The Two Cultures: A Lifetime Later

James S. Gidley

Ordained Servant: November 2014

Science and the Humanities

Also in this issue

The Sursum Corda and Biblically Shaped Worship

Abraham Kuyper by Jan de Bruijn: A Review Article

The Perspective of Love by R. J. Snell

Music at Midnight by John Drury: A Review Article


In May 1959 C. P. Snow delivered a lecture at Cambridge University, later published as “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution.” Snow made two main points: (1) scientists and humanists in the academy are two distinct cultures, each with its own language and concerns, and neither able to understand or to appreciate the other; (2) the world is impoverished by the decisions of a British ruling class drawn exclusively, or nearly so, from the humanist camp. Snow was not the first to comment on the two-cultures problem; Alan Jacobs[1] traces it back to the 1880s debate between Matthew Arnold, poet and humanist, and Thomas Henry Huxley, scientist and Darwinist. And Snow has certainly not been the last to comment on it. Herein follows my own humble attempt to say something about it.

The time since Snow’s lecture has spanned almost my entire life. Snow commented on a divide in his day in English institutions of higher education. How stands the academy a lifetime later? Having spent my entire adult life in higher education, I can testify that the divide is still with us. The sciences and the humanities are still at odds.

Having said that, I must immediately add that I have not said enough. It is not merely that the sciences and the humanities are divided from each other; they are also divided among themselves. Historians do not speak the same language as philosophers; musicologists and classicists have little in common. Chemists do not really know what biologists are doing, and physicists do not know—well, physicists know everything: just ask them. Then there is the host of other disciplines that were not even invited to the table for the original squabble: the social sciences and the various professions. The post-modern multiversity embodies the post-modern view of human discourse: everyone’s thoughts are culturally conditioned and therefore incommensurable across cultures. Each academic discipline is a subculture that cannot really communicate with the others.

The reward structure in academia reinforces the Balkanization of the disciplines. With few exceptions, the path to recognition and prestige in the academy is through specialization, often minute specialization. A well-rounded intellect is not much in demand. The well-rounded intellect is like the three-sport athlete in high school: he is unlikely to excel at the college level in all three, and the chances of multiple success at the professional level are vanishingly small. The big money goes to the specialist. This may be a pervasive theme of our society. Specialization in medicine is another example.

Another change has occurred since Snow’s original lecture. The playing field has tilted considerably in favor of the sciences (and the professions). In Snow’s day, particularly in England, the humanities still had pride of place in the academy. Now, science has the greater prestige. In my view, there are two main reasons for this, one internal, and the other external.

The internal reason for the present pre-eminence of the sciences is epistemological. Science is still to a large extent based on the Enlightenment assumption that truth is universal and non-cultural. Therefore, when scientists teach their subject or make new discoveries, they do not hesitate to treat them as true. They know that theories change and that new discoveries will modify currently received explanations, but they still act as if what they are professing is objective truth. Humanists, on the other hand, are dominated by a postmodern epistemology, in which all truth-claims are regarded as assertions of power on behalf of some social group. Many natural scientists had already suspected that there was no truth-content in humanistic learning; when they hear humanists admitting it, they feel justified in ignoring what humanists say.

It is true that postmodernists have subjected the natural sciences to their cultural critique. The standard line is that scientific theories are the product of a scientific culture seeking to consolidate its power. The sciences greet such analyses with laughter or a shrug; the idea that there could be a feminist physics has generated zero traction among physicists.

The external reason for the current pre-eminence of the sciences is economic. For a generation or more, the cost of a college education has been rising faster than the general rate of inflation. Now that tuition and fees for four years of college routinely exceed $100,000, parents and students have begun to consider the wisdom of the investment much more carefully. We have probably all heard some version of the following joke: “What did the liberal arts graduate say to the engineering graduate? ‘Do you want fries with that?’ ” While the earning power of a liberal arts degree is not nearly as dismal as the joke suggests, there is still a substantial differential.[2] This appears to be a significant factor leading to declining enrollment in the humanities. College administrators faced with the need to control costs will almost always make the pragmatic decision to cut the humanities programs that are generating less revenue than science and professional programs.

The problem is exacerbated when humanists exhibit a lack of concern for the employment prospects of their graduates, arguing that employment is not the purpose of a humanistic education. Unfortunately, one of the current realities in higher education is the nearly universal belief that the purpose of a college degree is to get better employment and guarantee a higher lifetime earning potential. Scientists and professionals take this in stride and use it as a marketing device for their programs. Humanists often seem to be ambivalent about it or hostile to it.

So, a lifetime later, are we on the verge of a resolution to the two-cultures divide by way of the triumph of science and the withering away of the humanities? Some would greet such a development with indifference, others with satisfaction.

Before reaching such a conclusion, it would be well to consider what higher education might look like without the humanities, or what the sciences and the professions might look like without some grounding, however minimal, in the humanities. Loren Graham, in The Ghost of the Executed Engineer,[3] has provided a vivid portrait of such a development in the Soviet Union. The executed engineer of the title was Peter Palchinsky, a Russian mining engineer and an ardent socialist, who had spent a number of years in self-imposed exile in Europe to avoid being exiled to Siberia by the Czar. Palchinsky willingly worked for the Communist regime, but fell afoul of the Party on at least two counts: (1) He insisted on healthy living conditions for laborers in any mining development; Stalin, on the other hand, insisted that technological development on a monumental scale was the only consideration. Stalin’s priorities were to be brutally executed on projects like the White Sea Canal, produced by slave labor with appalling loss of life and dubious economic benefit. (2) Palchinsky insisted that there were technical, economic, and other limitations to what could be achieved by engineering, “saying, ‘We are not magicians, we cannot do everything.’ ” Stalin, on the other hand, “maintained ‘There are no fortresses that Bolsheviks cannot storm.’ ”[4]

The latter clash was to destroy a generation of engineers in the Soviet Union. Engineers who complained that the ambitious goals of the five-year plans were infeasible were accused of “wrecking,” that is, deliberately sabotaging the success of the plan. On the other hand, engineers who remained quiet about the infeasibility of the plan were accused of “wrecking” when it became apparent that the goals of the plan would not be met. The crisis came with the Industrial Party Trial of 1930,[5] a show trial in which eight prominent engineers were found guilty.

These events were only the beginning of a reign of terror among Soviet engineers, several thousand of whom were arrested. There were only about ten thousand engineers in the entire Soviet Union at the time. In the end, about 30 percent of Palchinsky’s colleagues were arrested—most of them thrown into labor camps with little chance of survival.[6]

Palchinsky himself had already been secretly executed.[7] As a dead man he made a convenient scapegoat and was labeled the ringleader of the imaginary conspiracy.

What might this have to do with higher education? Graham paints a vivid picture:

One of the ways in which the new Soviet engineers differed from engineers elsewhere first became apparent to me in 1960 when I came to Moscow as an exchange student at Moscow University. Five years earlier I had received a degree in chemical engineering from Purdue University. At Purdue I had been distressed by the narrowness of the curriculum. The few elective courses I had to take were inadequate windows on the large and complex world beyond thermodynamics and differential equations that I wanted to explore.... Finally, during a student excursion outside Moscow I met a young woman who said that she was an engineer. “What kind of engineer?” I asked. “A ball-bearing engineer for paper mills” was the reply. I responded, “Oh, you must be a mechanical engineer.” She rejoined, “No, I am a ball-bearing engineer for paper mills.” Incredulous, I countered, “Surely you do not have a degree in ‘ball-bearings for paper mills.’ ” She assured me that she did indeed have such a degree.[8]

Graham goes on to discuss Soviet education in more general terms, commenting along the way, “The humanities, as known in the West, played almost no role in Soviet education in the Stalinist and post-Stalinist periods.”[9]

One aspect of education, at least since Plato wrote The Republic, has been the interest of the state in the education of its subjects or citizens. Plato dilates on the education that would be necessary if the ideal republic were to be supplied with the required philosophical leaders. Whether the state undertakes the task of education directly or indirectly, it must insure that its content is not subversive. Humanistic education at its best addresses questions of ethics and the human good that must eventually be brought to bear upon the existing political and economic arrangements of the society. Such scrutiny may prove to be at least embarrassing to the wealthy and the politically powerful.

The Soviet education of the Stalinist era was designed to produce human automata that would fit as cogs into the machine of socialist planning directed from the top. Today’s nearly exclusive concern with employment as the only valid outcome of a college education has the potential to produce the same kind of education, if it is not already doing so. The only difference is that no force is required. The consumers of the education themselves demand to be narrowly “educated” to fit into some niche in the current economy. The grim story of Soviet-style education is a chilling warning that we should not desire this for our children and grandchildren.

How might we respond to the two-cultures issue and the challenges of higher education today? I do not have a specific plan, but I suggest that the following principles, among others, should guide Reformed Christians:

1. The purpose of education is the same as the purpose of life: “to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.”[10] This requires not only grounding education on the Bible but also a full exploration of what it means to be human, which is to say what it means to be created in the image of God. The humanities are indispensable for this purpose.

2. Higher education ought to show an appreciation for the Reformation principle of calling and its concomitant elevation of the dignity of labor, even—or especially—manual labor. Some of the “two-cultures” problem is caused, or at least exacerbated, by the Greek legacy in the humanities. In the Greek view, labor is something for slaves. Liberal education is to provide otium cum dignitate (leisure with dignity) for those who do not have to work. Humanists should be cognizant of the fact that the vast majority of our graduates will have to earn a living and should be able to pay off their college loans some time before they die. According to philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Whatever be the justification that a college in the Reformed tradition of Christianity offers for engaging in the liberal arts, that justification will abjure any suggestion that the life of the mind is nobler than the work of our hands.”[11]

3. One specific biblical doctrine that has momentous implications for education is soul-body dualism. The reductionistic materialism of our time dismisses the idea of the soul as nothing but the discredited biological doctrine of vitalism. The humanities cannot thrive in a materialistic atmosphere. If everything is ultimately matter, then all explanation is ultimately physics. Biologist Edward O. Wilson argues for this at book length, not coincidentally praising the Enlightenment to the skies.[12]

4. While the academy is not the church, the biblical doctrine of the one body of Christ with many members is helpful by way of analogy. The scope of knowledge is too vast for us to avoid specialization. But we may aspire to view our specialties as gifts for the good of the entire body of the academy.

If another lifetime passes during which the Lord does not return, I think that it is safe to say that the two-cultures debate will still be with us in some form. If some scholar of a future generation should recover my words from the oblivion that they most likely deserve, I would say to her or him: you may or may not be better equipped to resolve the question than my generation has been, but in any case trust in Jesus, be humble, and be kind.


[1] “The Two Cultures, Then and Now: The Sciences, the Humanities, and Their Common Enemy,” Books and Culture (March/April 2014): 11–14, http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/2014/marapr/two-cultures-then-and-now.html?paging=off.

[2] Melissa Korn, “Liberal Arts Salaries Are a Marathon Not a Sprint,” At Work (blog), Wall Street Journal, January 22, 2014, http://blogs.wsj.com/atwork/2014/01/22/liberal-arts-salaries-are-a-marathon-not-a-sprint/.

[3] Loren Graham, The Ghost of the Executed Engineer (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993).

[4] Ibid., 42.

[5] Described by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), as the Promparty Trial.

[6] Graham, The Ghost of the Executed Engineer, 45.

[7] Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 375. Solzhenitsyn inferred that he was secretly executed because he had refused to sign a confession incriminating himself.

[8] Graham, The Ghost of the Executed Engineer, 68–69.

[9] Ibid., 70.

[10] Westminster Shorter Catechism 1.

[11] Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Should the Work of Our Hands Have Standing in the Christian College?” in Educating for Shalom: Essays on Christian Higher Education, ed. Clarence W. Joldersma (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 271.

[12] Edward O. Wilson, Consilience (New York: Vintage, 1999).

James Gidley is a ruling elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as a professor at Geneva College, where he is chairman of the Engineering Department. Mr. Gidley is a ruling elder of Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Sewickley, Pennsylvania. He is also a member of the Christian Education Committee and the subcommittee on Ministerial Training. Ordained Servant Online, November 2014.

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Ordained Servant: November 2014

Science and the Humanities

Also in this issue

The Sursum Corda and Biblically Shaped Worship

Abraham Kuyper by Jan de Bruijn: A Review Article

The Perspective of Love by R. J. Snell

Music at Midnight by John Drury: A Review Article


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