"The Two Cultures," delivered as the Rede Lecture in 1959 at Cambridge, made something of a stir, inciting heated comment in various scholarly forums. In 1963 Snow offered a response to 4 years' worth of critique.
In "The Two Cultures" Snow argued that 'literary intellectuals' and
physical scientists form two highly educated groups separated by a very wide
gulf of mutual incomprehension. Snow acknowledged that there could be a third,
or fourth, or fifth culture, were he willing to make finer distinctions. But
for his purposes, two would do.
Scientists have a developed culture: "there are common attitudes, common standards and patterns of behaviour, common approaches and assumptions." (9) Scientists naturally, said Snow, have "the future in their bones." Literary intellectuals are harder to characterize as a group. But one unifying characteristic is an astounding ignorance about basic scientific premises. Worse, members of this group appear to be proud of this ignorance. For their part, they dislike the brash, boastful shallowly optimistic attitude of scientists. Scientists, on their side, tend not to read anything of history, literature, plays or poetry, and when they do, they are appalled by the values (I am not sure just what these values are) apparently advanced by 'modern' authors. The authors Snow cites specificially are Yeats, Pound, and Wyndham Lewis (I think Pound, anyway, was a Fascist).
Snow briefly compared the English system of education to the American and the Russian. The English system had been, and still to some degree was dominated by exams, some of them useless for the purposes of education. One such exam had been changed during the recent past, and it will be necessary, he argued to change the Cambridge educational system again. He returns to this point at the end of his lecture.
Although Snow claims affinity with both sides, it's pretty clear with whom he sympathizes most: scientists, says Snow, have accepted the truth that "most human beings are underfed and die before their time" (6) and by their work are doing something to change those two conditions. The great practical benefits of the Industrial Revolution were ignored by those intellectuals whose material condition in life had no need for amendment. They were practical Luddites. But for Snow, "[i]ndustrialisation is the only hope of the poor," bringing health and an improved standard of living. To understand the world as it is now, and the coming future, it is necessary to understand the scientific revolution.
Regarding the education needed for the future, Snow believed that English students should understand the technology that was shaping their lives and, incidentally, know something of basic science as well. He noted that the Americans and Russians were educating proportionally more of their children. Americans were initially "looser" than the rest, but that their students managed to catch up by the end of their undergraduate education. The Russians produced proportionally more scientists than the others, and had a far more arduous high-school education. He argued, as the nation of Singapore was to do 40 years later, that people were England's best and only resource, and as such had to be among the best educated in the world if England was to remain competitive.
As long as there are disparities in the world, Snow argued, the West had to be instrumental in helping to remedy those disparities. Technology, he suggested, can be understood by anyone, from any background; "[t]here is no evidence that any country or race is better than any other in scientific teachability: there is a good deal of evidence that all are much alike . It is technically possible to carry out the scientific revolution in India, Africa, South-east Asia, Latin American, and the Middle East, within fifty years." (45-46) No social constructivist he! If educated people from the West do not assist with education and capital, then our interests and needs will be irrelevant to our Eastern neighbors - and those neighbors, without doubt, will become the most powerful nations on earth. He argues that scientists uniquely suited to join in this effort to help poorer nations because they are willing to do a job collegially without indulging in paternalism. (Really!) Ultimately, he said, it will be necessary to close the gap between our two cultures and amend our education if we are going to be wise, compassionate, helpful and relevant to the rest of the world.
A Second Look
Snow mentioned the astonishing slew of ill-will aimed at him from some literary intellectuals (F. R. Leavis in particular) and the many misquotes that puzzled and pained him. He reiterated his belief in the existence of two cultures -- 'cultures' defined as 'developments of the mind'. These cultures were and are ignorant of each other and unsympathetic toward each other. He agreed that the line between science and technology was hard to draw, and hard enough that he might abandon the distinction as un-useful. He returned to the question of education and re-evaluated the national educations he mentioned in his first essay. Americans are singled out for creating bridges between the two cultures in MIT and Cal Tech. He added, at this point, a developing third culture that did require mention: social historians. These, too, could form a bridge. And he mentioned, in an aside, that he thought molecular biology (as opposed to physics) was a subject in which every person should become literate. Prescient, that!
Snow turned again to the politics of compassion: "[P]erhaps two-thirds of our fellow men are living in the immediate presence of illness and premature death .But this suffering is unnecessary and can be lifted .if we don't know it, there is no excuse or absolution for us." (77) He reminded his readers that these conditions had been recently amended in the West - within the last two hundred years. He quoted, to repudiate, D. H. Lawrence's sexually charged appreciation of "master" and "servant," "command" and "obedience." Snow was appalled at Lawrence's romanticized version of control. "As soon as the poor began to escape from their helplessness, the assertion of the individual will [tyranny] was the first thing they refused to take." (89) (I don't think he quite apprehends the set of emotions, or the relationship, that Lawrence is describing, but that's another point.)
But great writers, said Snow, last. They are judged great not because of their grasp of relevant social events such as the Industrial Revolution, nor because of their moral purity or palatable politics, but because actually, he doesn't really say. Simply because they are good writers. The effect of a great book is this: "As we read, our imaginations stretch wider than our beliefs." I suppose he means that a great writer is able to convey clear and compelling and somehow "lived" emotions. (By the by, he doesn't like Lawrence because he thinks him shallow, hollow, hypocritical.) He rebuked writers who wished to be free from the imposition of all personalities and all social boundaries: to be anti-social, in Snow's world, is to be immoral.
As a final note, he reiterated the need for a change in education, for a closing of the gap so as to produce educated, capable imaginative, responsible and -- although he doesn't use the word-- compassionate human beings.