Two Cultures notes — and a bit of American Class Mobility Explained

Here I am, really, really trying to get my head around a twenty minute talk I agreed to give at the Harvard/MIT sponsored Cultures in Common conference, one of the many triggered by the 50th anniversary of C. P. Snow’s Rede Lecture titled The Two Cultures.*  (The conference begins tonight with a star-studded gala, including comments by Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Tribe, with whom I have only one connection:  I am the proud owner of his childhood (judging from the handwriting) copy of the marvelous four volume work, The World of Mathematics.)

My talk, comes tomorrow in the panel discussing “Science and/in Culture.”  Asked for a title long before I had come up with thought one about what I might say, I blurted out “Icons and Mentors,” which seems to me to be delightfully capacious.  Think Jane Curtin — it’s both a floorwax and a dessert topping.  I offer it free and gratis to anyone in any field who can use it.  

I am feeling a bit contrarian these days, so I plan to suggest that Snow was both overstating the case within his own time and that construing our current difficulties — whatever they may be — in his OxBridge/high mandarin categories c. 1960 is probably not that instructive.  My icons will be, for over-determined reasons, Einstein and Newton…and as for mentors?  I’m still thinking.

All that is prologue to the real point of this post.  I always find as much as I can to do that is not writing before I actually force myself to get down to it.  Browsing as I do some favorite websites, I came across a comment — number 18 in the thread — by the proprietor of the invaluable Balloon Juice who revealed to me, at last, the secret code of American social class.  Take it away, John Cole:

I just completely don’t understand the silly attacks on stuff like mustard and arugula or whatever. I’m a backwoods hick in West Virginia who has lived the vast majority of my life in WV, and I have dijon mustard, yellow mustard, and two types of horseradish mustard in my fridge. That makes me an elitist? It was that easy?

Both the string theorist and the language poet can agree.  Mustard maketh man.**

*I’m sorry that I can’t go to the New York Academy event.  Many distinguished usual suspects there, including a fair contingent from my first science writing home, Discover magazine.  Among them, Carl Zimmer, whom I can thus here thank for a wonderful session yesterday talking to the MIT Advanced Science Writing Seminar about his past, science writing’s present, and all writers’ technologically mediated future. 

**Which suggests that C.P. Snow’s real problem may be tracked back to the dismal state of English cuisine in 1959.  Any society that accepts this as a delicacy (are you listening, Mum?) does not face a problem of two cultures, but of none.

Image:  Joseph Wright of Derby, “A Philosopher Giving that Lecture on the Orrery, in which a Lamp is put in place of the Sun,” c. 1766.

Explore posts in the same categories: Self-aggrandizement, Snark, Two Cultures

One Comment on “Two Cultures notes — and a bit of American Class Mobility Explained”

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