It’s time to end the two-cultures era between science and the humanities

The Vatican Museums, Musei Vaticani, are the public art and sculpture museums in the Vatican City, which display works from the extensive collection of the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Julius II founded the museums in 16th century Rome. (Joe Sohm/Dreamstime/TNS)

The melody of human progress up to the present has played on two grand instruments: science and the humanities. But for the last few hundred years, these instruments have been treated as separate entities, one concerned with the physical world and validated by objective empirical testing, the other, largely, with subjective selfhood and human meaning.

To use chemist and author C.P. Snow’s famous words from his 1959 Rede lecture at Cambridge University, we are in a two-culture era: Science and the humanities can now barely hear each other across the chasm we have created between them.

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Make no mistake. The stakes are high. To lead our lives as if the humanities and the sciences are distinct will negatively affect our continued development, especially given the reliance on siloed departments and divisions in what counts as “higher education” in the modern American university.

Astronomers never cross paths with anthropologists, lawyers with doctors, mathematicians with classicists. No one, then, emerges from the university with an understanding of how these fields ought to engage.

Instead, we act as if complicated problems are solvable through a purely technical and scientific mindset, divorced from engagement with basic questions about ethical implications, politics and human impact. We teach people to be this way.

These few centuries have been a flash in the pan: No ancient culture segregated science from the humanities. What humans knew was regarded as a holistic body of knowledge to help them live better lives, and the physical world and humanistic self-reflection could and did work in tandem.

Figures such as Aristotle, Averroes and Francis Bacon had expertise that stretched across the body of knowledge. J. Robert Oppenheimer framed his nuclear work in terms of the “Bhagavad Gita,” understanding the implications of becoming a “destroyer of worlds”; in science fiction, Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics” shaped concerns about artificial intelligence long before AI in its current form existed; Dr. Edward Jenner’s work on the smallpox vaccine built on folk practices such as variolation. They listened to the conversation that science was having with the humanities and culture.

This is an argument that the humanities and sciences are mutually interactive and help build each other. The humanities are not dead: What we need to do is see how they can play with the sciences. Until we see this, our advances in science and technology will proceed with blinders on.

Why did it take us a century to understand that medicine based on the white male body would not work for everyone? Roman physician Galen already knew this two millennia ago. Well, it’s because of the S-word: silo.

The huge challenges of the 21st century demand a multidimensional approach that brings together multiple perspectives on what matters to us. Given what we are facing now — global warming, nuclear war, the question of AI — our future should not be left to the technocrats alone. We need scientists and engineers who understand the unquantifiable cost of their technical advances and humanist thinkers who can critically analyze the data and narratives shaping our world.

Where to start?

In higher education, where the walls separating departments and divisions must be weakened. Building bridges requires a paradigm shift in education, one that allows students to be versed in what connects the disciplines, as well as what separates them, one in which a medical student and a philosopher might well be in the same class.

Yes, fostering interdivisional exposure, in which students engage with both scientific and humanistic perspectives while maintaining their core practices, is difficult. But it is more critical than ever before.

Shadi Bartsch-Zimmer was director of The Institute on the Foundation of Knowledge from 2015 to 2024 at the University of Chicago.