Science and the arts: both need the other

The Times headline of last Thursday ‘Arts degrees ditched as students opt for medicine’ has caused some predictable reactions amongst commentators, and since we held the Futures Event last week to help Fifth Formers in their thinking about sixth form studies, it seems worth pausing over the news.

The figures, analysed via UCAS (the richest data set for matters academic in the UK), show that fewer than 7,000 students went on to English courses at uni last year, 12,870 on to History courses and 3,830 on to Languages courses. Now, full disclosure: the figures mask those who did combined studies or ‘related’ courses (like Business with Languages). But still. Let’s think of the contexts: there are 500,000 new undergraduates each year, so English students now account for less than one in seventy students. When I was a Head of MFL, there were around 15,000 A Level French candidates per year. Now there are just over 8,000. The trend towards science and particularly medicine is relentless.

Why? And does it matter?

The ‘why’ is on the surface easy to answer. The pandemic has dominated news, so medicine is now rightly at the forefront of our minds. Just as the 2008-9 recession saw applications to read economics soar, so inevitably young people now will be turning their minds to medicine. Then there are the economic necessities: medicine, engineering and science degrees generally lead to jobs. It’s a generally more secular age, so people are thinking practically. And if we are to ‘follow the science’ in public policy, then doing science makes sense.

But science is surely only half of the story. Writing over half a century ago, the influential scientist, academic and novelist C. P. Snow, argued that science and the arts are two halves of the whole of human understanding. His influential lectures and book The Two Cultures develops the theme that both need the other, that ‘arts’ experts are too often scientifically illiterate, and that scientists need the arts as much. I was struck nine months ago how powerful it then was that the German equivalent of SAGE includes philosophers and historians – science needs also to consider the arts. More emotionally, more romantically and more powerfully, the point is memorably made by the Robin Williams character in Dead Poets Society: ‘medicine, law, business, economics, these are noble pursuits, and necessary to sustain life. But poetry … is what we live life for’.

More than ever, more than ever before, we need not the narrow avenues of science, but broad understanding of human behaviour, emotions, thought and purpose. That is surely one reason why offering the IB is so crucial to our Whitgift curriculum. If we are to have the problem solvers, the forward thinkers, the understanders of the world’s problems, they must do so on a human, emotional and cultural plane, as well as on a scientific. Science is not the only answer.

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