Arts and Science: A False Dichotomy?

by Sophie Barnes

art - science

In 1959, the British scientist and novelist C. P. Snow, in his book The Two Cultures and the Scientific Divide, famously bemoaned the division between art and science in western intellectual society. He expressed how he felt intellectuals in the arts would express their ‘incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists’ at social events (I like to think I wouldn’t), but yet would not be able to describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics (I certainly can’t).

The concept of an art-science divide in our society is not a radical idea. The line has been drawn right down from the very top to the very bottom of our society, from the classes of our early schools years to the ways governments approach new issues in society. It has plagued academics, education secretaries, and world leaders as they battle with the limits that the divide can place on our society and the way we think.

Fifty years later, where do we stand? Has Snow’s theory been replaced by a ‘third culture’ or do we still find ourselves stuck in separate paradigms going round in circles unable to breach the gap?

Google has many answers. Whilst an article in the Guardian cited developments in the sciences collaborating with the creative arts to develop new and creative methods to various investigations, the Independent seemed far less confident that a bridge was being built, and instead only noted the further specialisation and compartmentalisation of different degrees and areas of research.

“A Level students are terrified to pick subjects that are not directly linked to a potential degree just in case it suggests to university professors that they are undecided about their career”

It is an issue that has been increasingly on my mind since starting university. All through our lives the value of art and science has always been compared and contrasted. Primary school children are asked if they prefer English or Maths. They can’t enjoy both. Thirteen year olds have to decide if they are ‘sciency’ or ‘artsy’ when they choose how many sciences at GCSEs to do, and A Level students are terrified to pick subjects that are not directly linked to a potential degree just in case it suggests to university professors that they are undecided about their career. By this point, the other discipline has become so unfamiliar, that it is scary, confusing, and better kept at a safe distance.

UCAS

Sure, some of this may be changing. The rise of the IB, the introduction of the American Liberal Arts system to British universities and the new laws stating that A Level students must take both an art and a science may suggest that Britain is finally realising that the divide our education system nurses from the start could have detrimental impacts on our students and, by extension, our society. Yet the government is reducing investment in the creative arts in schools, which, to me, only suggests that they don’t think that encouraging the imagination will help us conceive of new approaches to global political issues or ways to discover the cure to cancer.

Are there any grounds under which this divide can be justified? Perhaps, as our own disciplines become more and more specialised, dividing ourselves up is the only way to deal with and make any advances in our specific fields. The sciences seem capable of pursuing all sorts of advancements that will radically impact our society, whilst the arts can debate with themselves how best to govern our society, deal with international problems, and entertain themselves within the creative disciplines. Perhaps, specialisation and separation is the most practical and efficient way of doing things.

But then how do we control where discoveries are heading? Who provides that check: that perspective which challenges the assumptions we make in our tiny little boxes?

Often on the defensive to prove the importance of his subject, a history lecturer had the rare opportunity to make a rather smug comment last week. On a lecture on the development of the Jim Crow segregation laws in the United States only a century ago, he noted that scientists at the time endorsed the idea that eugenicist principles could be used to justify racial hierarchies. ‘Thank goodness they had historians around to set them straight!’ he laughed.

“The sciences also have an important role in ensuring the arts aren’t dismissed to such an extent that our society can go rolling off in a very scary direction”

Ultimately, the divide seems completely artificial. The arts cannot exist without the sciences. Science is central to most of the advancements in our economy and society today. Arts students need to better understand and appreciate the mechanics behind the technology that dictates their lives and shapes most of the contemporary issues in global politics. But the sciences also have an important role in ensuring the arts aren’t dismissed to such an extent that our society can go rolling off in a very scary direction.

Light competition and humour between different degrees is only natural, but let’s not make it detrimental. A friend at MIT, the world-leading university of technology, commented that most of her friends viewed the arts as inferior, pathetic and a waste of time. Yet she was keen to tell me that MIT has one of the most respected and vigorous arts programme in the world, and the arts are fundamental to checking, challenging and adding new approaches to scientific exploration.

Let’s not be short-sighted. When you were choosing your degree did you choose between arts and sciences based on what you thought was ‘worthwhile’ or what had the highest employability statistics? Of course these things are important, but don’t let these factors behind the subject you chose restrict your approach and openness to other disciplines that may seem scarier or more unfamiliar.

“Did the UCAS application process brainwash us to believe that we only really had a passion for the one specific interest that we had to prove again and again was our whole and absolute dream?”

At Oxford we are in an unusual and potentially very valuable situation in that the collegiate system encourages socialising to develop indiscriminately across degree choices. But do we use it? Or in the panic for a place at Oxford did the UCAS application process brainwash us to believe that we only really had a passion for the one specific interest that we had to prove again and again was our whole and absolute dream? Have we been cornered into the boxes imposed on us by society so much that as soon as the word ‘science’ for an arts student, or ‘arts’ for a science student is heard, we switch ourselves off, declaring we have no interest at all?

If we entertain the divide, even in a joking manner, it won’t go anywhere. Maybe it’s time to rethink our attitudes towards the degrees to which our friends, and we ourselves, are devoting such an extended period of our lives.

The Poor Print

The Oriel College Newspaper. Run by students, with contributions from the JCR, MCR, and SCR & Staff. Current Executive Editors: Tom Davy, Joanna Engle and Chris Hill

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