Photo: Sneha Srivastava/Mint
Photo: Sneha Srivastava/Mint

Dichotomy of two cultures

Our society has overemphasized education in the technical and scientific disciplines for decades

Last week, a friend told me his solution to India’s problem of poor learning in schools, which others have also advocated. The essence of this approach is: let’s get the very best teachers on video links and in pre-recorded formats to all schools, while the teacher in the classroom can play the role of a facilitator, and so we needn’t be bothered about her capacity as an educator.

I asked him my standard question for such circumstances, whether he would want his daughter to go to such a school, where a terrific math teacher is video-streamed in to the classroom (along with hundreds of other similar classrooms) which has a facilitator. This friend has a sense of the nature of good teaching and learning, and that these are processes embedded firmly in social relationships, so he backed off from his solution. He remains troubled that there seem to be no neat solutions for the matter of how to improve the teaching-learning process in all classes for all children. He recognizes that improving education is a kind of “wicked problem", but can’t accept its implications in terms of the necessarily slow, unclear and socio-politically fraught way forward.

Many people propose a variant of my friend’s approach to various social issues. They do it with deep conviction, often ignoring the fundamental social-human nature of such issues, nor appreciating that most such issues are wicked problems or are entangled in many. Instead, they think of these as mechanical problems, admittedly complex, but that can be solved by a few grand ideas or tools. Such solution approaches have clear and simple models, leading to a belief that it is doable and it will work. These are like technology models; there is definite design with everything having a place and function, input-output variables are known with predictable relationships and the elements are largely controllable.

On 7 May 1959, C.P. Snow delivered his famous Rede Memorial Lecture on The Two Cultures, which was later published as a book. Its essence is well-known: “the intellectual life of Western society is split into two cultures", that of sciences and of humanities, they can’t even talk to each other, this is a major obstacle to overall progress and in solving the world’s problems. This dichotomized formulation has justifiably had its trenchant critics; still it has had significant influence on public discourse in the past 60 years.

When thinking about social issues we seem to implicitly hold our own versions of the two cultures. One is the techno-model view and the other is the social-humanistic one. While a few may hold one and be totally oblivious of the other, but when it comes to action, often one or the other approach is advocated with a perfunctory nod to the other. People in the thick of things, on the ground or even otherwise, have a bias for the social-humanistic approaches. People acting or proposing such action from the (relative) outside go for the techno-model approaches. This inside-outside point of view is not the only determinant of the preference to one of the two cultures, but surely is significant and most identifiable.

Such preferences are not surprising. From the inside, the messy, impossible-to-model nature of social issues is obvious, based as they are on human behaviour and social dynamics. From the outside, even if you appreciate that these are fundamentally social and human issues, the realization is in the abstract and can be “modelled in or out".

This matter of two cultures in action has deep and significant implications. A lot more power and money is in the hands of the people who usually (not always) see things from outside, for example, policymakers, bureaucrats, multilateral bodies, grant-making organizations and business people. Inside and outside need not be dichotomized, but it’s rarely ambiguous as to where someone stands on this continuum.

The power and money behind the techno-model culture, is not only because of the inside-outside issue, in India. We have become exactly the opposite of what Snow described as the state of Britain in his lecture. Our society has overemphasized education in the technical and scientific disciplines for decades, almost to an extent that the humanities and social sciences have to even justify their very existence. This has contributed to raising generations of the successful, who are often unquestioningly positivist, reductionist and deterministic. Many of these people, who are not unquestioning and have nuanced thinking, still come down overwhelmingly on the side of techno-models for action, based on what they consider as pragmatic considerations.

The great challenge that faces us is to bring about a consilience of these two cultures. Such a coming together will be effective, if the centrality is ceded to the social-humanistic approach, in the social sector. On this matter, some good-intentioned politicians are worth observing; they seem to understand all this naturally, perhaps because their success in their chosen field rests on such a consilience in action.

Meanwhile, in education, we have to keep battling the ever new techno-models being tom-tomed, which are actually all the same old, in new clothes.

Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every forthnight on issues of ecology and education.

Comments are welcome at othersphere@livemint.com

To read Anurag Behar’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/othersphere-

Close