The boffins and the luvvies

The names may change, but the friction between science and art goes back centuries.

Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, generated headlines in the United Kingdom recently for what one major paper there called his “devastating critique” of the English education system.

His remarks came in the course of delivering the prestigious MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival. While he aimed for the most part at reassuring the high-level executives in his audience that they have nothing to fear from the coming merger of the Internet with TV, Schmidt also made a point of chastising British schools for inadequately promoting technological literacy.

English scientists have invented three of the most powerful technologies the world has ever seen, Schmidt said — photography, television, and computers — yet England has failed to maintain global leadership in any of those fields. A principal reason for that failure, he said, has been “a drift to the humanities” in the curricula of British schools. The nation lacked the expertise required to capitalize on its innovations because engineering and science education hadn’t been “championed.”

Schmidt added that over the past century the United Kingdom had stopped nurturing its “polymaths,” meaning individuals who can successfully span the gap between science and art. The result is a distinct and hostile split among young people who position themselves on either side of that gap, and who refer unflatteringly to one another, Schmidt said he’s learned, as “boffins” and “luvvies,” respectively.

Given that the attention of computer executives is directed relentlessly forward, Schmidt may not have realized that he was echoing with remarkable fealty the language and logic of a debate that has been repeatedly engaged on British soil literally since the onset of the Scientific Revolution, and that has continued among American educators for more than a century.

When Francis Bacon proposed his famed scientific method in 1620 he did so with a specific agenda: to replace what he saw as the fruitless musings of the Greek philosophers with experimentation that would produce knowledge of practical use to humankind. The ancient philosophers, Bacon wrote, were “prone to talking, and incapable of generation, their wisdom being loquacious and unproductive of effects.”

Bacon’s call for practical science was soon taken up by a host of followers, but it was also resisted by those who felt the classic philosophers remained the fonts of true wisdom. This became known as the debate between the Ancients and the Moderns. The standard argument of the Ancients was that the Moderns could only see as far as they did because they stood “on the shoulders of giants.” The Ancients also shared the conviction of their heroes that the products of techné would always threaten to become ends in themselves, overwhelming the pursuit of virtue. Among those who took up the Ancients’ cause was Jonathan Swift, light-heartedly in “The Battle of the Books,” more mordantly in “Gulliver’s Travels.”

Despite the success of the scientific method, the ancient philosophers remained the mainstays of traditional pedagogy during the ensuing two centuries. The assault on that tradition was renewed as the Industrial Revolution flowered, notably in an 1880 lecture by Thomas Henry Huxley. Known as “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his aggressive defense of evolutionary theory against its religious opponents, Huxley spoke on the occasion of the opening of Mason Science College in Birmingham, one of the first institutions of higher learning in England where the study of the natural sciences was explicitly given priority over study of the humanities. Huxley favored that shift enthusiastically. “For I hold very strongly by two convictions,” he said. “The first is, that neither the discipline nor the subject-matter of classical education is of such direct value to the student of physical science as to justify the expenditure of valuable time upon either; and the second is, that for the purpose of attaining real culture, an exclusively scientific education is at least as effectual as an exclusively literary education.”

The poet Matthew Arnold rose to the defense of the classics in an address at Cambridge University two years later. Huxley was mistaken, Arnold said, if he believed that educational tradition necessarily excluded the teaching of natural science. Well-educated persons will be conversant with the science of Newton as well as the philosophy of Plato — they will be, in other words, polymaths. Arnold insisted nonetheless that most people simply aren’t interested in the minutia of scientific processes. What most of us hunger for, he said, is to understand beauty, meaning, and right relationship with other human beings. These were subjects in which the classic philosophers had no peers.

The most obvious predecessor to Eric Schmidt’s remarks was C. P. Snow’s famous “Two Cultures” speech in 1959, also delivered at Cambridge University. Snow, a physicist turned novelist, mourned the fact that “a gulf of mutual incomprehension” had developed between the world of literature and the world of science. “Thirty years ago,” Snow said, “the cultures had long ceased to speak to each other: but at least they managed a kind of frozen smile across the gulf. Now the politeness has gone and they just make faces.”

Snow went on to attack his literary friends for their insularity, much as Bacon had attacked the ancient Greeks for theirs. Scientists were constantly searching for discoveries that would alleviate suffering in the world, Snow said, paving the way for a brighter future. Literary types, by contrast, acted as if they “wished the future did not exist.”

Although Schmidt in his speech urged the nurturance of polymaths, it was clear that he was most concerned about the science side of the equation. He mentioned with approval President Obama’s proposal last June for a stimulus program that would train 10,000 new American engineers annually. For the United Kingdom’s economy to thrive in the digital future, Schmidt said, its schools need to “reignite” students’ interest in science and math, just as its businesses need to hire engineers at all levels, including the very top. Google has followed that policy and prospered.

Few noticed a telling moment in Schmidt’s talk that — unintentionally, I’m sure — put a somewhat different spin on that message. It came just after he’d been introduced, when he departed from his written script to mention the news of Steve Jobs’ resignation. What he said may have confused his audience, since he referred to a section of his speech he hadn’t yet delivered, the section in which he talked about the need to nurture polymaths who could bridge the gap between art and science. Jobs, Schmidt said, “was the only person I’ve ever known who has been able to actually merge the two worlds completely, with an artist’s eye as well as the definition of what great engineering is … From my perspective that’s the perfect example of the kind of union we should see in the future in other companies and other collaborations.”

Schmidt, who holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and a masters and Ph.D in computer science, didn’t mention that Jobs had hardly followed a boffins’ standard career path, having dropped out of one of America’s most artsy liberal arts colleges to seek enlightenment in India. The moment was telling because it provoked an unavoidable comparison between Schmidt’s workmanlike presentation in Edinburgh and the fabled charisma of Jobs, and also between the creative imagination that Jobs brought to Apple’s products and the incredibly powerful but ultimately mechanical algorithms that drive the Google juggernaut.

Schmidt’s description of Jobs as the only person he’d ever known who completely merged the worlds of technology and art testifies to the difficulty of achieving such a merger. This is not to say that creativity doesn’t exist at every level of technical enterprise. Technology is art — sometimes good, sometimes not so good — just as art is technique. And of course the argument can be made that technology advances rather than retards the humanities in countless ways.

Nonetheless, the tension between what Hannah Arendt described as the vita activa and the vita contemplativa is a constant in our personal as well our professional lives. Like Schmidt, we long for a harmonious mixture of the two. The evidence over the centuries suggests the struggle will be ongoing.

Schmidt’s full MacTaggart lecture is available in the following video. His aside about Steve Jobs begins at the 9:28 mark. His critique of the UK education system begins at 41:40.

Associated illustration on home and category pages: Science clip art by Vintage Collective, on Flickr


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