The Two Cultures: C. P. Snow and the State of Interdisciplinary Collaboration

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This is an obligatory reference for contemporary academics working across more than one discipline–there should be a kind of ‘required freshman reading’ (ours for freshmen next year is Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer–which I think Chapel Hill used previously if I got the right information) in which new faculty members have to read C.P. Snow’s book The Two Cultures as part of their orientation.

Snow was a scientist/physicist who also thought of himself as a writer/novelist, and gave a lecture in 1959 that was later turned into a book. In the lecture he discussed the gap between the humanities and the hard sciences–the mutual lack of understanding in general terms. This is the kind of thing that routinely comes up in university-wide committees and decisions that don’t involve merely one college (at CofC our university is a ‘college’ and our colleges are ‘schools’–preserving the name of college from 1770 is often confusing to people–the same happens with College of William and Mary).

Of course many have alleged that there are actually Three Cultures (humanities, hard sciences and social sciences), with each group failing to understand the value of (and the values held by) the others (I’m sympathetic to that view as well). I saw online that some accuse Snow (or perhaps others referring to his work) as perpetuating or institutionalizing cross-disciplinary conflict, but I disagree completely. Those conflicts are there and they are here to stay. I can only imagine that they will endure. Potentially, the increasing interdisciplinarity of institutions (I’m told this is happening…), might bring some kind of resolution, but in publishing in particular (let alone joint appointments that cross disciplines or tenure and promotion cases of those doing interdisciplinary work) it seems there is still more work to be done to foster a climate of mutual understanding.

Read more here.

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