Two Cultures?

Do you think of yourself naturally as an artist or a scientist? Do you instinctively lean towards culture or technology? Are you predominantly left or right brained? Do you struggle with families of subjects which seem to belong either to the Humanities or the Sciences? Have you experienced this sense of a disconnection between two spheres of learning in others? If so, read on and see what TOK can do for you.

On the 7th of May 1959, Physical Chemist and Novelist C.P. Snow delivered the Rede Lecture at the University of Cambridge, it was entitled ‘The Two Cultures’. In this lecture, Snow described how again and again at meetings and social gatherings he had encountered people who seemed entirely ignorant and were often contemptuous of fields of expertise which were not their own. Typically, he noticed that artists and writers were quite incapable of describing or explaining the most important scientific ideas of the day whilst the latter kept bemoaning the fact that scientists showed little interest, knowledge or understanding of the greatest works of art or literature. Snow came to call this social phenomenon, the two cultures. It was as if the world had been split in two and people seemed to operate either in one sphere or the other, rarely did he come across anyone who was quite at home in both. He sought to understand this strange state of affairs and its possible causes and solutions in a book called, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. Whilst this seemed to be a specifically British situation and was, in Snow’s view, a product of the peculiarities of the British educational system of the time, there are some important lessons for us today. Indeed, to this day Snow’s famous lecture continues to divide opinions and many a well-known thinker has published their views in support or criticism of the latter’s contention.

Most of us, if we are honest, tend to lean towards areas of interest which belong typically either to the Arts or Humanities, or on the other hand to the Sciences or Technological fields. To explore whether this is something typical of the modern era of whether this has always been the case would be an interesting project but it seems to be too common an experience to dismiss altogether. The standard answer for this dichotomous functioning of the brain has focused on the brain’s two hemispheres, the right and the left side. It is clear by now that different parts of the brain perform different functions and that they are each associated with certain types of activities. Typically, artists and writers are thought of as ‘left brain’ people whilst their technologically-minded counterparts are ‘right brain’ people. Wherever the answer lies, the debate rages on and it is not difficult to get lost in the confusion of it all and to give it up as one of those human mysteries best left well alone.

This is where TOK comes in. Whether you are or think of yourself as a ‘left brain’ or ‘right brain’ person, one of the great achievements of the IB has been to challenge this traditional polarisation the Arts vs the Sciences and to force students to explore areas of knowledge and ways of knowing they do not naturally lean towards. The IB also encourages connections and dialogue within subject groups but also across them. Next time you find yourself challenged or bored by a topic or issue in TOK which does not instinctively grab you, remember that this is an opportunity to enter a different world of thought and ideas and a chance to break down the barriers set up by our own brains and societies; it is a chance to win a small battle in the war between ‘the two cultures.’

3 Comments
  • Carl Newman
    October 7, 2015

    I’m a little worried that you are pushing ideas like right / left brain pseudoscience. This has been debunked by many people now. See psychology myths Ted talk, the ‘myths in education’ by de Bruynere & kirschner, recent report by Deans for Impact on uses of cognitive science in classroom

    • Philippe Mathieu
      October 12, 2015

      Thank you for your comment on my blog, ‘The Two Cultures?’ (please note the question mark).
      Please worry yourself not, Sir, I am not pushing or peddling anything beyond the value of TOK in terms of broadening one’s cognitive skills and horizons.
      With regard to the left/right brain hemisphere issue, to describe something still widely used in standard psychological testing as ‘pseudoscience’ is just name-calling and not an argument . If you read the piece carefully you should have spotted the fact that I simply describe this as a common ‘explanation’ without offering a view as to its scientific validity.
      As for your claim of various experts having ‘debunked psychological myths’ in education or indeed any other sphere of human knowledge; my experience is that one myth, if you must call it that, is simply replaced by another. The Deans for Impact, TED talks contributors, so-called eductional consultants etc… are as much myth-makers as anyone else and are ultimately trying to promote their products, like everyone else.
      My goal in these blogs is to highlight the essence and value of TOK and its contribution to learning, beyond that I’m not interested in debunking anything or deciding what is or isn’t pseudoscience (whatever that might be).

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