Britain’s academic split: problem-solving v problem-wallowing

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The intelligentsia is cleft by a new version of C.P. Snow’s two-cultures divide

Britain | The Economist

FEW LECTURES have had as much impact as C.P. Snow’s on “two cultures”, delivered in Cambridge in 1959. Its thesis was that Western intellectual life was divided into two mutually uncomprehending camps—the sciences and the arts—with arts graduates disdainful of culturally illiterate scientists, and scientists astonished that arts graduates had no clue about the second law of thermodynamics. (Snow, as both a chemist and a novelist, had a foot in both camps.) It provoked a vituperative response from F.R. Leavis, an English-literature don, who described his Cambridge colleagues as being “intellectually as undistinguished as it is possible to be”, but was largely greeted with rousing applause as an intellectual landmark and a call to action.

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This columnist was reminded of the two cultures by recent goings-on in Oxford, Cambridge’s perennial rival. On June 12th a striking number of Oxford scientists were recognised in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list for their role in fighting the coronavirus pandemic. Among those honoured were Sarah Gilbert and Adrian Hill, who were instrumental in developing the AstraZeneca vaccine; and Peter Horby and Martin Landray, who co-led the world’s largest randomised tests of treatments. The awards recognised Oxford’s commitment to scientific excellence, as well as the dedication of extraordinary individuals.

Days earlier 150 Oxford dons had published an open letter announcing a boycott of Oriel College. They would refuse to teach its students, attend its seminars or help with outreach to applicants, in protest against its decision not to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes that faces the High Street. What to do with the statue is complicated by Rhodes’s dual career as a committed imperialist and great university benefactor. (It is also ugly.) But a boycott is silly. It punishes Oriel’s students and potential students, who have no say over the statue’s fate. It offends against college self-governance. After agonising over the statue for years, Oriel has opted for a policy of “retain and explain”, in part because changing the façade of a Grade Two listed building would be pricey, and the college is already burdened with pandemic-related expenses.

The letter was signed by many of Oxford’s noisiest public and would-be public intellectuals. One is Danny Dorling, a professor of geography and the author of “Slowdown”, which argues that tepid economic and demographic growth are “good for the economy, the planet and our lives”. We need to stop treating “change, innovation and discovery as unalloyed benefits”, he argues, and welcome slowdown as salvation from “disaster far worse than a pandemic”. Another is Dan Hicks, curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum, author of “The Brutish Museums” and a leading campaigner for the return of the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria. He argues that Western museums “house unending violence, ceaseless trauma, colonial crimes committed again every morning as the strip lights click on”. The only alternative he sees to complicity in imperial bloodshed and genocide is to return “the curated spoils of empire” as part of a broader process of “decolonisation”. The younger researchers who added their names to the letter are well represented by Sneha Krishnan, a “feminist historical and cultural geographer” who is studying “how childhood and youth are materialised in entanglement with the enduring power of imperialism”.

The contrast between the honorands and the letter-writers points to the existence of two cultures in the modern university, and indeed the modern intellectual world: one of optimistic problem-solving and another of pessimistic problem-wallowing. The honorands, confronted by a global pandemic, set about fighting it with every weapon to hand. The signatories are fixated on battles about cultural symbols. The honorands are inventing the future; the signatories are preoccupied with purging the sins of the past. The honorands represent a new-found commitment to commercialising university research, particularly in the life sciences and medicine, and thereby powering the country’s economy. The letter-writers represent the latest example of the ancient academic habit of contemplating one’s own navel.

It is easy to dismiss such broad-brush generalisations with Leavisite disdain. Isn’t the division between problem-solvers and problem-wallowers just another way of describing C.P. Snow’s division between scientists and artists? There is a limit to how much you can improve the world by writing another commentary on Chaucer. And isn’t the real problem with the letter-writers, and those who think like them, not that they are energy-sapping but that they are irrelevant—fighting about the past because they have no purchase on the future?

Makers and takers

The first objection has merit, but only up to a point. Though it is certainly easier for scientists to invent the future, plenty of scientists are addicted to negativity and plenty of arts graduates relish a challenge. Some within the Royal Society, Britain’s premier scientific institution, are notably reluctant to seize the opportunities provided by the twin hammer blows of Brexit and covid-19 to help convert Britain’s scientific talent into innovation. The second objection is, sadly, wide of the mark. There are good reasons for acknowledging the sins of the past, particularly if they are celebrated by statues that offend ethnic minorities. But it is ahistorical and anti-intellectual to ignore context and pretend that no other cultures have ever sinned in matters of slavery and imperialism.

For worryingly many intellectuals, this obsession with the past crimes of Western countries is part of a bigger project of deconstructing Western power. This means tearing down structures that, supposedly, continue to oppress everybody other than heterosexual white males. It also means damning capitalism as inherently racist and colonialist. The slowdown that would inevitably follow any such deconstruction would leave Oxford fellows standing, but flatten ordinary Britons.

This article appeared in the Britain section of the print edition under the headline "The two cultures, revisited"


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