Dr. Benjamin Franklin-Embodiment of the Two Cultures: How His Example Continues to Be Relevant in Today's World

By Ruck, Viola | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Dr. Benjamin Franklin-Embodiment of the Two Cultures: How His Example Continues to Be Relevant in Today's World


Ruck, Viola, Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


Introduction

Dr. Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) was an American genius phenomenally successful as scientist, literary writer, civic leader and diplomat. As one of the most resourceful persons in history he is a counter example to the image of the rift of the "two cultures" postulated by C. P. Snow in his 1959 Rede lecture in Cambridge, England.

In his lecture, fifty years ago, C. P. Snow started a great controversy about the "two cultures": the "literary intellectuals", and the "natural scientists". Snow, himself a scientist, accomplished writer and administrator, spoke from personal experience. He postulated that these two cultures have ceased to communicate altogether and they polarize western society, which as a result is split into two polar groups, between which lie mutual incomprehension and even hostility and dislike. The "two cultures" evolved during the industrial and scientific revolution. The literary intellectuals look with suspicion to the scientists, who they consider superficial and too optimistic, out of touch with human needs. On the other hand, the scientists believe that the literary intellectuals are unconcerned with progress, restricting art and thought to the existential moment. C. P. Snow believed that education was the way to bridge the gap between the "two cultures". In his words though: "the separation between scientists and non-scientists is much less bridgeable among young than it was thirty years ago".

Instead of contemplating the gap between the two cultures it is more beneficial to study the life and accomplishments of a person who bridged the two cultures.

Although, C. P. Snow is dating the split of the two cultures to the industrial revolution, which was in full swing during Franklin's life, it may not be limited to any time frame. The issue existed in the past as well as in the present time.

The Oxford Round Table 20th Anniversary discussion in July 2008 was devoted to the tension between the "two cultures", a tension still relevant in today's world. Faculties, universities and governments face hard academic choices, as fiscal pressures mount. In consequence, the polarization, or tension, becomes a matter of public policy, as the funding of projects, the heart of progress, is exceedingly important, as research tends to be more and more expensive. There is also a moral component to research, as we have seen with the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, which scientists hailed as the greatest experiment of humankind and opponents decried as irresponsibly bringing about the end of the world by having it swallowed up by a black hole produced in the collider. Understanding of the concerns of both scientists and non-scientists is crucial to progress not only for basic research of energy, but also the research in medical fields and technology.

In the fifty years since the start of this debate there have been many advances both in the fields of science as well as in technology. Society is changing its means of communication, reaching an unprecedented number of people all over the world with the success of the Internet, telecommunications of voice, pictures and data transfer. What was true in the time of C.P. Snow has changed radically, as young people communicate more, using the new technology.

Today, we are much farther along in the scientific and technical revolution, than as described by Snow, and the changes are accelerating. The tools and means to bridge the cultures are available and we have to add the mindset, which is the role of education. Therefore, education is still our best hope to bring together both scientists and non-scientists. They need a common language and understanding, because together they decide what is funded and what will be left out. Public policy on science should be based on scientific understanding of the problems that we face, by those who have the power to allocate the resources that scientists need. Our ability to tackle solutions that face our nation- natural catastrophes, hunger, disease and hatred-depends on our comprehension of the world we live in and this can be only achieved through education that encompasses both sciences and humanities. …

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