I don't know much biology, but I do know human nature

In the centuries-old debate, the aggrandising of science to the detriment of art is to make the material master of the cultural
Click to follow
The Independent Online

"Art upsets" the sculptor Georges Braque once briskly deposed, "science reassures". Coming across this pronouncement as a teenager, I automatically assumed that it was one of those epigrams – very common they are too – which would make a great deal more sense if reversed. Science upsets, I told myself, and art reassures – a conviction which has stayed with me and was pushed to the surface once more by the experience of reading about the Government's newly unveiled scheme to enhance the value of the modern scientific education.

For some reason governments nearly always feel that they have to be seen to "do something" about science and the benefits it is supposed to bring to the 99 per cent who exist wonderingly in its shadow. Half a century ago, Harold Wilson used to talk about "the white heat of the technological revolution" – a revolution, it has to be said, that was undertaken with barely a thought for the individual and collective psychologies caught up and re-arranged in the slipstream of its blistering progress. Thankfully, David Cameron's announcement was short on blast-furnace metaphor and confined itself to a modest initiative to boost science teaching in schools.

Unusually, in the context of most state-approved schemes for intellectual advancement, there was money available – £67m in fact, to be spent on retraining 17,500 teachers and offering school-leavers cash towards university costs in return for promising to put their degrees in maths and physics to work in the teaching profession. Lurking behind it was the spectre of that beady-eyed utilitarian Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary, who recently encouraged students to avoid the humanities and plump for science and maths if they wanted to access the widest possible range of post-university employment.

Whatever the merits of this scheme – and who could complain about better physics teachers? – it was all too much for Samuel Lovett, writing in our stablemate paper i, who diagnosed a "worrying tendency within both the general public and the higher education system to undervalue the humanities". As a second-year history student at the University of Warwick, Mr Lovett had experience of this growing divide. His tuition fees get him nine hours of lectures and seminars a week, whereas a second-year physicist rates 24 hours per week of lab-time and tutorials.

And to the evidence of lecture lists and contact hours could be added more symbolic reflections of these hulking disparities. Warwick Business School, Mr Lovett disclosed, had inked a deal that would allow it to open a London campus on the 17th floor of the Shard; Warwick humanities building, on the other hand, has had nothing in the way of extension or refurbishment for 40 years. Was it any wonder, he concluded, that equation-solving or Bunsen-burner inspecting contemporaries teased that he was paying £9,000 a year for the privilege of a university library card?

Mr Lovett could, had he wanted, have gone further and wondered why there are so few grants available for postgraduates in the arts when scientists find their paths strewn with state or private subsidy. But the really interesting thing about his complaint is that the wider debate which runs beneath it has been going on since at least the early part of the 19th century, a stand-off not so much between "art" and "science" – which have never been the polar opposites that onlookers sometimes imagine – as between "culture" and "materialism". One of its most violent detonations came in the early 1960s in the wake of C P Snow's Cambridge Rede lecture on "The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution", in which Snow, a distinguished novelist with a PhD in infra-red spectroscopy, argued the benefits of scientific materialism, scorned the "intellectual persons" of the Victorian age who shuddered at the sight of smoking factory chimneys, and accused the British of a snobbish attitude towards science and industry.

Naturally, there were plenty of "intellectual persons" around in the age of Harold Macmillan to protest about this demonstration of what Time magazine called "the tendency of technology to suffocate humanities" – one was the literary critic F R Leavis, who complained of Snow's "portentous ignorance". On the other hand, contemporaneous evidence of such snobbery can hardly be gainsaid: Evelyn Waugh's autobiography A Little Learning, published shortly after the Two Cultures debate was set in train, records of its author's days at Oxford that "there was said to be a laboratory somewhere beyond Keble, but I never met anyone who dabbled there".

Half a century later it would be difficult to find a senior British writer keen to display quite this level of hostility towards what a bygone generation of arts graduates used to refer to collectively as "stinks". On the contrary, one can think of half-a-dozen writers – A S Byatt, say, Margaret Drabble or Ian McEwan – whose books positively reek of their authors' scientific interests. What is really striking, alternatively, is the profound degree of ignorance displayed by most "educated" people towards basic scientific processes. Here am I, for example, a product of 17 years in the British educational system and the only fact I can remember from three terms spent studying physics is that "density equals mass over volume".

As for conceptualising density, explaining what it consists of beyond an equation, well I should have to hand over to my 14-year-old son, now embarked on his GCSE course. In my defence, I was never interested in physics and perhaps not very well taught, all of which suggests that Mr Cameron's plans to up the classroom ante in science teaching may have something to be said for them. At the same time, none of this excuses the tremendous self-satisfaction with which many a modern scientist goes about his or her work and the widely-held assumption that a degree course which may not realise any immediate economic benefit is somehow inferior in value to one concerned with computer technology.

Certainly, the country needs scientists, and far more than Snow envisaged, although one of the reasons we need so many is to deal with the various messes that unfettered science – notably of the petro-chemical kind – has left in its wake. What it needs rather less is the kind of triumphal modern utilitarian who assumes that any human endeavour not expressly calculated to assist material progress operates at not much more than the level of a hobby.

What Good Are the Arts? the Oxford English professor John Carey once demanded in the title of one of his polemical books. The arts, among other things, are there to give us context, to remind us there is more to the world than our own material satisfactions, and to allow us to connect with others in a manner that technology encourages only in the most rudimentary and nuance-free way. A manner, more to the point, that may have more to contribute to "business" than straightforward technical knowledge.

After all, the only undergraduate friend of mine who secured that highly desirable merchant bank post did so by studying modern history and, as he put it, "reading the Financial Times in the train on the way to the interview".