One book clubs together the 'two cultures'

June 11, 2009

They have taken place in pubs, living rooms and church halls, but now book groups are moving into a Scottish university's halls of residence.

Every new student enrolling at the University of St Andrews this autumn will be sent a novel during the summer and will be encouraged to discuss it with other freshers when they arrive on campus in September.

The university is distributing Mohsin Hamid's novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a Man Booker-shortlisted work, to all 1,500 new undergraduates in an initiative to give students a common discussion topic and to focus their energies on broad intellectual debate rather than narrow academic study.

Once they arrive, they will be invited to sign up for book group meetings during freshers' week to discuss the tome with other students and academics.

Jonathan Taylor, chair of the Booker Prize Foundation, which provided funding for the programme, approached St Andrews after organising a similar project at Georgetown University in the US.

He said the UK had to do more to convince students from all disciplines to think about their academic study as broadly as possible.

"It's an area where the US is ahead of us. There is a liberal arts component in most of their undergraduate syllabuses," he said. "It harks back to C.P. Snow's 'two cultures' issue."

In The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, the scientist and novelist argued that breaking down the cultural boundaries between the sciences and the humanities would solve many of the world's problems.

Mr Taylor said that the book club was an important step towards bringing the two cultures together.

"The principle is that it's the entire freshman class - physicists, economists and biologists. It should have a rather good effect on bringing them together."

Louise Richardson, principal of St Andrews, said: "We are a university: we are about books, ideas, learning and debate."

Mr Taylor is in talks with Trinity College Dublin and is looking for an English university to set up similar projects.

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