THE Scholarly Web

Weekly transmissions from the blogosphere

March 15, 2012

The debate about whether the humanities or the sciences are the most important is an interminable argument never far from the headlines. But two academic bloggers recently reaffirmed the case for the "two cultures" being halves of the same whole.

Are the arts and the sciences as distinct as many assume? Stephen Mumford, professor of metaphysics and dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Nottingham, poses the question in a post on his Arts Matters blog.

"If they are, what is the distinction? Do we have a clear definition of each that allows us to see their separation?" he writes. "Most universities will have distinct faculties for arts and sciences, for instance. But the division clearly has some artificiality. Suppose one assumed, for example, that the arts were about creativity while the sciences were about a rigorous application of technique and methods. This would be an oversimplification because all disciplines need both.

"The best science requires creative thinking. Someone has to see a problem, form a hypothesis about a solution, and then figure out how to test that hypothesis and implement its findings."

He continues: "Let us also consider our artists. Creativity alone fails to deliver us anything of worth. A musician or painter must also learn a technique, sometimes as rigorous and precise as found in any science, in order that they can turn their thoughts into a work."

History has shown that the two fields are inextricably linked, he suggests. "Consider Einstein's innovations, for instance, or those of Niels Bohr, who realised that he was often entering into philosophical speculation." Similarly, artists "must attain mastery over their medium. Even a writer works within the rules of grammar to produce beauty."

He concludes: "Newton, Einstein and Darwin be seeking understanding of the world for its own sake, motivated primarily by a sense of wonder... A broad-based university with a comprehensive range of subjects, in which artists and scientists can interact and cross-fertilise, is thus rightly the ideal."

His words are echoed by Valerie Barr, professor and chair of the computer science department at Union College, New York, guest posting on the 4Humanities blog. "I think of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and humanities as being the bookends of a quality education," she writes. "Everyone needs exposure to and experience with both."

Professor Barr agrees with Professor Mumford that for all the advancements STEM subjects allow, they need a creative spark.

"We want the students of today to become the problem-solvers of tomorrow. But where does the creative 'aha' moment come from? We need humanities for these leaps," she writes. "We need to provide a well-rounded education so those who excel in STEM understand there are non-technical considerations that should guide their work, and those who study humanities understand there are powerful problem-solving mechanisms and tools that can open up new avenues of application for their knowledge.

"This isn't either/or, we have to expose students to both."

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