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

Older Than Snow: The Two Cultures and the Yale Report of 1828

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

Older Than Snow: The Two Cultures and the Yale Report of 1828

Article excerpt


C.P. Snow's The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution represents the most famous reincarnation of a debate concerning the clash of academic cultures in higher education. This essay explores the similarities and differences in the circumstances surrounding Snow's lecture addressing a widening gap between the scientific and literary cultures of the mid-twentieth century and the reactions to a similar "clash of cultures" in antebellum America. This nineteenth century episode was a debate between the traditional culture of classical education and the nascent culture of practical, professional education. The traditional culture in higher education was vigorously and eloquently defended in a report composed by the faculty at Yale College. Although the time and circumstances were different, the parallels between the arguments heard in 1959 and those put forth in 1828 are remarkably similar.


In his famous Two Cultures lecture of 1959, C.P. Snow concluded his analysis of the divide between the traditional literary culture and the recently evolving culture of science by calling for educational reform as a proposed bridge between the two:

   Closing the gap between our cultures is a necessity in the most
   abstract intellectual sense, as well as in the most practical....
   For the sake of the intellectual life, for the sake of this
   country's special danger, for the sake of the western society
   living precariously rich among the poor, for the sake of the poor
   who needn't be poor if there is intelligence in the world, it is
   obligatory for us and the Americans and the whole West to look at
   our education with fresh eyes. (1)

Over a century earlier, in America, another writer asked a similar question. The two cultures in conflict were different, but the nature of the conflict--as well as the author's proposal to bridge the gap between the cultures--was substantially the same:

   The man of science is often disposed to assume an air of
   superiority, when he looks upon the narrow and partial views of the
   mere artisan. The latter in return laughs at the practical blunders
   of the former. The defects in the education of both classes would
   be remedied, by giving them a knowledge of scientific principles,
   preparatory to practice. (2)

This second quote comes from the Yale Report, a response by the faculty of Yale to a call for change to the college curriculum in order to accommodate shifting needs in American society. In this essay, I will seek to highlight the parallel crises that facilitated Snow's Two Cultures lecture and the Yale Report, while discussing the similarities--as well as the differences--between the two responses.

The Two Cultures

C. P. Snow's "Rede Lecture" of 1959, titled the The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, brought to a boil a question that had simmered for some time among scientists and non-scientists alike. Snow bemoaned the ever-widening chasm between scientists and the literary elite--a chasm that Snow found especially pronounced within the inner sanctums of Oxford and Cambridge. Snow was a scientist by training, but a novelist by vocation. He thought himself uniquely qualified to comment upon the communication barriers he found between the culture of the literary elite and the culture of the scientist:

   I felt I was moving among two groups--comparable in intelligence,
   identical in race, not grossly different in social origin, earning
   about the same incomes, who had almost ceased to communicate at
   all, who in intellectual, moral and psychological climate had so
   little in common that instead of going from Burlington House or
   South Kensington to Chelsea, one might have crossed an ocean. (3)

Among Snow's goals in the Two Cultures lecture was to investigate this lack of communication and make suggestions for remedies. …

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