21 July

Nicky Morgan and The Two Cultures

From time to time determined scientistic voices argue that the Natural Sciences alone are paths to worthwhile knowledge. Now we have the responsible government Secretary of State arguing that students who do not choose science, technology, engineering or maths (STEM) subjects at A-Level are making a choice that will ‘hold them back for the rest of their life’ (see article in The Stage).  Seemingly nothing changes in the briefings received by incumbents of that high office of State, since we are now once again hearing echoes of Labour’s Charles Clarke assaulting the humanities some years ago.

Morgan cites unprecedented change in modern life and a growing demand for STEM subjects as grounds upon which to build her case, and suggests that even the legal profession, once all but a preserve of Classics scholars in is higher reaches at least, is crying out for science graduates owing to a rise in demand for more effective patents.

Many academics, students and, more generally, devotees of the humanities and arts might feel aggrieved to hear a senior politician declare that their subjects limit potential. One might readily enough point out how Morgan’s assumption that human potential is tied to capacity to engage in paid work is more than a little reductive. Indeed, it certainly was not STEM subjects that got Morgan – one who studied Jurisprudence (Law) at Oxford –, where she is today.

This is a shame. The Secretary of State, along with others in the ‘science is best’ crowd, might do worse than recognise publicly how STEM subjects, arts and humanities actually operate in complementary ways and have indeed done so since antiquity. C.P. Snow famously observed long ago in The Two Cultures that it is just as impoverishing educationally to know nothing of Thermodynamics as it is never to have read a Shakespeare play. Nobody can sensibly doubt the importance of physics in constructing and navigating the modern world, but the humanities might be needed for recognition of just how awful it is to drop an atom bomb.

One hopes that Nicky Morgan will widen her horizons beyond the all-too-narrow demands of the market.

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