WHEN CP SNOW gave his notorious lecture on "The Two Cultures" at Cambridge University in May 1959, he did not shrink from giving offence; but he tried to give it impartially. His topic was the division between the arts and the sciences, and he ridiculed not only the smug literary intellectuals with their bottomless ignorance about the Second Law of Thermodynamics, but also the dull, unimaginative scientists who thought it frightfully risky to "try a little Dickens". In Britain at least, the "two cultures" had settled into a state of cultural cold war, making complacent jokes about each other and exchanging ignorant insults. Both sides would suffer, Snow argued, and both were equally to blame.
The hostility between the arts and the sciences was not only culturally damaging, in Snow's argument; it was also politically ruinous. The educated elites of the West were squandering their energies on domestic cultural quarrels, while the poorest parts of the world were facing disease, hunger, poverty and social collapse, from which they could not escape without free access to Western- style technical education. If the battle of the two cultures were not ended soon, the real losers would be the poor of the Third World.
Snow's solution was reform of our education system: ending premature specialisation, raising the school leaving age, and improving the "social prestige" of teachers. The physical welfare of the poor was at stake, as was the cultural welfare of the rich. "Isn't it time we began?" Snow asked. "We have very little time - so little that I dare not guess at it." "THE TWO Cultures" was immediately published as a booklet, and widely discussed in the press and on radio and TV. At first everyone seemed to agree with Snow, and he grew glum about his popularity: "If you say anything which happens to touch a nerve like this," he said, "you can be absolutely certain that you have said nothing original." But even Snow's supporters managed to misunderstand him. Bertrand Russell praised him for analysing the "separation between science and culture", for example; but Snow's argument was that science is itself a form of culture, and not a rival to it. Julian Symons knew better, roundly denouncing Snow for presuming "that scientists have any culture at all". Snow's most ferocious opponent was FR Leavis, the presiding genius of the Cambridge English school, who sulked for three years before delivering a coruscating lecture on "The Significance of CP Snow" in February 1962. Leavis revered literature with the vehemence of a religious zealot; to him, Snow was not so much a colleague he could reason with, as a Satanic portent that had to be banished or conjured away. Snow was known not only as scientific adviser to the government but also as a best-selling novelist. To Leavis, however, he belonged with the most disgusting forms of journalism - the New Statesman, The Guardian and the Sunday papers. Snow was "blank in the face of literature," Leavis said, and "as a novelist he doesn't exist; he doesn't begin to exist". And his advocacy of educational and economic development in the Third World was proof of philistinism rather than humanity. In Leavis's opinion, Indian peasants and Bushmen, together with "poignantly surviving primitive peoples, with their marvellous art and skills and vital intelligence", needed to be kept away from technical progress, and shielded from the emptiness of "modern society". Leavis's personalised tirade was published in The Spectator, once Snow had promised not to sue for libel. But while Leavis must have hurt Snow personally, he scarcely touched his argument. Snow had already noted that scientists tended to be " on the left" - free of "paternalism" and "racial feeling", and glowing with "social hope" - while literary intellectuals, whose political attitudes "would have been thought slightly reactionary in the court of the early Plantagenets", preferred to muse about a mythical golden age of pre- industrial rustic grace. …