Culturally Relevant

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Of the more than one hundred filmed conversations I’ve had the privilege of having with world-leading experts, few were as illuminating and enjoyable as the one with University of Cambridge intellectual historian and literary critic Stefan Collini.  While part of this was naturally due to Stefan’s warm, engaging manner and deeply impressive use of language to convey his penetrating ideas, another was surely related to the many, overlapping aspects of theory of knowledge that were layered throughout our conversation.   Or so I would now describe it – because at the time, I was entirely unfamiliar with the IB’s Diploma Programme, let alone its flagship “theory of knowledge” mandate. At the time, I just thought that the ideas were both fascinating and incredibly important.

Book Collini 2In fact, my interest was piqued well before I actually sat down with Stefan.  I knew that he was one of the UK’s most highly regarded “public intellectuals”, and his book What Are Universities For? had made a strong impression on me, elucidating in clear, penetrating prose the societal value of higher education while playfully exposing much prevailing nonsense regularly associated with the “education debate”.   So when I stumbled upon a copy of C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures in a bookstore with an introduction by the same Stefan Collini, I thought to myself that I really should pick it up.  

And here it was that the first TOK-related concept made its appearance.  Because, you see, I thought I knew what The Two Cultures was all about.  Indeed, everyone knew what The Two Cultures meant: that the sciences and the humanities were separate, unlinked avenues of scholarship, reinforced by inappropriately structured universities to the overall detriment of society.  Indeed, as someone who had spent years as an academic administrator leading a research institute with a vigorous outreach programme, I had often specifically invoked this core message of the yawning (and widening) cultural gap between the humanities and the sciences as something my institute was determined to overcome.   

And so it was that I spent the better part of 15 minutes in the bookstore debating with myself whether or not I should actually buy the book at all. After all, why buy a book when you already know what’s inside it? At the end, however, I decided to give it a go, likely pushed over the edge by Stefan’s name and my positive experiences with What Are Universities For?  Even though I knew what The Two Cultures was all about, I certainly hadn’t read Stefan’s introduction, so that would make it worth reading. And it was a pretty thin book, anyway.

Book Two CulturesImagine my surprise, then, that when I finally took the time to read through Snow’s The Two Cultures lectures and discovered that the widening gap between academic departments wasn’t the focus of Snow’s arguments at all.  It turns out that his primary concern was how science and technology are vital to the cause of redressing global poverty and societal inequality and how most contemporary policymakers were ill-equipped to productively address those issues given their general scientific illiteracy (indeed, antipathy towards science).  

Which means that, 60 years after C.P. Snow delivered his famous Two Culture lectures at the University of Cambridge, we are in a situation where virtually everyone has heard about “The Two Cultures”, and have a clear and distinct idea of what it means, but most of us are actually wrong.   Which is, I think, simply fascinating (and immediately makes one wonder why the currently understood meaning of the term has strayed so far from that of its original author).  And while this topic is ideally suited to analysis using TOK vocabulary to discuss how the dynamical interplay of 2-3 WOKs (language and memory, perhaps with a bit of emotion thrown in for good measure) play out in various overlapping AOKs (human sciences, history and ethics), the over-arching lesson to be learned is that just because we think we know what something is about because it plays such a strong role in “the public consciousness”, we might actually be wrong.  

Screen Shot 2019-01-30 at 15.15.27Or to put it another way, while the current notion of what “The Two Cultures” means these days is what it is simply because that’s what everybody now believes, that’s not at all the same thing as it being a historically true account of what the phrase meant by the person who coined the expression in the first place: Under what circumstances can we be certain that a common expression has the same meaning as what its author intended?

But that turns out to be only the beginning: it wasn’t just that Snow gave some lectures whose overall meaning evolved in time in the public consciousness.  A few years after Snow’s 1959 lecture, the literary critic F.R. Leavis bitterly attacked Snow for his views. Here is where, at least in my experience, the “public consciousness” gets a bit hazy.  For while “The Two Cultures” is a phrase almost everyone thinks they know something about, and many people have at least vaguely heard of C.P. Snow (a once-famous novelist now predominantly recognized for his association with “The Two Cultures”), almost nobody remembers F.R. Leavis.  

But Leavis’ vitriol turns out to be just as TOK-relevant as the societal-wide amnesia associated with Snow’s The Two Cultures.  For why was Leavis so upset?  Was he sceptical of Snow’s general public policy goals?  Was he a fan of global poverty and societal inequality? Hardly.  Leavis’ issues with Snow were twofold: he believed that Snow’s diagnosis of societal ills were both simplistic and distorting – that measuring societal success exclusively in rudimentary economic terms such as GDP was both naive and dangerously counterproductive to the entire human project – and that Snow’s self-proclaimed status as an authority figure suited to weigh in on this vital manner was little less than absurd.  

Both of these points, it is clear, are not also deeply TOK-related (How do we know that our current ways of measuring societal progress are valid?  To what extent can someone’s status as an authority figure be justified?) – they are also of paramount importance to economics, geography, global politics, ITGS, language and literature, psychology and philosophy.  Indeed, for those in the business of trying to concretely improve societal structures or meaningfully address global inequality, it is, quite frankly, hard to think of questions that are more important to address.  

Think of that the next time somebody tries to tell you that TOK doesn’t really have much to do with “the real world”.

Howard Burton,

To best explore the topics raised in this post for teaching and learning, please see below a number of related expert resources that are part of Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal which offers a dynamic IB-specific database of 500+ authoritative video and print resources featuring more than 80 world-leading researchers, including two Nobel Laureates, explicitly created to meet the needs of both teachers and students in the Diploma Programme – please visit our new website  for further information.

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