CP Snow and the Value of Arts and Sciences

brain activityI was recently sent an article written by Stephanie Allen, a Classics student at Oxford, in which she challenges C.P. Snow’s idea (admittedly of 1959) that today’s society is divided into two separate parts: the sciences and the humanities. As a student of both ‘sides’ I’m always interested in the debate surrounding this issue, and I found myself disagreeing with Allen’s argument that people today are more scientifically savvy and value the sciences more highly. Perhaps when it comes to money, yes, but I would say that even now the arts and humanities are what really make up our cultures.

Snow uses the example of asking people to describe the second law of Thermodynamics (which they cannot) and he likens this to asking someone if they have read a work of Shakespeare, which every GCSE student has done. He also says that asking them to explain what they mean by mass or acceleration (with a similar reaction) is the equivalent of the insulting: ‘Can you read?’

Allen counters this by saying that in the 21st century, we are all totally au fait with technology, spending a lot of time using advanced devices, and therefore the sciences are as much a part of our lives as the arts. But what are you doing on your phone or laptop? While there are obviously exceptions, most people are watching films, listening to music, or reading the news – all pursuits within the arts and humanities. Admittedly they are doing this on their smartphones, but frankly being able to use a phone does not amount to technological expertise – they are designed to be easy to use, so that you spend more time on them.

Snow’s beliefs definitely prioritise ‘the men of science’ and paint a utopian image of the liberal scientific future, putting down the backwards-thinking artists, something that I very much disagree with. However, I would agree that our society is quite divided along these terms, not least because by the time you reach the age of 18, if you decide to continue to university then you must pretty much decide which ‘side’ of the divide you want to follow. I was recently asked, as part of a group of students, who thought of themselves as more ‘arty,’ more ‘sciency,’ and then, when not everyone had answered, more ‘social science focused’ or more mathematical. I refrained from answering the question and it was therefore assumed that I just hadn’t decided yet – fair enough. But why should you need to decide in the first place? Surely understanding and enjoying all aspects of the curriculum is something that we should be embracing, not encouraging students to define themselves aged 17 and shoehorn their abilities into a restrictive set of definitions.

There are courses (although they are limited) that allow you to combine the two and obviously what you do at university does not determine your entire future by any means, but I certainly have found that opportunities for continuing to study both sides together are minimal in the UK, which I think is a shame because real benefits come through an understanding of both arts and sciences.

From reading the article, it was clear that Snow was a scientist and Allen is an artist, but I think that both parties miss the crucial point that neither is superior, but that a combination of the two is vital. I’m not going to claim that one is easier, or one is more important because I genuinely believe that both arts and sciences have incredible value and that interdisciplinary study can bring a greater and clearer understanding of our world, something that today’s education system should be working towards.

Georgia (Head Girl)


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