Celebrity scientist Alice Roberts – medic turned proper doctor turned researcher and anatomy teacher at Bristol University – is moving to Birmingham to assume the role of “Professor of Public Engagement with Science”. This is a well deserved appointment, and I wish Alice every success in her new job. She is an outstanding science communicator.
Plaudits aside, Alice Robert’s academic promotion is not what prompts me to write here. It is rather her comments about the need for a rounded secondary school education that takes in the arts, humanities and sciences. In making this statement, Alice raises to a new level the cultural scientist and scientifically literate artist’s attack on the “Two Cultures”: a term coined in 1959 by the scientist and novelist CP Snow to describe what he saw as the then sorry state of western intellectual life. The newly titled Professor Doctor Doctor Roberts focuses her attention on the English A-level system of high school graduation, contrasting this unfavourably with the broader and more culturally relevant curriculum of the baccalaureate, which is making achingly slow progress through the British educational system.
Alice’s criticism is well-aimed, and I expect that its effect will be amplified by her TV celebrity status. However, much as we need to broaden our children’s education in order to produce literate and cultured individuals capable of taking on and transforming the world for the better, focusing on the so-called “gold standard” of A levels risks missing an important point.
The Two Cultures is an ideological construct designed to reinforce a hegemonic political system. The UK’s top scientists may in some ways be part of the establishment, but they are kept at arms length by those who regard their right to manage and control society as somehow enshrined in the unwritten constitution, and will fight to protect their privileged position. Creative scientists and engineers are celebrated, but they are also expected to know their place.