“This institution will be based on,” begin innumerable emails at this University, “the illimitable freedom of the human mind.”
Though it is understandable to skip over the Jefferson quote that invariably worms its way into safety announcements and fundraising requests, this one is worth exploring further: Jefferson, among other qualities, was a Renaissance Man. This philosophy is superficially found today at the University, with general education requirements lauded as a “21st Century approach to liberal arts & sciences education.” The University’s mission statement invokes its interdisciplinary origins: “Our unwavering support of a collaborative, diverse community bound together by distinctive foundational values of honor, integrity, trust, and respect.” Conversely, the Trump Administration praises vocational schools, and abroad, particularly vulnerable disciplines are already under attack in Brazil and Hungary. These claims can’t merely be lip-service, and they raise questions on the institutional distinction between ‘arts’ and ‘sciences’ and the resulting granularization for individual courses. Moreover, how effective is the University’s administrative policy at promulgating ‘liberal arts’ — and what is the political impact of isolation in the ivory tower?
The distinction between science and arts — more generally humanities — is as entrenched in the public psyche as it is in scholarly discourse. Science connotes application and pragmatism (better suited to the more applied components, however). Science, broadly construed as anything from mathematics to biology or chemical engineering, is set up in opposition to the impractical disciplines of French literature and philosophy, while some humanities, like jurisprudence, are given a break on practicality. Sciences and humanities, however, are artificially divided; the liberals arts from which they derive are inclusive of both natural sciences and arts. Contemporary critics, too, have challenged the contrived distinction, ever-complicated by changing disciplines: For the dismal science of economics, are quantitative methods enough? What about qualitative studies on hard sciences?
The political debate surrounding arts and sciences is nothing new; at the cusp of the Enlightenment, the quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns overtook the Académie française. Poe lamented the demystifying role of science, a cry rekindled by contemporary philosophers and literary theorists. A few centuries later, C.P. Snow’s 1959 polemic against the British educational system unduly emphasizing humanities and classics above science gained infamy. Stephen Jay Gould argued against this distinction in his posthumous magnum opus The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister’s Pox, drawing on E.O. Wilson’s Consilience (it may be worth noting both authors were scientists). Alan Sokal did nothing to bridge the divide between the two spheres, and recent copycats have snagged, ironically, fashionable headlines on the decline of the Academy. The trio of hoaxers dubbed “Sokal Squared” open their essay on ‘grievance studies’ with the claim that “(s)omething has gone wrong in the university—especially in certain fields within the humanities.” That claim is echoed across a variety of disciplines, where pundits direct their charge primarily at inchoate and trendy disciplines: Gender studies, feminist philosophy, and queer studies, which all too quickly bleed over into the domestic political sphere. Debates within academic disciplines do not typify those across them, though. Snow claims in “The Two Cultures,” “(s)o the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the Western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had.” It is easy to envision the protestations from the humanists. Snow, in fact, prefaces his earlier arguments that he was provoked after playful badinage.
In that same lecture, Snow praises the American model of education balancing humanities and science. The University of Virginia, an exemplar of the American model of (public) education, thus ought to emphasize the importance of cross-disciplinary, collaborative education and engagement (UVa’s prestigious digital humanities program, enmeshing liberal arts and computer science, are among the more well-known of such efforts, though to uncertain ends). Certainly, much effort is made to bridge the divide between science and humanities, but largely by, and for, those already established in academia. On the other end of the spectrum lay initiatives like STEM, introducing the eponymous science, technology, engineering, and mathematics skills to elementary and middle school students. The University’s general education requirements are a less-than-admirable bridge between the two.
I certainly support cross-disciplinary engagement within the academy, along with scientific educational opportunities for adolescents. However, this dictum is not particularly original. Myriad op-eds offer the same conclusion, and the Virginia Review of Politics is, in fact, a collegiate publication. Most of the contributors are humanists (I, myself, lie somewhere in-between). This problem, like so many problems, is not conquered by articles but by actions — and, unlike so many problems, it occurs on the individual level!
The praxis to resolve the “two cultures” that have been uncoupled, genuinely or not, for centuries is simple: Take courses in new disciplines. There is much to question at both the macro and micro level for administrative oversight and general education requirements — for the individual, the answer is less murky. My injunction for action is to fully pursue the “illimitable freedom of the human mind” by challenging preconceptions and complicating disciplines irrespective of second-writing requirements or non-western perspectives, and to introduce and further collaboration across disparate disciplines.