I was going to focus this post on the relationship of creativity and quality as I mentioned in my tweet of July 26, but I have been diverted by the lead article in the Sunday Review section of the July 29 edition of the New York Times, entitled Is Algebra Necessary? I have spent a great deal of time on related issues, and I wish I no longer responded to to articles such as this,, but I am afraid I am not strong enough to do so. I will return to creativity and quality at a later date.
In 1959, a physicist turned novelist named C.P.Snow, gave a presigious lecture (the Rede Lecture) in Cambridge, entitled The Two Cultures. This resulted in a book (The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution), which a few years ago was named one of the 100 books that had influenced Western discourse the most since World War II. In the lecture and book, Snow spoke of the culture of science (and mathematics), and the culture of what he calls "literary intellectuals". He believed the split between them, and the animosity accompanying it, results in a loss of our ability to solve major problems. A sensitive and prescient observation.
When I came to Stanford, the students had simplified this into the "techies"(engineers, scientists, perhaps social scientists who used sophisticated math), and the fuzzies (primarily the humanists and "softer" social scientists). As Snow stated, in Western cultures, the fuzzies consider themselves perhaps more sensitive, worldly, and wise, and the techies consider themselves more powerful and perhaps are a bit more intellectually arrogant ((many physicists are quite confident they could write a novel, and few novelists (save Snow) are sure of their ability to do physics)).
Despite the blurring influence of fields such as computer science, which are neither (or maybe both), and the present emphasis on inter-disciplinary approaches to problem solving, there is still much of this around. To what extent it is nature or nurture (cultural or in the DNA), and how much it is influenced by gender, parents, peer groups, mentors, or tradition, we are not sure. But I am confident of my ability to be able to have opinions about the situation for many reasons. I seem to appreciate and enjoy both cultures and have been trained and lived in both of them, and I have fought the two-culture situation professionally in and out of the university, with support from foundations and industry and both support and resistance from the academic community. As a final credential, I offer the photo below. The worn out book is my wife's. The worn out slide rule is mine. I rest my case.
There have been major activities attempting to influence/minimize this divide. Social pressure and resources to increase the fuzziness of the techies is built into the system. Accreditation in science and engineering fields demands some exposure to the humanities and social sciences. On the other side, "fuzzy" curricula usually demand less "techie" material. But during the so-called space race after Sputnik, there was tremendous emphasis put on technology and science, resulting in a spike in enrollment in such fields. Forces such as the woman's movement later led to a focus on "math anxiety". Then there was the concern with "scientific literacy", followed by one on "technological literacy". I was to some extent active in all of these. They typically recognized the same ongoing problems and resulted in increased on focus on them, which often waned in the face of the perception of new problems, loss of interest by media, and the difficulty of doing much about them. Now there is pressure due to the relatively pathetic mathematical performance of U.S. students in world-wide mathematics tests.
I have long been aware of the two-culture problem. In junior and senior high school students who liked science and math (me) were thought to be a bit weird. I went to Cal Tech, and we arrived a week early to attend to "Frosh Camp", which consisted of taking us all up into the local mountains to meet each other and be told about our future college life by a number of experienced and entertaining people. One message we were given was that by being admitted, we would be considered socially deficient, nerds geeks, whatever), and should follow certain rules. One of which was that our dating life (The Caltech student body was then all male) would be hampered unless we refrained from discussing math, science, and engineering, and to be safe we should also avoid these topics at all parties. We were taught to never wear our slide rules on our belts or our pencils in our shirt pockets, and perhaps to copy some of the mannerisms of popular people in our high school classes who had not earned very high grades. Some of the more valuable advice I have ever been given.
This stituation of two cultures obviously heavily impacts product quality. My Good Products Bad Products Book could be described as essential fuzzy material for techies. Good Products must serve humans, perform well, and be available for reasonable costs. This requires high sensitivity to the humans. It also requires sophisticated knowledge of science, math, and technology. (hence the title of this blog.)
I will continue this with my next post on Thursday, in which I will reply to Mr Hacker's comments on algebra, which cover most math courses, and are not only old, but simplistic. A great number of people have different opinions on how to better attain the goal of algebra (and other math) courses. Few want to carry out their ideas, and few agree as to the details. But I personally think that to drop the goal itself is nuts. I will say a few things about what has been tried, and what it would reqire to better solve Snow's two culture problem (and Mr. Hacker's algebra problem) both in and out of schools. Among other things, it will take better realization of the nature and extent of the problemand the limitations of the resources we have available.
"New Math" was a heroic attempt. In my opinion it failed partly because many teachers were uncomfortable with the material, many parents could not quite understood it without studying hard and were unable to help their children with their homework, older people thought kids should run the same obstacle course they had, and the public in general did not have much of a clue about what was going on. It was creativity once again underestimating tradition.