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Thinking Beyond the ‘Two Cultures’

At a recent conference on student learning outcomes and assessment, I sat at a table with some professors of natural science who were lamenting the lack of appreciation for scientific knowledge in higher education and society at large.  As an example, one observed that at a cocktail party consisting of scholars, no one would be expected to have a basic understanding of the etiology of a particular disease, except a specialist in that field. But, citing an actual experience of his own, everyone should be ready to participate in a conversation about the philosophical implications of Shakespeare, not just literature scholars. The general consensus at the table was that scientists are expected to know their arts and humanities, but those in the arts and humanities are not expected to know their science.

As I sat listening, I could not avoid recalling many conversations I’ve had with colleagues in the art and humanities. From their perspective, it is scientific knowledge that is privileged, not Shakespeare, and they point to the large gap in research funding between the two and, with trepidation, to the apparent downsizing of arts and humanities programs and their struggle to remain relevant during economic hard times. Books such as Martha Nussbaum’s Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (published this past spring), for instance, have reinforced these concerns (for a critical look at Nussbaum’s claims, though, see this recent review, part one and part two, in Inside Higher Ed).

Common to many of these conversations is an unspoken assumption that scientists think differently than their counterparts in the arts and humanities. But do they?

Various research studies, beginning with Liam Hudson’s, Contrary Imaginations: A Psychological Study of the English Schoolboy (1966), have made the argument that science students are more logical and analytical (“convergent” thinking), whereas students in the arts and humanities excel in imagination and creativity (“divergent” thinking). Such studies have reinforced the famous argument put forward by C.P. Snow, in his book, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (1959), that a gulf separates the sciences and humanities, to such an extent that communication between the two is difficult, if not impossible. Although Snow would later identify the emergence of a “third culture” that had begun to bridge the gap, a theme since developed by others, his original argument took hold and has remained quite influential, albeit not without criticism (the Times Literary Supplement has included Snow’s book as one of the hundred most influential books since World War II). Indeed, one scientist in the conversation noted above referenced Snow and commented on how relevant his argument remains.

Yet a new study of British university seniors in both the sciences and the arts by Peter K. Williamson, The Creative Problem Solving Skills of Arts and Science Students—The Two Cultures Debate Revisited, published in the journal Thinking Skills and Creativity, points to a different answer. According to Williamson, whereas the

domains of arts and sciences are different in their aims…the solution processes in both arts and science are…not totally different, and this research has shown that there is no statistically significant difference between artists and scientists in terms of their problem solving skills. Both artists and scientists need convergent (logical, analytical and craft) skills as well as divergent (innovative and inspirational) skills.

Williamson suggests that his findings are indicative of a significant shift in the context of higher education over the past two decades. He cites three key trends. First, students now entering the university system have had a more generalized education experience across disciplines than previous generations, due to changes in K-12 curriculum standards, so they bring a more diversified thinking approach to their chosen discipline. Second, student populations have become more diverse in terms of background, age, and experience, resulting in a more diverse mix of perspectives and learning styles that are changing the shape of the disciplines, including the emergence of various multi- and inter-disciplinary programs and degrees that bridge traditional academic divides.  Finally, increasing numbers of university instructors are adopting more open and interactive teaching styles that promote student engagement in participatory learning activities, fostering student creativity and collaboration across knowledge domains. [Note: the accepted but unedited manuscript of the study, from which the above quote and summary come, is no longer available for download]

An obvious implication of the study, not noted by Williamson, is that the so-called “two cultures” in higher education are more a product of the structure of the academy and concomitant specialization of the disciplines over the past several decades, rather than being a result of some fundamental difference in the way some minds work in comparison to others. C. P. Snow himself is evidence of the latter, given his experience as both a physicist and a novelist.

To the extent that this is true, it behooves us to question the value and purpose of the current division of the disciplines, and to begin asking if students – and instructors, for that matter – might be better served if our courses and programs focus more on creating opportunities for truly integrative learning experiences, i.e. engaging issues and problems across contexts, from multiple perspectives, and over time.

As suggested in a recent speech this past month by Jim Leach, Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities,

The sciences cannot ignore the humanities any more than the humanities can ignore what science has wrought. Whatever differences may exist between the capacity of scientists to explore the unknown in nature and the ability of scholars in the humanities to address life’s enduring questions in tandem or in the wake of scientific advances, science and the humanities are unalterably entangled…. What is required is a greater willingness to consider — respectfully — diverse views, recognizing that we are all connected and rely on each other.

At the University of Oregon, the process of talking across the divides is moving forward on several fronts, including at the highest level, as reflected in the university’s draft Academic Plan.  There, it is suggested that we move beyond the “familiar disciplinary divisions of the humanities, sciences and social sciences” and embrace a more inclusive “liberal education,” defined by the Association of American Colleges and Universities as one that “fosters a well-grounded intellectual resilience, a disposition toward lifelong learning, and an acceptance of responsibility for the ethical consequences of our ideas and actions.”  Williamson’s study indicates that students are already moving in this direction in how they think and engage problem-solving in the world – now it is time that the rest of us follow their lead by rethinking how we define student learning outcomes and structure assessment of student learning.

After all, Shakespeare’s death remains a mystery. Whereas one account suggests it was due to a fever contracted after a night of excessive drinking, another credible account suggests it resulted from an underlying disease such as atherosclerosis. Perhaps a course that includes theories of etiology with literary criticism would generate new questions and insights about his creative genius. At the least, it would be interesting, educational, and most certainly a pertinent and lively topic for discussion over a cocktail.

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