The Two Cultures – why our schools are to blame

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer

By Walt Whitman

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
Scientists often complain about how they are perceived in literature. It seems as though the battle – with writers, poets and artists on one side, and scientists on the  other – has been going stong long before C.P. Snow wrote about ‘The Two Cultures’ back in 1959.
It was a strong theme all through the Romantic era and more recently prompted Richard Dawkins to write an entire book on the subject.  His take on it was similar to that of Richard Feynman; far from taking from the wonder of the subject, science actually adds to it. We can still appreciate the beauty of nature while having a deeper understanding of the reason nature is the way she is. Dawkins’ booktitle was a reference to a Keats poem about the wonder of rainbows, but it’s not an uncommon complaint; Richard Feynman says something similar about a simple flower.

What I find fascinating is that neither Feynman or Dawkins (or indeed C.P. Snow himself) seem to wonder why many artists have such a poor view of science. Walt Whitman’s poem above seems to be a fair reflection of how scientists in general are viewed by  the public at large.

For me, this poor image of Science (and scientists) is generated in school. The textbooks are terrible, the syllabus even more so, and it is only the enthusiasm of the odd teacher that creates any sort of positive image of the subject. It seems to me that science teachers at secondary level and lecturers at third level do very little to inspire wonder in any student who isn’t already fascinated by the subject. I have said it on many occasions before; when you consider the enthusiasm of students for the subject when they first encounter it in first year, and contrast this with their weariness for the subject in sixth year, it’s a wonder any of them choose to keep it on at third level. Of course the pigeon-holing of all knowledge into outdated compartments called ‘Subjects’ may also have something to do with this.

And unfortunately all the Science Weeks and Science Gallaries and Cities of Science in the world won’t change this.

What might result in change is if more attention was paid to our abysmal syllabus by some of these folk who are so heavily involved in promotion of science ourside the classroom; perhaps if enough artists and writers addressed this issue . . . a new romantic movement anyone?

Thanks to my colleague Mr Devitt for reminding me of the Walt Whitman poem. Young Devitt is one of those indivuals who is as happy talking Physics/Science as he is talking History (his trade). I am fortunate in my school to have a number of such colleagues, but as with teachers  everywhere else there is just so little time or opportunity to allow for cross-pollination of this sort. What I find fascinating about discussions with colleagues from the humanities side of the fence is that they always seem to have more of a sense of wonder for the (science) ideas than do my science-teacher colleagues. I don’t know why that is.

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