Google sets itself against ‘two cultures’

Posted in News by chrisfremantle on August 27, 2011

Eric Schmidt, Chief Executive of Google, has hit the nail on the head.  C. P. Snow‘s two cultures continue to exist embedded in the educational system in the UK, though perhaps less in Scotland.  In his McTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh Festival (full text on the Guardian website) he highlighted the major innovations (photography, computers and television) that were developed in the UK.  He went on to say,

“The UK is the home of so many media-related inventions.  You invented photography.  You invented TV,” he said.  “Yet today, none of the world’s leading exponents in these fields are from the UK.”

Of course there are two points to be made: one Scotland has a particular role in this history, and the critique is a challenge to politicians and policy makers, educators and innovators here.  Secondly, his analysis predicates that the important exponent is the corporate entity rather than the individual creative person.

But these are two minor quibbles.  Schmidt’s argument is more fundamental and important because he wants to challenge the cultural divide.  His lecture is a catalogue of key historical figures who demonstrated excellence in both the arts and the sciences, and his particular focus is on the Victorian period: James Clerk Maxwell the published poet; Lewis Carroll the mathematics tutor at Oxford.  Perhaps Modernism and the apparent association of ‘Victorian values’ with a recidivist conservative agenda is an oversimplification that needs to be challenged so that we can see again a period when the arts and the sciences were interwoven.

But, not that I want to harp on about Scotland again, Scotland also has a particular history in educating polymaths and a particular pedagogical tradition of valuing the generalist.  Young people in Scotland learn within a system that is designed to see them take a range of humanities and sciences until they go to University, and even in University, the first year is designed to encourage broader study (I ended up doing joint honours in English and Philosophy because I had to choose an extra subject in first year and took Moral Philosophy).

So, value the generalist interested in both arts and sciences, and re-appraise the Victorians for exemplars.  I’ve been reading a biography of Keir Hardie, a man at the centre of radical agitation at the turn of the century.

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