is the breadth they get from a liberal arts course or the opportunity to combine a major and minor. Providing breadth in our undergraduate courses in UK universities is vital if we are going to overcome the two cultures divide that has hampered our system in a way that it doesn’t in the US, Asia or many European countries.

This would have a positive effect on the profession of science too. Scientists would have had a wider range of experience at an earlier age and there would be a closer connection between those who go on to graduate in either the humanities or sciences. Scientists need the skills and attributes to be able to engage non-scientists in their work – to give evidence to non-experts, and explain the broader context.

This is a challenge not only for science or the education system but for the whole of society. If we start to make these changes now, then in 50 years’ time we may have a population where more than 29 per cent of UK adults want more of a say over decisions in science.13 Both the sciences and the humanities are much too important, valuable and fascinating to be left to just the experts.

I believe that we at the BSA can play an important role here. For a start we show that this divide can and should be bridged. We stand for science as part of our national culture. It is not simply an academic discipline for experts – it is also part of the intellectual furniture of all of us, whatever we do. And if we can excite teenagers about science then more will surely want to keep on studying it as part of a broader mix of subjects for longer. It is universities and their entry requirements which are the heart of the problem. Already there are signs of universities facing new competitive pressures from prospective students seeking something much more like an American liberal arts course. Then those two years just studying three A-levels look even more peculiar as students go through a kind of hour-glass education with breadth before and after that narrow A-level period. The exam boards are heavily influenced by universities so I hope and believe that long before another 50 years have passed that our absurd and outdated requirement to cut yourself off from so much knowledge so early will have been swept away.

  1. Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity. Cambridge, Polity, 1990.
  2. Jane Gregory and Steven Miller, Science in Public. New York, Plenum, 1998, P102.
  3. F.R. Leavis, Gifford Lecture. Spectator, 9 March 1962.
  4. C.P Snow, The Two Cultures: A Second Look. Times Literary Supplement, 25 October, 1963.
  5. Higher Education REPORT, 1963, p1 http://www.educationengland.org.uk/documents/robbins/robbins1963.html
    David Willetts, Robbins Revisited, Social Market Foundation, 2013. http://www.smf.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Publication-Robbins-Revisited-Bigger-and-Better-Higher-Education-David-Willetts.pdf, p9
  6. Higher Education REPORT, 1963, p8
    http://www.educationengland.org.uk/documents/robbins/robbins1963.html
  7. Willetts, Robbins Revisited, Social Market Foundation http://www.smf.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Publication-Robbins-Revisited-Bigger-and-Better-Higher-Education-David-Willetts.pdf, p24
  8. ibid, p49
  9. ibid, p80
    Lionel Robbins, Higher Education Revisited, London: Macmillan, 1980, p18
  10. Eric Schmidt, 2011 McTaggart Lecture, http://www.allmediascotland.com/digital-media/35472/eric-schmidt-the-2011-mactaggart-lecture/ [Accessed: 6 October 2015]
  11. According to Ipsos MORI’s Public Attitudes to Science Survey, 2014. See p. 99: https://www.ipsos-mori.com/Assets/Docs/Polls/pas-2014-main-report.pdf

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