The BBC has again come up with a masterpiece of broadcasting thanks to Radio 4 and Melvyn Bragg. The current series of programmes about “Culture”, which is on air at 9.00am every morning this week, is fascinating.
Today’s programme was about the influence of science and the humanities on our ‘culture’ and our thinking. It outlined decades and indeed centuries of argument for one mode of learning against the other, for trying to narrow the gap of understanding between the arts and science, and highlighted once more this state of polarisation and specialisation when neither is needed or indeed appropriate.
Great names were mentioned, and intellectual giants have discussed these issues for years. Is science ‘culture’? Can the humanities add to scientific debates? Will we be an uncultured society if we ignore the greatest works of art and literature? Will we be politically and economically stymied if we don’t invest extensively in science and technology? What role does education have in the development of the arts and of science? How can they be connected? Should they be connected?
To listen to the programme in full, click on the link:
We’d like to concentrate on just a few of the issues that have arisen from listening to this programme.
Firstly, will we ever stop thinking and speaking simply in terms of either/or?
The world is not simple. It cannot be divided into black and white, into yes or no. There are too many variables. There are very few occasions when “either/or” thinking is a necessity rather than a reflex or a habit, and yet we constantly live our lives thinking there is only one solution, one answer to a question, or one alternative, and there will always be an opposite view, which must be wrong.
Science is science, art is art and never the twain shall meet? This is nonsense. There is fundamental beauty in many aspects of science. An artist can’t portray perspective without an awareness of the rules of science and mathematics. Ever watched a gyroscope turning over and over again? Isn’t that incredible? Look at the natural world and the brilliance of someone like David Attenborough to be able to bring the beauty of science into our lives in an artistic or aesthetically pleasing way through the medium of television.
We can differentiate between art and science, but we only choose between them at our peril. We shouldn’t be arguing about the significance of one compared to the other. The only time when this should form itself into a debate is when one of them is given greater status compared with the other. For instance, we have a situation now in the world of education in England where science is seen by certain policy makers as more important than the humanities. This should be debated and challenged.
Science, the humanities and art are of equal ‘importance’, as a general principle. As Melvyn Bragg said, together they “enable us to see ourselves”. Critical thinking and a critical spirit come from both disciplines. We need unity, not polarity, in our lives. Individuals can have preferences for particular fields of study, but only policy makers with axes to grind and agendas to pursue will insist on the primacy of either the arts or science.
The second key issue that arises from this programme concerns the role of education. We need to be clear about this. Despite Paul Nurse’s optimistic claims that things are improving, there is still a problem in our current education system about specialising too early. You must be either a student of science or a student of the humanities, according to those who decide how we manage the education of our young people. At the age of 16, you have to choose. Admittedly, it isn’t quite as stark as that and you can certainly do A levels in Biology and Arts simultaneously, but it’s not the norm.
At 16 years of age you are supposed to define your future learning pathway, even though there are perhaps another 70 years of life and learning ahead. Can this really be right?
As stated previously, we need to be very clear about equity between subjects. Some of us seem to consider they have better A-Levels than others because they chose to take physics or mathematics rather than photography or sociology. What on earth does that mean? A qualification is a qualification. If it’s deemed sufficiently challenging and engaging enough to study and be graded, then an ‘A’ in photography should have as much status as an ‘A’ in Chemistry. They are different types of learning; all equally laudable – just different. Why should one be more important than the other? They should be complementary, and recognition should be given for the fact that each has their own value in all of our lives.
Can we please agree that there’s real idiocy in running an academic rat race in the first place, and when it degenerates into rows about whether particular disciplines are more worthy than others then it becomes an absurdity. No wonder so many young people feel like an Alice in Wonderland, with a egocentric, despotic queen, or a minister for education, decreeing that things have meaning or value only if they say so.
Alternatively we might liken this argument to someone deciding that the gold medal of a pole vaulter or a high jumper has greater value than that of a sprinter or a long distance runner. Why would anyone want to do that? And yet some people do. Some people still consider the middle distance running events to be the “blue ribband” events of an athletics meeting – whatever the hell that means. Why on earth would you do such a thing? The fact that different athletics disciplines rely on different types of muscles makes such comparisons absurd, unless you consider someone who’s blessed with more than their fair share of certain sorts of muscles as superior to someone who has an abundance of other sorts of muscles.
Maybe we should force all athletes to do some sort of athletics baccalaureate. It might be quite amusing to see a shot putter having to do the pole vault, a discus thrower having to do the long jump, and a sprinter having to throw the hammer.
What gives someone an aptitude for certain sorts of study? And why regard some aptitudes as more worthy than others? This is a very serious business and it’s time that parents and teachers took this debate about the proposed Ebacc seriously. People’s lives are at stake. We can no longer tolerate young people dropping out of education or suffering a catastrophic collapse of confidence because they fail to excel in mathematics or physics or chemistry – or for that matter in art or music or dance or drama.