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The 'Two Cultures' Have Endured

When I was 20 I had an English literature professor who insisted on the virtues of one's keeping a literary log—a chronicle of all the books read over the course of the year. All great men and women of letters did this, he said. In fact, it appeared that journal keeping was something of a prerequisite for being a man or woman of letters. With the enthusiasm and single-mindedness that often propel us (arid render us insufferable) when we're 20, I began such a project. At the end of two mont

By | March 9, 1987

When I was 20 I had an English literature professor who insisted on the virtues of one's keeping a literary log—a chronicle of all the books read over the course of the year. All great men and women of letters did this, he said. In fact, it appeared that journal keeping was something of a prerequisite for being a man or woman of letters.

With the enthusiasm and single-mindedness that often propel us (arid render us insufferable) when we're 20, I began such a project. At the end of two months, I looked back over my entries in despair. There were at least as many Agatha Christies as there were Faulkners or Dos Passos. And when I cast my mind back to try to remember particulars of each book without referring to the brief annotations I had made, I found I could more often remember whodunit than exactly what stately, plump Buck Mulligan was doing coming down those stairs.

My literary sins had caught up with me. All my purchases at the campus bookstore (a copy of Murder at the Vicarage coyly peeking from under Absalom, Absalom) had been faithfully recorded to my shame. The project ended in disgrace.

What Harvard Profs Read

So it is with relief that I find that a Nobel Prize winning scientist like Sheldon Glashow reads, if not Agatha Christie (which even I outgrew at an early age), at least Len Deighton. This nugget of information is contained in The Harvard Guide to Influential Books (Harper & Row, 1986), in which 113 Harvard heavyweights discuss "the books that have shaped their thinking."

Glashow refused to cooperate with the project, and in doing so, turned in one of the more elegant entries in the book. "I care not for this cargo cult," he writes. "To read is the thing, voraciously and eclectically. No guide is needed. Was Moby Dick more important to me than the latest Len Deighton thriller, or is browsing through my Oxford English Dictionary even more significant? And who should care?"

That makes me feel much better about the recent hours spent savoring P.D. James's latest detective novel. It is equally comforting to find that Stephen Jay Gould likes Joe DiMaggio's autobiography (although Yankee fans are always highly suspicious), that Edward 0. Wilson relishes the fantasies of Arthur Conan Doyle, and that Fred R. Whipple has an affection for the swashbuckling works of Dumas père, and for science fiction and Zane Grey.

It is equally impressive that Harvard scientists seem to read so widely outside their specialties. Wilson likes Sinclair Lewis and the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Gould reads George Eliot, and Gerard Holton favors Shakespeare and Twain.

What's disturbing is that Harvard's humanities professors, almost without exception, cite only works in their own or related fields. Never do you find a pillar of the English department rhapsodizing over The Origin of Species, much less Ernst Mach's The Science of Mechanics.

Which brings us to the heart of Glashow's entry. "Scientists are often regarded as illiterate oafs, unable to write and unwilling to read, captives of their narrow expertise …Yet, most of us are well-read and can hold our own with historians, literary critics and whatever. Humanists, on the other hand, are often (though not always) scientifically and mathematically inept and proudly so. Our conversations must turn on matters of their concern, not ours. We are disadvantaged because we are compelled by their ignorance to match wits on their territory."

Glashow's observation—right on target as far as I can see—affects more than cocktail party chatter; it influences the body politic. The battle between creationists and evolutionists, for example, is at least as much about the contemporary dichotomy between science and the humanities as it is about theology. The sympathy that many well-educated nonscientists have for the creationist cause stems, at least in part, from their perception of scientists as coldhearted, illiterate fanatics who wouldn't know John 3:16 from John le Carré.

Glashow rightly mourns the age when the American intellectual community drew inspiration from scientific thought as much as from the domains of literature and humanities. "We have strayed from the path set by Franklin and Jefferson, who both admired and appreciated Lavoisier as much as they did Shakespeare," he writes.

If that age has indeed passed, the blame lies largely with an educational system that seeks to inculcate in young minds just enough science and math to give the appearance of knowledge without the benefit of understanding. It frequently is implied, especially with students who have a bent for the arts and humanities, that science need form no part of their daily lives, that there are specialists for that. Particularly at the elementary and secondary levels, teachers who themselves were schooled largely or exclusively in the humanities shun the sciences as too abstruse for the serious consideration of the average student.

As a result, creationists draw support, and many college-educated parents find themselves befuddled trying to answer even the most basic of their children's questions about the workings of nature ("Daddy, why is the sun hot?").

The Harvard professors' reading lists lend evidence that the two cultures C.P. Snow described in the 1950s have endured, perhaps have grown even further apart. That is bad for both camps, and dreadful for the governing of an increasingly technological society. What is equally appalling is that these are the lists of Harvard educators, proclaimed as the best and the brightest during last fall's 350th anniversary celebrations for the University.

Snow wrote that education "isn't the total solution to this problem," but he recognized it as essential to the process of closing the gap. Let's hope educators in both disciplines (especially those at Harvard) soon come to a similar conclusion.

Byrne is on the staff of The Scientist.

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