NEH Making Connections

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    Geoff Zylstra

    Post your thoughts about the readings here.


    Christopher Swift

    Hi all,

    I’m still making my way through the readings, but I wanted to jot down a couple of thoughts before they escaped me.

    C.P. Snow from 1959. It is incredible that some of his observations about the divide between traditional intellectuals (literary scholars, “men of feeling,” etc.) and scientists remain true today. His generalizations and lack of supporting evidence were disconcerting at times (“a connection…between some kinds of early twentieth-century art and the most imbecile expressions of anti-social feeling”, p. 8), but his conclusions still resonated with me. For instance, it never occurred to me that (generally speaking) “traditional intellectuals” are are a pessimistic bunch and scientists tend to be more optimistic about the future. I think there is some truth in this. To give a contemporary example, I’ve noticed that the work on global climate change by English lit., social science, and performing arts scholars is coursing with pathos and doom, while geologists, physicists, and mathematicians have a more pragmatic, long term view of the crisis (and the universe). Engineers probably see opportunity. We’ll need them when the waters start swallowing the shorelines, that’s for sure.

    The Rede lecture is also an interesting artifact of mid-century writing style and historiography. I’m not sure a historian today could get away with Snow’s sweeping generalizations or his pompous tone. Speaking about the industrial revolution in the U.S., Snow refers to the “handy-men” (non-scientists) that the U.S. “had to do with” (p. 24). I got a chuckle out of that one. Perhaps “handy-men” are members of a THIRD culture, one that has little use or interest in cultures one and two.

    Washington and Du Bois also give us good examples of historical writing style: precise yet noble, elevated. True of many 19th century writers. You can tell from reading letters from the front lines of Gettysburg and Antietam that soldiers read quite a lot of poetry. I’ll be interested to hear what people think about BTW’s argument and Du Bois’ critique. Seems to me they are contributing to the formation of two persistent ideological strains about civil rights and progress for African Americans in the U.S.


    Prof. AM Sowder

    Great conversation between the readings on the difficult and changing relationship between minorities and educational opportunities. The dynamic between technical training and higher education for black men articulated first by BT Washington, dismantled and revised by WEB Du Bois, and still in progress and further explored by Slaton should make for a rich and relevant conversation on Friday.

    In particular, the (lack of) reconciliation between self-realization and wealth creation as goals of education was compelling. Must we be narrow in order to be strong? A typical engineering education might suggest so. Interesting stuff.


    Shelley E Smith

    I was struck by Snow’s description of the two cultures–the humanities vs science. I was thinking only about the importance of “making connections” between the humanities and technology, but now I see that we have an even more important task in “making connections” to the hard sciences! How did knowledge of the sciences become so separated from the accepted attributes educated, “cultured ” person? We might look back at Aristotle and Da Vinci for examples.



    Am far from done with the readings –as will be clear just from this comment I’m writing!!—but was intrigued by Slaton’s inquiry into the causes of failure within the discipline of engineering to level the playing field between African Americans ( and those of Hispanic origin, I believe) and the rest of any potential pool of applicants. I have a particular interest in any affirmative action-related patterns within education, certainly, but have also personally found the generally accepted divide between the humanities and the hard sciences somewhat artificial and perhaps even outdated. Am very much looking forward to tomorrow’s discussion and meeting Slaton.


    Sean MacDonald

    Interesting to read these writings in historical perspective from Washington through Wisnioski. The readings all address the question of the overarching purposes of eduction in an evolving, technologically changing society. DuBois takes issue with Washington’s argument that education confined to preparing one “to live by the productions of our hands…we shall prosper as we learn to dignify and glorify common labour and put brains and skill into the common occupations of life…” arguing that this limited goal occurs at the expense of a broader liberal education and the importance of the struggle for social equality. His message that progress is not possible in the absence of equal political rights makes the point that economic advance cannot be defended without voting rights, social equality and a broader educational purpose. DuBois notes, …”teachers of teachers…must be broad minded…to scatter civilization among a people whose ignorance was not simply of letters, but of life itself.”

    By mid-20th century, C.P. Snowe’s lecture notes the continuing chasm between our practical learning and the lack of broader intellectual inquiry through a liberal education. The theme is further explored both in Slation’s piece on the disconnect between engineering programs and larger social/real world concerns, together with the enduring racial divide in engineering programs at two very different University of Md. campuses through the 1950’s. The theme continues in Wisnioski’s advocacy of the need for ‘humane technology’ in the engineering professions that makes connections with real world challenges.
    An interesting recent piece in The New Yorker by George Packer on Silicon Valley’s disconnect from the world it purports to want to change is an interesting read on this same theme of isolation of technology from the humanities and real world challenges.


    Candido Cabo

    In reading Snow’s lecture I kept thinking about the fractal nature of culture. He talks about two cultures, scientists and humanists, but I think those cultures subdivide almost ad infinitum. Even though Snow wants to argue about one culture common to all scientists, I do not think that the use of the scientific method is enough to group in the same category individuals who make a living in different domains related to science like: mathematics, physics, engineering, biology or medicine. I am sure that that is also the case for Snow’s humanists’ culture. Do historians, psychologists, philosophers, economists, linguists and creative writers share the same culture? Perhaps, our colleagues from the humanities can help us here, but I would predict that despite some commonalities there are profound differences between the different domains.

    Now the question is why we have evolved into this super-specialization, from the times of Aristotle and Leonardo, as Shelley is asking, and how this relates to the key questions of Topic #1: What is the value of literature and history in technical degrees? What problems occur when literature and history are omitted from the curriculum? How all this relates to issues of class and race?

    It is likely that there are multiple factors leading to the current super-specialization. So, I am going to speculate based on my experience as a scientist and engineer and try to relate my thoughts to our readings. One possible reason for specialization is the complexity of the world around us. The natural world is complex. Individuals and societies are complex. Like all complex systems, an approach to understand the system is to separate it in different components, and try to understand those elementary components. We are successful at separating a complex system into parts and characterizing the behavior of all those parts, which inevitably leads to specialization. The problem is to connect back all we know about how the pieces work in isolation to understand the behavior of the whole.

    Probably our own psychological makeup also leads to super-specialization. Once we are good at something, we feel secure at doing it, and we may be reluctant to venture in areas that we are not familiar with, where we do not feel “academically” safe. Our own disciplines contribute to this. As it is discussed in Slaton’s book, in general, academics are reluctant to work in interdisciplinary projects because faculty involved in those projects “make have difficulty figuring out where to publish.”

    Social components may have also contributed to super-specialization, at least in science and engineering. It seems that the industrial and scientific revolution triggered a major shift in how science in done and how the newer generations are educated. Historians of science and technology can be of help here. Industry requires, in general, technologists capable of performing specialized tasks that fit into the production machine. Therefore, colleges and universities have accommodated to serve industrial interests, and became centers of training more than education. (When you design a new academic program at City Tech you have to explain where your graduates will find jobs.) This approach to education, creating efficient human components of the machine, who do not have a complete understanding of how the machine works or what the machine does, impedes social change. In contrast to most industrial problems, the solution of urban (social) problems requires an interdisciplinary approach. This in a way relates to the Washington-DuBois debate. In Washington’s view getting jobs (training) was the main goal of educating African-Americans. For DuBois the goal was educating for change and social justice.

    Being a scientist and an engineer, I am optimistic. If we understand that where we are is the result of our own making (and not a natural law), and if we understand that we can be protagonists (and not just sufferers) of history, then we can change things. I guess that is why we are getting together in this project. Looking forward the discussion tomorrow.


    Christopher Swift

    I like your point about the fractal nature of intellectual/scientific culture, Candido. Snow also makes the point that binaries are problematic. Strange that his argument relies on one!


    Damon Loren Baker

    I was particularly interested in Slaton’s writing about the effect of the shifting of funding priorities of federal agencies in the 1970’s and the involvement of the military on research. Partially because this was in the part about the University of Illinois system which I used to work. But also because of some research I have been doing into the demise of the Biological Computer Lab,a research institution at UIUC that had been doing ground breaking interdisciplinary work in the 1960’s only to have it’s funding cut suddenly due to shifting priorities in military research budgets to only fund projects with direct military benefits under the terms of the Mansfield Amendments of 1969. Albert and Karl Mueller’s book on the fate of the BCL “an unfinished revolution?” is an excellent case study in the rise and fall of a group who had been working very hard to bridge gaps between Snow’s two cultures. I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately about various university connected research groups over the last 50 years that had successfully done groundbreaking seriously interdisciplinary work and their stories mostly seem to end with “and a massive shift in funding policies at the national level caused them to implode because they weren’t able to find new funding sources fast enough. The End.” Slaton’s writing on the circular reasoning often used in setting high level funding priorities provided me with several more fascinating (and deeply disturbing) data points.


    Prof. AM Sowder

    Damon, is this your way of saying that we’re doomed?


    Christopher Swift

    Research $ for the military is flooding the market, and other options are fewer and fewer. I subscribe to the COS research funding website. With the key words “theater” and “performance” I get dozens of hits for military research projects every month. Perhaps one or two in my area every YEAR.

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