Mellon Foundation President Asserts One Culture, Not 2

By Alexander C. Kafka


Don Michael Randel (photos by A.C.K.)

Mellon Foundation President Don Michael Randel said Thursday that C.P. Snow’s “two cultures” is a notion widely misunderstood and overplayed, and that scientists, humanists, and artists are “fundamentally engaged in the same enterprise.”

Randel—a musicologist who has served as president of the University of Chicago, provost of Cornell University, and dean of Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences—discussed the notion of divided intellectual cultures in a keynote at the ArtsEngine conference at the University of Michigan on “The Role of Art-Making and the Arts in the Research University.”

In a speech titled “What Researchers and Artists Actually Do,” Randel recalled the historical context of Snow’s oft-cited writings stemming from a 1959 lecture critiquing the British educational structure. Snow’s emphasis, Randel said, was on the gulf between the rich and the poor. Snow was concerned that elitism and disconnectedness in the humanities was an impediment to the science-driven advancement toward a more progressive, equitable society. Snow’s ideas have since been removed from their U.K.-centered, cold-war oriented context, and exaggerated to imply a significant gap between the overall world-views of scientists and those of humanists.

Mark Turner

There is, and should be, no such gap, said Randel. Scientists, humanists, and artists all pursue an Aristotelian venture into contemplation toward reason, an exhausting but fulfilling human quest. Scholars must “vigorously assert that we are all one in the life of the mind,” Randel said, a life based on pursuits of “curiosity, imagination, and reflection for their own sake.”

Like some other speakers at the conference, Randel advised wariness toward “instrumental” arguments in favor of support for the arts. Such arguments—for example, that the arts contribute to the gross domestic product and are good for business—are often used, he said, simply because for many constituencies they are effective. But such rationales are self-defeating, he suggested, in the sense that they equate the arts with entertainments like pro sports instead of stressing the arts’ fundamental humanity. Nor should the arts be pitched to monied interests and the public as simply “a veneer for our students and ourselves,” he said, something to make us look and feel more cultured as we concentrate on material goals.

George Kuh

Randel  condemned an America in danger of becoming “a country of the special interests, by the special interests, for the special interests,” with the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities each allocated about $150-million annually, on the order of magnitude (or less, depending how it’s measured) as the cost of one F-22 Raptor stealth fighter jet.

Randel said that artists and humanists might present their case for arts support in a manner akin to the physicist Robert Wilson’s reply when asked by a senator what use a particle accelerator would have for the national defense. It would be, said Wilson, “of no use at all … but only to make the nation worth defending.”

“Every child is born” with an instinct for research, said Randel, a thrill in discovering various types of order, and universities must foster, or in some cases revive, that instinct, and not just as “an aggregation of specialists.” There is, he said, “only one culture—and that’s us. All of us.”

Randel’s remarks jibed with those of Mark Turner, a cognitive scientist at Case Western Reserve University, who described the brain as an infinitely dynamic and complex machine, but not one cordoned off into topics or tasks. The arts writ large, he said, are part of how humans compress and create metaphors in packaging concepts to help determine behavior and action. Thus an apparent falsity, like an illustration for children about evolution, might portray a fundamental truth that dinosaurs over time developed wings and became birds. Or a newspaper graphic might compare sprinters during two different eras when, clearly, those runners never raced each other.

Sunil Iyengar

Art, then, said Turner, is not just complementary to education in some vague, abstract way, but a basic characteristic of what humans are and what distinguishes us from the other great apes. That the arts are key to education and development isn’t a matter of controversial conjecture to cognitive scientists, he said; it’s a bedrock given.

George Kuh, of Indiana University, and Sunil Iyengar, director of the NEA’s Office of Research and Analysis, stressed the continuing importance of gathering and assessing good data on arts and education. But both noted that some apparent trends have emerged. For instance, Kuh said, arts majors seem to have more experience with diversity than their peers, spend more time preparing for class, and do more collaborative learning. And, said Iyengar, arts education generally is associated with a leveling effect compensating for gaps in education and income, and is an indicator of greater future civic engagement.

Kuh suggested a next step might be more intensive efforts to generate an “arts effect index” to measure how exposure of students to arts-rich environments might change their experiences and outlook during college and after. And Iyengar said the NEA was supporting studies aimed at getting a better grip on Americans’ overall experience of arts and culture, whether at a traditional venue like a concert hall, or at a bar, a house of worship, or online.
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