Bridging the great divide: is it possible to cross from the Arts to Sciences?

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The Independent Online

Since 1959, and C. P. Snow’s infamous Rede lecture, there has been a queue of intellectuals determined to find a gulf between the two cultures in university education – the Arts and the Sciences.

Students almost always think of themselves as being on one or other side of this divide, both while studying and on graduation, when they tend to choose careers that suit their long since preordained path. For instance, if you read English, it’s statistically pretty unlikely you’ll ever be a doctor; as a physicist, you’re far more likely to end up in financial services than journalism.

As late as the 1960s, ‘bright boys’ did Classics at Oxford before going on to populate the corridors of power. Yet in 2007, it was reported that the last dedicated Latin and Greek A-levels were to be scrapped, while politicians agonise over how to get pupils to continue with maths and physics. The perception of two cultures has remained, albeit with a ‘new prestige’ – the sense that science degrees are less accessible, more difficult or rigorous, but also more useful to the economy or even humanity as a whole. Science graduates also enjoy higher earning potential, with a recent study by PriceWaterhouseCoopers indicating that chemistry and physics graduates could expect to rake in over £90,000 more over the course of their careers.

This is mirrored by a common sense that humanities are somehow softer and more accessible: we “use the arts to relax,” as David MacAlpine, Professor of Auditory Neuroscience at UCL, has it.

For those who complete their first degree and want to try something different, this dual culture is still very much in place. Ask a member of the science tribe whether they could do a literature degree or pick up a language and the answer will generally be ‘yes’, whereas most people who left the sciences behind as teenagers will balk at going into cognitive neuroscience or engineering.

This is despite the fact that it has never been more straightforward to achieve either of these ambitions. As MacAlpine points out, “individual subjects are more compartmentalized now than ever before”. At degree-level biology, chemistry, physics, maths and medicine swiftly become highly specialized, and transferring between them can be just as daunting as moving from arts to science.

The influence of this separation is particularly pronounced in the UK, where pupils tend to choose between the arts and sciences from as young as 16. However, with the ever-expanding range of taught MAs and conversion courses now available, changing fields is becoming a far more realistic aspiration – depending, of course, on what those fields are.

The traffic runs predominantly in the direction of vocational study: law, medicine, education and business courses are seen as a far more useful investment than, for instance, early Renaissance literature. Knowledge is learnt more narrowly as relative to a craft – and so, a law conversion takes one year, whilst an undergraduate law degree takes three. At several universities, including the Russell Group, medicine can be done in four years instead of six with a 2:1 in any discipline, provided that you can pass a very accessible entrance exam and demonstrate work experience. Loans and even generous funding are widely available, and such courses are increasingly popular among students from ‘unorthodox’ backgrounds, with chemistry-law or modern languages-medicine transfers becoming increasingly commonplace.

Far fewer people attempt to make such drastic interdisciplinary moves within academia, but taught Masters courses exist which are marketed in a similar way to conversion courses. University websites employ phrases such as “excellent preparation for PhD research”, in this case from a course aimed at linguistics students wishing to move into the brain sciences. Although such statements are not in themselves misleading, it is certainly true that to compete within academia, a one-year taught masters might not provide you with much of an edge. More specialised talents – for example, mathematical ability – can prove highly significant; furthermore, research funding is still so sparse that conventional credentials assume far greater importance when awarding grants than might be the case for acquiring a place on a medicine or law course. Academia remains a relatively closed shop; as Ben Robinson, a doctor and research neuroscientist who is also studying for a BA in English Literature says: “I think a good brain from the arts could cope with a science masters better than a bad brain from the sciences,” but adds, “Teaching staff would not accept that.” It remains the case that to carve out an academic career in any of the million-and-two cultures, there are few viable short-cuts in any direction.