Two cultures – sort of – again

by Terence MacNamee

C.P. Snow talked about “the two cultures” and made the phrase famous. He was not talking about national or ethnic cultures, of course, but about educational traditions in the West – the literary tradition and the modern scientific tradition. People who belonged to one did not usually belong to the other, and they did not talk to one another, he found. But Snow also thought that the scientists and technicians had “the future in their bones” and that the whole world was going to take the scientific and technical path and industrialize in a matter of a few years. This was in 1959. It didn’t happen then – Snow was too optimistic – but it seems to be happening now.

Snow was not much interested in national or ethnic cultures. He assumed that industrialization and technology could happen anywhere. He seems to have thought that whereas the literary “culture” he described is national and culture-bound (in our sense), the scientific and technical “culture” is not.

Snow was partly right, and partly mistaken. The scientific and technical “culture” he spoke of is Western. It grew up in Western countries and is gradually being exported to other places like Asia. Today it is increasingly mediated by the English language. English is becoming the world medium of education for science and technology, even for Asians. The old classical cultures of Asia seem to be losing their place as the focus of education for the Asian élites and being replaced by an imported version in English. Has this no consequences? Is it not likely to cause impoverishment of Asian national cultures?

This kind of impoverishment has been going on for a long time in India. Under the British Raj, smart Indians made it their business to learn English fluently, though the British invariably made fun of them because they sounded so pedantic and so inaccurate at the same time – they did not have the culture that went with the language, which is entirely understandable. But today in India, as a result, there are “two cultures” – not the two cultures described by C.P. Snow, but the two cultures mediated by English on the one hand and Indian languages on the other. English mediates science and technology, and learning about these has replaced traditional education as the aspiration of the élites.

India likes to think of itself as being “ahead” of the rest of Asia because of the English language left behind there by the British, but other nations in the continent are busy trying to catch up. It just remains to be seen what this will do to their age-old national identities.