Half a century ago, C. P. Snow’s The Two Cultures pointed to a growing gap between the sciences and the humanities. Despite similar levels of education and similar socioeconomic origins, he wrote, scientists and literary intellectuals “had almost ceased to communicate at all.” In Snow’s view, the different perspectives could have sparked an enormously creative conversation, but the communities were too isolated for such a conversation to take place, and members of both cultures were the poorer for it.
Many would argue that the gap between the disciplines that concerned Snow is still with us. But in higher education that gap has been supplemented by a new divide, one that is perhaps even more threatening to the future stability and prosperity of academic culture as a whole. This is the gap between the worldview of college and university faculty on the one hand and that of the information technology sector on the other.
The faculty view is rooted in the values and goals of tenure-stream instructors at elite research universities, a culture that informs the academic community up and down the postsecondary spectrum. The ethos of the technology sector is found in its purest form in Silicon Valley. Elements of Valley culture are increasingly echoed across the country and beyond in hackathons, technology incubators, coworking facilities, boot camp-style code schools and maker spaces. To a certain extent, the faculty map to Snow’s literary intellectuals and the technologists to Snow’s scientists. Snow’s literary community was skeptical of change, inclined to cling to the majesty of the literary and intellectual culture they knew. His scientists were more focused on the future, confident that their skills could improve the world.
Like Snow’s literary intellectuals and scientists, today’s university faculty and technologists have much in common. Many of Silicon Valley’s brightest stars come from elite research universities. And like Snow we can see a gap separating the two cultures. The resulting lack of communication impoverishes both sides. Like Snow’s cultures, our two cultures have different goals and different values. They use such different vocabularies that it can be difficult to find common ground for discussion. But we cannot be content with this situation, any more than Snow was. How can we encourage the conversation to move forward? What is at stake if we do not?
First, a bit of historical background. The word “university” comes from universitas, a term used in the medieval period for a legal collective -- a guild. The original universities were corporate bodies of students or masters, formed to give academics legal standing and bargaining power in the towns. Important elements of the modern university faculty’s sense of self -- the formation of a collective professional identity via a difficult, lengthy apprenticeship, governance by a privileged group of masters, the impulse to restrict market competition in the name of ensuring higher quality, the value of hierarchy and tradition in decision making and problem solving -- can be recognized in the value system of guild culture. These values played a crucial role in sustaining the institution of the university across the centuries. This is why universities are so protective of their culture and its norms.
In contrast, the techno-capitalist culture of Silicon Valley and its remote satellites is of much newer vintage. A heady brew of aggressive postindustrial venture capitalism, concentrated technological brilliance, ruthless competition, an almost surreal melding of various strains of libertarianism and the opportunity to earn enormous amounts of money have combined to create a culture of very smart technologists who believe they can fix the world with code and make a bundle doing it. Snow describes how literary intellectuals in his day found the world-transforming claims of the scientists arrogant and off-putting. I think the same can be said about how academics regard the self-confidence of contemporary information technologists.
The contrast is perhaps most evident in the two cultures’ professed attitudes toward formal hierarchies and especially the trappings of rank. The Valley delights in discovering young talent like Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google, who got their first six-figure investment check before they had a bank account to cash it. It looks to Fairchild Semiconductor, a storied Valley firm that did away with private parking spots and other executive perks. Some of the heroes of the technology industry are college dropouts or question the value of a degree. In keeping with this diminishing of outward signs of privilege, contemporary programming spaces tend to have an open layout with large tables and side offices for meetings or phone calls. The space will include areas like coffee bars or game tables intended to foster the social aspects of coding and creativity. A hierarchical structure is still very much there, but the space tries to mask or blur the hierarchy and keep it from stifling communication and innovation.
The university, in contrast, emphasizes hierarchy and longevity in service as values in themselves. Each faculty member is keenly aware both of his or her position within the institution and of the institution’s rank with respect to its rivals. Again, the attitude toward space is revealing. The best offices go to the senior people. When new office space is available or a department moves, a flurry of maneuvering ensues, with the senior faculty using their rank to best advantage in the negotiations. An open, flattened work space would not fit university culture. The university seeks to emphasize rather than mask its hierarchical structure.
The communication gap between the cultures has negative consequences for both. On the university side, the culture’s instinctive resistance to structural change prevents postsecondary institutions from taking full advantage of the technologists’ achievements. University decision-making and procurement structures discourage innovation by creating high barriers to entry.
This conservatism affects both established vendors and new entrants. New companies in particular may be forced to look for other markets with lower barriers. But as universities come under increasing pressure to improve student success rates and lower costs, they will need the talent of the technologists, and perhaps especially the talent of the start-ups they are unintentionally driving away. To tap that talent, they need to embrace technological change with more enthusiasm. Ideally, that enthusiasm could be grounded in a true intellectual engagement between the cultures.
For the technologists, at one level the gap between the two cultures simply deprives them of clear access to a large market sector in which they see opportunity. But the loss goes deeper than that. Today’s online start-up culture owes a great deal to the universities. The Arpanet that became the Internet, time-sharing, video games and interactive displays, the mouse, online communities and collaboration all have roots in university laboratories and public funding. Tim Berners-Lee invented the web as a way to manage information at CERN, a high-energy physics laboratory in Switzerland. The original Google algorithm was inspired in part by ranking systems for academic papers based on their citation count. When coders share tips and programs, they are participating in a software-sharing culture that originated in university computer centers.
If our current technology’s history is rooted in university culture, a richer dialogue between the two cultures could benefit the future development of information technology.
Technology has its deepest meaning in its use. Its impact is most marked when it interacts with and becomes integral to larger cultural practices -- when it enters into a dialogue with other elements in the cultural stream. Well-designed applications and devices draw on the history of product design, of architecture, of visual and verbal cues that have meaning for users.
Perhaps if we asked our programmers to learn a little more about history, literature and the arts -- perhaps especially if we learned to teach these things in a way that had meaning and appeal across the gap between our two cultures -- then our software and our devices might serve more people more effectively, because they would be designed with a deeper understanding of the cultural context in which they are to be used. The university might reach out to the start-up culture emanating from Silicon Valley as a potentially powerful ally. To do that effectively, university culture needs to acknowledge that there are important lessons to be learned beyond the walls. Academics need to understand that people like to code because code can be beautiful, and people like start-ups because they can be creative and smart. We would do well to ask again the questions Snow asked 50 years ago, and see if we can hope to find different answers 50 years from now.
David G. Halsted is director of online and blended learning in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He teaches European history and the history of information technology.
Inspired by all of the discussion and controversy over the new PARCC standardized tests for students and as a researcher of people's technology uses, I recently took part of the computerized PARCC fourth-grade math practice test. Even after going through the tutorial explaining the interface, I found myself occasionally as preoccupied with the system as I was with figuring out the math problems.
PARCC, which stands for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, proposes to test children's knowledge of language arts and mathematics. What its computerized version really does, however, is mix up students' math and language skills with their computer skills.
Parents and teachers across the country have been debating the value of the PARCC tests that children are taking at their schools this month. The heated discussions range from the value of such standardized testing to technical glitches with the computer system. What is often overlooked, however, is an additional important challenge of the computerized test: varying technology skills among students that will likely affect their scores and mix math and literary assessment with technology assessment.
You may be thinking that I just don't get computerized testing because I am an adult and not a tech-savvy child who grew up in the Internet age.
Assuming that children are naturally tech savvy, however, is a mistake. My research over the past decade, along with that of others, suggests that students' family background is very much related to their abilities, with those from less privileged backgrounds less skilled at using the Internet.
Even among more privileged populations, plenty of variation in skills exists. Accordingly, using unfamiliar computer systems has a good chance of negatively influencing test scores measuring students' math and literary skills.
For two decades I have been studying whether people can improve their lives through their use of the Internet. In this case, it may have the opposite effect. As a researcher on the relationship between Web-use skills and socioeconomic status, I have found that the Internet may be perpetuating inequalities as much as it has the potential to alleviate them.
The PARCC Web site offers a tutorial so that users can familiarize themselves with the system. The tutorial was likely compiled with care, but that does not make the system as a whole intuitive.
Presumably one advantage of such a system is to help with automated grading. After solving a few of the grade-four math questions, I decided to see how the system handled my responses. I was told that the system was unable to score my response of 4½ to one particular question. The answer key listed 18/4 as the correct response. While 4½ equals 18/4, the system seemed unable to figure that out immediately. A computer system that cannot figure out that 4½ is the same as 18/4 does not leave much confidence in said system. And it does not leave much confidence in the test that 4½ may not be an acceptable response when nothing from the system suggested that reporting the answer in such a format was a problem.
Of course, being able to translate math and language skills to different media is an important skill itself. But we should test for topical knowledge in a way that does not blend that knowledge with technology skills so that we know specifically where students are excelling and where they may be falling behind.
After all, a poor math score using the computerized version of PARCC could be due to the unfamiliar and at times confusing nature of the computer interface, it could be the result of poor math skills, or perhaps both. By conflating computer skills with math skills, students, parents, teachers and schools are left without knowing whether more resources need to be poured into math training or computer skills support. To know where resources are most needed in the educational system, it is important for assessment tools to test one skill at a time.
If PARCC is the way to move forward, it is imperative that schools offer the option of taking the test on paper, a plan that some districts have implemented. Not only does the computer-based system generally confuse different types of skills, but lack of computer skills are most likely to disadvantage those from already less privileged backgrounds. A system meant to educate all should not be based on tests that disadvantage some children from the get-go.
Eszter Hargittai is the Delaney Family Professor in the Communication Studies Department and faculty associate of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. She is a past fellow of The OpEd Project.