Science v arts…again

I still haven’t quite got the hang of academic blogging.  Who is it for & why? I sometimes mean it to be a quick history-of -science-led response to something topical, but my mind just doesn’t seem to work that way. Either my gut reaction is the same as everyone else, in which case what does my take on it add? Or its so different I feel I must have missed a point somewhere & will need to do a lot more research for fear of exposing my ignorance.

My reaction to the Nicky Morgan on science versus arts article probably falls somewhere between these two extremes. My first reaction to her comments, mainly because I’d been reading a lot recently about 19th century debates on education, was that this was an extrapolation of those arguments to their most ridiculous and unintended extreme. At the same time, I’ve noticed a lot of other reactions to it that seem to suggest people are generally, albeit reluctantly in agreement with her. There is this general consensus that arts are nice but don’t do much while science is useful but functional. In both cases there doesn’t seem to be much of an attempt to understand where we get these clichés from. So that, using history, is what I’d like to do now.

John Herschel wrote in 1830 about the utility of science to society and how important it was that science should form some part of all children’s education. This was partly because applied science had the potential to make our lives increasingly more comfortable. It was also because, so he argued, a well rounded education, training the mind to be curious and enquiring, made for well rounded people. He added too his hope that soon all subjects – including history – would take from science this evidence based, investigative method.

Later in the century other scientists (as a few had taken to calling themselves) took up the championing of science. There were famous debates – Newman v Arnold; Huxley v pretty much everyone – in which the merits of a science and mathematics based education versus one grounded in the Classics were discussed. In this process practitioners of science got better and better at spelling out why their subject was brilliant and important and undervalued.

Skip forward a few decades to the 1950s and we come to C.P. Snow’s famous lecture The Two Cultures. The two cultures were science and humanities and Snow was complaining that science was still considered the the lesser of the two.  His evidence? Socially, among the ‘well educated’ you would find far more shame attached to not knowing any Shakespeare than to not knowing the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

At the same time that Snow was complaining about status however, there were other changes that suggest science was not as undervalued as he was claiming. This was the birth of ‘Big Science’, of huge investment in big scale scientific projects that would eventually lead to the space race, particle accelerators and the Human Genome Project. This arguably made a considerable amount of science the servant of politics, which is perhaps how scientists managed to still cling on to this image of themselves as a useful but undervalued group.

Part of the problem for scientists was and is of their own making. You can’t go around telling everyone what you do is incredibly, incredibly hard and much more difficult that an arts degree and then get upset when people preemptively tell you they don’t understand or that they failed their maths GCSE three times.

At the same time, these clichés persist because while science has been busy honing its arguments about how useful and important it is no such case has been made for the arts. Instead we are left with some vague ramblings about becoming better writers and communicators, which understandably irritates many in science, particularly those with a strong involvement in outreach. So what do arts and humanities add to society?

For me, I think arts and humanities add hope. By reflecting on societies of the past we can envisage a better tomorrow. Through the arts we can gain a better understanding of the human condition and just as astronomers look for life on other planets to prove we’re not alone, so too through arts and humanities we can discover that we are not alone in our thought and feeling and hopes and dreams. Science is about understanding and helping us to make sense of and in some cases make use of the natural world. Arts and humanities are about understanding human society, creativity and the human condition. Without those tools how can we ever hope to make a better world? Is that too much, an over-romantisisation? Or are we just becoming so functional as a society that we have lost our ambition?

Regarding Nicky Morgan’s more mundane message – not about the kind of society we’d like to create but about teenagers and the job market – I would like to see her stats. The job market for teenagers and recent graduates is bleak and unfair. Unpaid internships for interesting jobs, the 200 people who apply to ever entry level job etc. Possibly while science and maths degrees are still in the minority they give you a slight advantage. That is probably the best that can be said of them in this context, and even then justifying £30,000+ debt for the privilege is tricky. If there is a science you love do that, the same goes for arts and humanities. With that much debt, you may as well enjoy it, and who knows, like the Minecraft YouTubers my 7 year old son watches obsessively, you may with that passion to drive you, find a way to make it pay after all.

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