Education: Between Two Cultures

Paul Grobstein's picture

An interesting conversation has broken out, at several different places on Serendip and beyond, among (so far) two scientists, three humanists, and several college students of whom at least one has yet to declare an identity. Among the things that make it interesting, to me at least, is that it isn't actually about the two cultures per se (see also Two Cultures or One?), but rather about experiences teaching and learning in different contexts - with the intriguing suggestion that humanists might have something to learn in this regard from scientists and vice versa.

The shifting locale of the discussion makes it a little hard to keep track of. And new people may find it hard to find the discussion, much less to get involved in it. So I thought I'd provide a bit of a road map here, and encourage current and new participants to continue conversation about education and the two cultures in the on-line forum below.

Common ground for education in science and the humanities?

The Context

A Starting Point

A Longish Branch

A Twig

Current growth points

This is, of course, no more than one person's tentative chart of the terrain explored so far. I trust my colleagues will provide their own maps as they think desireable. I do think the conversations suggest there is rich territory here for further exploration and so a preliminary survey is worthwhile not only for those who have been involved to this point but, even more importantly, to encourage additional people to become involved. Looking forward to seeing where we go next.






Paul Grobstein's picture

cynicism, skepticism, and rhetoric

"The difference between a skeptic and a cynic is that a skeptic never had hope, so they find it difficult to believe, whereas a cynic once had hope, lost it, and now refuses to believe."

Sounds like your book is one I should look into too. I'm a long standing fan of the Greek skeptics, and of more contemporary incarnations of them (see Writing Descartes and Fellow Travelling with Richard Rorty).

Whether as cynic or skeptic, I may be a minority voice but I'm not at all a lone one (cf Stephen J. Gould, The Hedgehog, The Fox, and the Magister's Pox). Maybe outliers play a role in the evolution of science (and the humanities) similar to the role they play in biologial systems? Yes, seems to me both science and the humanities need to drop their respective forms of protective coloration and open themselves to wider exchange. I doubt (cynic or skeptic?) that is only a matter of rhetoric (see below and above) but can well imagine that a change of rhetoric would help.

Anne Dalke's picture

Truth or consequences?

I have just finished working my way through David Mazella's book on The Making of Modern Cynicism, which has helped fill in some of the gaps that existed for me in the earlier portions of our conversations (thanks!) and also, I think, offers something of a way forward from where we are now.

As I follow the argument (and David will of course correct this if it's off) tracing the prehistory of cynicism can teach us quite a bit about its role in modern morals and politics. For starters, the ancient Cynics insisted on the philosopher's public life as "the truest expression of the consequences" of his philosophy, the place where his "doctrines could be examined by the public for their truth or fraudulence."

This description seems to me similar to Serendip's contemporary role in encouraging public conversation among as large and diverse a group of thinkers and writers as it can gather (see Serendip's Evolving Web Principles & Guidelines for Publishing Thoughts on Serendip ) -- with the important caveat that the goal here is less "correction" or "truth-seeking" than the "adventure" of creating "new appreciations."

Where the two projects--the work of the ancient Cynics and of contemporary Serendipians--seem to me most clearly to intersect is in their shared refusal to uphold what David calls the "untenable distinction between political action and political language":

"these attacks betray their impatience with the vagaries of free discussion, which they figure as an empty delaying tactic designed to forestall genuine action or change....Consequently, certain kinds of doubts may not be admitted into political discussion, or certain kinds of discussion may not even taken place, because they hinder 'our' ability to act decisively."

Taking the time to think --as the reflective Cynics once did, as the thoughtful Serendipians now do...there both humanists and scientists find common ground?

If so, then: on to the next question--

Alice suggests that the conventional distinction between the objects of science and those of humanities--between "first-hand observation" and "culturally embedded" phenomena--is blurry: since "observation is culturally situated," we can't disentangle "naturally observable phenomena...from our stories of them."

This seems to me a great place to pick up on the proposal that scientists and humanists have something to learn from one another regarding our teaching experiences. Scientists might profit from recognizing their social situatedness, the embeddedness of their observations in cultural forms. What else might humanists have to learn from scientists?

Paul Grobstein's picture

what humanists might learn from scientists ...

To stop beating a dead horse? Yes, "observations" are inevitably "culturally embedded." But one can usefully aspire to make them less so than they are at any given time (cf The Brain and Social Organization/Culture and The "Objectivity/Subjectivity" Spectrum). And one can still usefully distinguish them from "stories". Despite the fact that both observations and stories are culturally embedded, there is an important (rhetorical?) difference between them. One consists of what is to be made sense of, the other is the way(s) one ways sense of that. The distinction helps to clarify one's own thinking and, equally importantly, to productively share it with others, who can then ask do I think differently because I am trying to account for different things or beause I have a different way of accounting for the same things. Its time to stop focusing on teaching people that everything is context dependent (cf Story Evolution) and move on to teaching people how to work effectively, to make new things, in and because of such a context.
jrlewis's picture

The comments about context

The comments about context and situatedness remind me of my inorganic chemistry textbook. It spent a significant amount of time comparing and contrasting different theories for the electonic structures of atoms and molecules. These theories were developed from different frameworks and explain distinct observations.

However, there is some conflict and overlap between them. The textbook listed the strength's, weaknesses, and limitations of each theory. This practice provided a greater depth of understanding. I think there is a similar procedure in philosophy for discussing the contributions of various philosophers. In both disciplines, a story is considered valuable either for its ability to say something meaningful within a context or about a new unexplored area/context.




dmazella's picture

contexts and research advances?

Philosophy represents an interesting case, because the Anglo-American branches of Analytic philosophy treat philosophical history and its contexts as secondary to generating new problems and solutions.  The Continental branch is much more open to reexamining and reworking older problems and positions, and in this respect is much closer to literary studies.  This is one reason why literary scholars in America discuss Derrida much more often than philosophers.

The hard sciences, however, seem to have more difficulty using "superseded" frameworks for generating new understandings.   I would expect these frameworks to have a pedagogical use, but not a really generative use for new research and emergent problems. 

This, at any rate, is how I interpret Paul's response to Anne about the situatedness of the scientific observer.  If I understand Paul correctly, this kind of observation about situatedness is nice to have, but doesn't seem crucial to making new discoveries in his field, a very different attitude than that found in the humanities or even the "soft" sciences.

 And Kuhn's notion of paradigms and paradigm-shifts seems to demand that scientists themselves remain incapable of switching their perspectives from one paradigm to another at will, or of translating the results of an analysis in one paradigm into terms recognizable for another paradigm.  This is what Malhotra calls "incommensurability":

The thesis of incommensurability implies that rival theories are radically incommensurable. The impossibility of full translation between rival paradigms is further exacerbated by the fact that the advocates of different paradigms often subscribe to different methodological standards and have nonidentical sets of cognitive values (Kuhn, 1977).

So what does the incommensurability thesis do to our hope for "advancements in knowledge"?

Paul Grobstein's picture

Past and future: what two cultures might learn from each other

"The hard sciences, however, seem to have more difficulty using "superseded" frameworks for generating new understandings."

Yep, and that it seems to me IS a significant general difference between at least some of the science and some of the humanities. One tends to presume that earlier stories are subsumed in current ones and hence needn't be given explicit attention. The other tends to presume that an acquaintance with earlier stories is an essential background to current story telling. Maybe this is another place where the "two cultures" could each learn something from the other's experiences?

We've already established that I'm not a "typical" scientist (is anyone? or a "typical" humanist?) but I'll readily admit that I've previously been called on the carpet about my greater interest in contemporary as opposed to older stories. More accurately, a friend in philosophy (yes, much more inclined to the Continental as opposed to the Analytic branch) took issue with my aspiration to "get it less wrong", or at least with my preference for the contemporary over the older ....

"What would be more surprising, after all, than finding novelty in the seemingly identical repetition of old ideas? Coming from philosophy, i surely experience this in Heidegger reading the Greeks, Deleuze reading Leibniz, or Derrida reading pretty much anything. There is great potential in encountering wrong ideas that persisted stagnantly as wrong for centuries. an idea's being repeated can be as generative as any other wrong movement."

Davey's specific point makes sense to me. All ideas (stories), including contemporary ones, are "wrong", and one can derive new stories from old ones as well as contemporary ones if one puts ones mind to it. More generally, science does, I think, seriously under-represent its historical dimension, with serious costs both to science itself and to its ability to participate in public discourse. Relevant to both is that the historical amnesia of science contributes to a misunderstanding of contemporary scientific stories as representing eternal verities rather than, as they actually are, particular responses to particular somewhat arbitrary problems and opportunities that occurred in the past. In lieu of more attention to the historical context, students have trouble getting clear in their own minds the significance of particular contemporary observations and stories and end up either puzzled or bored, or taking the significance as simply part of an acculturation process. And practicing scientists themselves tend to neglect older texts which, when rediscovered, frequently contain observations and/or stories that redirect the scientific enterprise, moving it in directions it almost certainly wouldn't have gone based solely on contemporary work. Individual scientists, and whole fields, often get "stuck" using particular lines of advance when the foundations of more productive lines are sitting in older texts.

In short, I think science would benefit from borrowing some of the historicity of the humanities. And, I suspect, the humanities could benefit from borrowing some of the contemporary/future orientation of the sciences. The preoccupation of the humanities with foundational texts tends to put it in the same position of appearing to represent eternal verities as does the ahistoricity of science. And, I suspect, has the same effect of puzzling or boring students as to their significance, unless they are willing/able to take this on faith as part of an acculturation process. Finally, just as both individual scholars and whole fields can get "stuck" by ignoring old texts, so can they get stuck by getting preoccupied by them. The need and consequences of having to find connectedness and authority by reference to foundational texts has clearly created problems for both psychoanalysis and marxist thought, problems not entirely dissimilar from those associated with fundamentalist religion and strict interpretations of the Constitution.

No, I'm not advocating a fusion of the sciences and the humanities; their differences are beneficial to both and to the larger intellectual task (the incommensurable can be an asset rather than a threat to understanding, understood as an ongoing process rather than a final state). But perhaps the sciences and the humanities could make better common cause by each in their own way making clearer their aversion to eternal verities, to insularity, and to navel gazing? By clarifying their respective commitments to generating, sharing, and revising stories that have the potential to prove engaging to everyone?
dmazella's picture

is there such a thing as a foundational text in the humanities?


I take your point that the neglect of history can lead to unproductive cul-de-sacs in even your field.  But I think it's a fair question whether previous, "superseded" scientific writings could ever become "foundational texts" that repay successive rereadings and reinterpretations.   And I think that there's a recognized difference between people who "do" the history of science and those who "do" science, even when it's the same person.

On the other hand, the humanities do not have a consensus view of whether "foundational texts" actually exist, or just which texts might qualify for that status.  Certainly different times and places (there's history speaking again) have awarded this status to different texts or traditions, and in innumerable ways, but that's just more grist for the historicist mill.  These debates, which always feature claims about the "timelessness" of this or that classic text, are the best sign of the need to shore up the present reputation of a particular work under changing conditions.  

As long as we recognize that the past is reconstructed in the present, by people who reflect present preoccupations, I don't think we are in any danger of losing contact with the present or its needs when we think about historical questions. 

This to me does not involve eternal verities, but rather the opposite, the contingent relation of the present to the complex conditions of the past.  In other words, the experiences, vocabularies, works of past may very well possess elements that are incommensurable with, or untranslatable into, the language or experience of those inhabiting the present.   

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