Note from Pete Simpson: What constitutes a proper education? And, what is the government’s role in providing a proper education?

Those two interlinked questions are as old as civilization itself; but, answers change at least every generation and even more often as governmental and/or private needs and interests change. At the public school level, the question today is Common Core. At the level of higher education it is the growing emphasis on “STEM” — Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics programs. Teachers of the humanities and the arts in Wyoming often say they would like to see STEM become STEAM by including the arts — if not also adding the humanities in general (history, philosophy, English, political science, etc.); but, of course, there’s no place for an H in the acronym without it falling apart.

Make no mistake, however, the issue is a serious one with laypeople and academics alike, and it has taken on more focus with the recent establishment of the Wyoming Institute for humanities Research at the University of Wyoming.

This month’s forum tangles with the issue specifically at the level of higher education; and, the two spokespersons writing this month are uniquely qualified to address the subject. Nick Murdock is a distinguished practicing attorney in Casper. He received his undergraduate education at Creighton University majoring in mathematics, and his law degree from the University of Wyoming. His many honors include designation as Best Lawyer; but, his most prized accolade is the Wyoming State Bar Foundation’s Pro Bono Award. Nick’s interest in the humanities led the UW’s Humanities Research Institute leadership to invite him to serve on its advisory board.

Gerry Meyer’s roots are in New Mexico, but his career has been for the most part in Wyoming where he served UW as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Vice President for Research. He is a preeminent chemist with numerous patents and a long list of scientific publications. He has served as a member of the Wyoming Industrial Siting Council and as a Wyoming State Science Advisor.

Their views diverge, but, I think you’ll agree, they are edifying as well as stimulating. How do you feel the humanities have fared vis-à-vis science in Wyoming? Do you think a proper balance has been struck? Or, are we and our university on the wrong track? Let us know. — PS

— by Gerry Meyer

Gerry Meyer

Having read two previous Pete Simpson Forum presentations I realize that it is an honor to be asked to contribute. Pete Simpson requested that I write about the humanities and the arts. I shall do this, but from a “Two Cultures” point of view.

But first, as the old saying goes, where I stand is where I sit. And I sit with a Ph.D. in Physical and Industrial Chemistry, with a dozen years as UW’s Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, with having built the UW Science Center and the UW Fine Arts building (with the University’s first art museum), with science publications and books, and also with a large art collection assembled over the years. So I feel comfortable to talk about the “Two Cultures.”

Read the companion piece for this Pete Simpson Forum: Can UW humanities survive inattention and deconstruction by task forces?

The term “The Two Cultures” was coined by C.P. Snow, a British scientist and author, in a speech in May, 1959. It was enlarged to a book that caused a furor when it was published. Snow was quite unkind (but perhaps accurate) in his position paraphrased by an oft-repeated part of the essay:

A good many times I have been present at gatherings who, by the standards of traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could recite the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold; it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of Have You Read a Work of Shakespeare.

Thus more than 50 years ago the table was set so that it was science versus humanities/arts. This is unfortunate, as constructing a dichotomy makes understanding and cross intellectualism very difficult. It is my position that while the two (cultures, if you will) are different there are unusual areas of commonality. For example, both require abstract thinking, imagination, problem-solving, and the ability to describe (by whatever the appropriate means may be) the results of one’s efforts. Thus the question may not be “… how many … could recite the Second Law of Thermodynamics?” or “… Have You Read a Work of Shakespeare?” Rather the question could be; are you aware of the fact that there are certain fundamental laws of nature which govern the natural phenomena we so casually observe, or are you aware that the plays of Shakespeare not only reflect many human activities but do so in a revealing and intriguing way?

Then one could go on with some examples of both, and in the former case bring forth the notion that systems tend to go from orderly to random and not the other way. This is one way to describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Similarly some of Shakespeare’s best known plays can be summarized with parallels to some of life’s experiences. In other words, rather than use a “gotcha” approach to discussions about the Two Cultures, it is entirely possible to point out the significance of each in a way that produces understanding of the salient points of each.

During my days as Dean I tried to use this approach. Certainly the humanities/arts faculty were suspicious of a “science dean.” However, by not talking down (or up) and by being as even-handed as possible in judgments about resources and personnel, it was perhaps possible to avoid some (not all) of the effects of a dichotomy. For example, the tools for research and scholarly work are different in the Sciences than in the humanities/arts. The former use laboratories and rather expensive equipment, while the latter use libraries and much less expensive books.

The bottom line is the need for an understanding of each other’s work and interests, and a willingness to discuss that work and those interests in terms that educate.

So it is my belief that the Two Cultures are different but not dichotomous. That patience and carefully-chosen terminology can do wonders in resolving perceived unresolvable differences. And that both Science and humanities/arts are essential parts of learning with an obligation for each to understand the other.

In 1862 Sen. Justin Morrill (R-Vermont) was able to secure passage of a bill which provided a grant of land (200 square miles, later increased) to each state to provide for a college which purpose was “… without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts …” Sen. Morrill had tried to pass such a bill when he was a member of the House of Representatives, but failed. In 1862, however, he got the bill passed through the Senate and later the House of Representatives. It was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln. Thus came into being the “land grant” colleges, of which the University of Wyoming is one.

Thus UW has an obligation to not only teach “… such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and mechanic arts …” but to provide undergraduate and graduate degrees in these branches of learning. They include biology, chemistry, geology, physics and related fields (biochemistry, biophysics, etc.) in the sciences and all of the branches of engineering. Moreover, in today’s academic climate UW has an obligation to conduct research in these fields, and some of this research needs to be of a practical nature. Thus the relationship between UW and energy companies is fully in keeping with its fundamental charge.

Much has been said about the recent emphasis in science and engineering, and the appointment of task forces to guide (repeat, guide) in the expenditure of special state allocations for these areas. There is an essay stating (a) that the university could become a training school for useful vocational skills, (b) that research support could drop with the price of oil resulting on a burden to the University, and (c) that the overall result of the task force approach is fragmentation. In my opinion none of these postulates is correct.

If one compares the actual graduation transcripts of students majoring in the sciences with those of students majoring in the humanities one finds a much larger humanities content in the science group than science content in the humanities group. That is not surprising as the humanities are “liberal” studies, while the sciences are (allegedly) “rote” studies! How then does one explain that the first two years of foreign languages, or the English grammar courses or the drawing courses in art are liberal, but courses in cosmology, or in life processes, or in biosynthesis are not? Such distinctions are in the eye of the beholder.

As to research, the oil companies have historically been ardent supporters. While such support may change when the business climate changes (e.g. oil prices drop), it does not change proportionately. The gas industry focuses its research support through the School of Energy Resources, which has an extramural program. Again this research does not vary directly with external conditions. The coal industry does not do much of its own research; hence coal research depends on the federal government. In fact, the major supporter of all academic research is the government. The Obama administration has a “no fossil fuel policy” and the Department of Energy research programs reflect this. There are those who think this policy hinders the environmentally acceptable use of these fuels.

In the final analysis research activity depends on the faculty, and so one of the central task force objectives for both science and engineering is the recruitment and retention of quality faculty. And where does this leave the humanities? Just as in the sciences and engineering quality humanities faculty are needed to do quality research. Research in the humanities does not get the external support as does that in science and engineering; however, in general humanities research costs much less than research in science and engineering because the equipment and instrumentation necessary in the latter fields. The university supports humanities research through various in-house programs.

As to humanities facilities; the university has erected a $50 million addition to the library (the humanities research laboratory), a $35 million visual arts building, a $35 million renovation of the original arts building, and the $30 million Centennial Complex. There is an ongoing upgrade of Hoyt Hall, the humanities building (Ross Hall is the social sciences building). The humanities are being encouraged to develop doctoral programs.

Then there is the question of task forces causing fragmentation. This is a difficult concept to assimilate. Task forces, by their name and charge, focus on a task. However, this in no way means that task forces do not recognize and account for the task’s interaction with affected features of their environments.

For example a science task force can and does consider the matter of science teaching at all levels and the preparation of quality science teachers at all levels, and how this interacts with those departments charged with teacher training. An engineering task force can and does consider those science courses both necessary and desirable for quality engineering programs, and how they impact the departments involved. Thus the science and engineering task forces now at work are considering all of the internal factors that will lead to important improvements and also the effects that changes will have.

Those in the humanities will ask if there is consideration of the effects on the humanities, and the answer is probably “no.” A comparable question may be if the English Department is planning a Ph.D. program will those involved consider its effect on chemistry, and the answer is probably no. However, this does not mean that new programs, whatever their origin, do not respect the inclusion of other fields.

I reject conspiracy theories, although I perhaps better than some, know about faculty politics. The Sternberg affair, while unsettling, is in the noise in the long run. The concept of distinguished departments is really a judgement made by those outside UW.

I believe the sciences and engineering have a greater respect for the humanities than vice versa, and that one might look at the all-university and A&S graduation requirements to see where the sciences and humanities rate with faculty. In facilities and internal support there is substantial equality when comparing the sciences and humanities. The two task forces, rather than being fragmenting, perform their assigned duties with an eye on the effect their solutions have on other elements of the university.

So with the sciences and humanities at UW, there may be those who would belabor the advantages (and disadvantages) of one or the other, and who would endeavor to show negative external (and internal) influences. If one looks closely, the opportunities to do great things are there for both, and taking advantage of these opportunities really lies with one’s faculties.

— Gerry Meyer served as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Vice President for Research at the University of Wyoming. He has served as a member of the Wyoming Industrial Siting Council and as a Wyoming State Science Advisor.

Columns are the signed perspective of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WyoFile’s staff, board of directors or its supporters. WyoFile welcomes guest columns and op-ed pieces from all points of view. If you’d like to write a guest column for WyoFile, please contact WyoFile editor-in-chief Dustin Bleizeffer at dustin@wyofile.com.

Listen to Pete Simpson discuss these topics in an interview with Brielle Schaeffer at KHOL 89.1:

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  1. Some how this “two views, and two cultures, both bring up Dr Sternberg.
    The above notes the ” Sternberg incident”, hyber-tabbed, to shakeups.
    The main tipping point was over the law school, and ex Dean Easton.
    See reply on the Murdock essay. Are we to swallow that people who graduate from U of WYO law school are not truly human, and only those who go to Gerry Spence’s TRAIl ranch reach human status?

    Jim Hagood

  2. Unfortunately, the distinctions between departments at the University matters little, as all are under the heavy hand of censorship exerted by the mineral companies, carried out by their proxies, the legislature and Governor, and in turn their proxies the UW Board. New science is not allowed either the sciences (no climate or evolution science) or in the humanities (resulting in deliberate removal of “Carbon Sink”).

    At this point, we cannot see UW as much more than a technical school extension of King Mineral.

    Steen Goddik

  3. I love the experience of reading authors such as Dr. Meyer whose movement into intellectual history expands the horizons from which we consider a contemporary issue. Thank you for your thoughtful writing. I found myself moved in different directions by the power of these two companion articles, which leaves me the task of determining more about the state of the humanities at UW. Both authors leave us work to do and their tones encourage us to think further. I teach in a humanities department and I’m deeply involved in interdisciplinary work with the science of climate change and the financialization of the transition to a sustainable, post-growth economy. From ecology to business, I find eager collaborators who desire the input of a historian of religions to aid in understanding and predicting human responses to the biggest stories of our communities, such as ecological and economic crises. Largely, I think the distance between humanities and sciences has more to do with the culture of specialization, rather than the two cultures consciously nurturing animosity. Back in April, 2009 my undergraduate professor Mark C. Taylor argued in a NYT op ed that it was time to “End the University as We Know It” by moving beyond specialized departments toward the integrated knowledge that would help us address our complex world. We have arrived at the perfect opportunity for the two cultures to realize they share one earth, and we need to coordinate our collective intelligence to adapt to the expensive volatility that lies ahead. Never have university faculties been faced with the challenges that face us now, and it is certainly time to align our collective intelligence to respond. How many Ph.D.s does it take to design a sustainable campus? The relationship of our workplace to unsustainable uses of energy should reflexively be built into our methods. That’s when we can say that we doing proper housekeeping, that is economics, for a western land grant university. Let’s lead by example.

    Mary Keller

  4. “If one compares the actual graduation transcripts of students majoring in the sciences with those of students majoring in the humanities one finds a much larger humanities content in the science group than science content in the humanities group.”

    Mr. Meyer, could you please describe what you mean by “content” here? Looking at my transcript I see my GPA, my Major/Minor, and the courses I took over the years at UW, but I don’t think I see any of that information revealing the true nature (content) of what was taught in those classrooms. There’s no mention of the chemistry involved in making a lithograph. No sign of the early mathematicians/scientists that helped to develop photography. I don’t see anything that pertains to the data, methods, or literature that I was asked to weigh in Natural Resource Ethics. Nor do I find a description of the physical phenomena that were related through humanities-based topics in my Current Issues in Biology class. The content for me is not in the transcript but in living/thinking completely.

    How can we say that campus’ use of task forces is not resulting in fragmentation if preparation for complete living is not included in those task forces’ missions? How can your argument find disparities between the arts and sciences to be useful if fragmentation is not having a negative impact somewhere? And lastly, how can we deny that fragmentation is present between the sciences and the humanities, when it is only the humanities being excluded from the current draft of the proposed academic plan?

    Conor Mullen