Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Bringing the Two Cultures together

Oh boy, Science Times Tuesday. I admit, I like it best when they don't have linguistics stuff, given how often they don't get that stuff right, but I always look forward to it, even with occasional disappointments.

This morning, Natalie Angier has a piece called "Curriculum Designed to Unite Art and Science." Here's a key quote:
a few scholars of thick dermis and pep-rally vigor believe that the cultural chasm can be bridged and the sciences and the humanities united into a powerful new discipline that would apply the strengths of both mindsets, the quantitative and qualitative, to a wide array of problems.
Really? Do tell. Wait, this idea sounds familiar.

First, a note on the history of ideas. The NYT piece draws on C.P. Snow's "Two Cultures" riff. He was both a physicist and a novelist, so had a foot in both worlds in some sense, as he notes at the beginning. But don't assume he was always so lovey-dovey with lit guys — the book isn't a kumbaya moment. His chapter "Intellectuals as Natural Luddites" is aimed in no small part at literary scholars. And a lot is aimed at the disconnect between academia and the real world, like the wealth and power produced by the industrial revolution.

Where were we? Oh yeah, how this sounds familiar. I've got it: Linguistics does this. I know a whole set of linguists who move freely between reading texts in dead languages and working in the phonetics lab. Most linguists have some good part of the math/logic/stat background the article portrays as desirable, are comfortable with discussions of ethnography and such since we do so much fieldwork, and we count as 'humanities' at lots of major institutions.

Another reason linguistics really should be at the center of the world.

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