Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Bridging the Two Cultures: Disciplinary Divides and Educational Reward Systems

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Bridging the Two Cultures: Disciplinary Divides and Educational Reward Systems

Article excerpt


In 1959 C.P. Snow believed that communication and education could span the cultural gap between the sciences and the humanities. In the twenty-first century, language, research models, and academic structures hinder intellectual communication between art history, cognitive neuroscience and perceptual psychology--three disciplines dedicated to researching vision and visualization. Multiple definitions of basic words such as image, perception, and perspective invite confusion and differences in professional tone can lead to misinterpretation about the validity of research. Standards of evidence vary according to assumptions about what is real, such as the use of photographs in brain scan research to study visual responses to physical objects.

However the reward system of universities creates barriers that are harder to surmount than disciplinary differences. American universities promote interdisciplinary research in theory, but in practice faculty evaluation reinforces disciplines by following a vertical path from the department to the administration. Universities prioritize original research delivered in conventional text publications and devalue research, original or synthetic, that aims for an audience beyond fellow academics. Ironically, universities tend to denigrate "educational" publications and the lower the age of the audience, the less value accorded the research. This creates another cultural divide where interdisciplinary concepts long rejected in the face of academic research persist in K-12 education and popular culture. Examples include Betty Edward's Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain and Jean Piaget

's developmental model of children's art that associates western linear perspective in art with maturity.


C.P. Snow places the cultural differences between science-math and arts-humanities in the context of a larger problem: the difficulty of disseminating research knowledge and ideas to the people who can use them to make the world a better place. (1) Research on the cognitive process of perspective techniques in art reveals some of the problems with bridging art history, cognitive neuroscience, and perceptual psychology. Variations in the definitions of common words, different interpretations of professional tone, and contrasting standards of evidence inhibit interdisciplinary research. Disciplinary differences can be as fundamental as whether photographs should be equated with real objects in neuroscience experiments.

While interdisciplinary issues can be surmounted by faculty with time, intellectual flexibility, and energy, institutional support is essential. In 1990 Ernest Boyer criticized American universities for being preoccupied with prestige in their narrow assessments of research and urged a broader approach that included teaching and service. (2) More than fifteen years later, the quest for institutional status has intensified the focus on speed, quantity and category of publications, deterring interdisciplinary research that requires extensive time or extends beyond established methodologies. Long after Snow expressed his concern that university research needs to focus more on public benefit, the hierarchy of research recognition continues to create a gap between the production of knowledge in universities and its dissemination. As a result K-12 school systems and the general public use outdated and inaccurate knowledge and a lifetime of exposure to discarded research may not be remedied by a few university classes. Thus Betty Edwards' Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain thrives in popular culture and Jean Piaget's western ethnocentrism permeates educational systems by identifying Renaissance linear perspective with individual and cultural maturity while branding much of the world's art and its culture as the product of a childlike stage of development.

Part I. Connecting Visual Brain Processing to Art

Linear perspective, an artistic technique often touted as a sophisticated and accurate representation of three-dimensional forms on a two-dimensional surface (fig. …

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