I studied engineering. Most of us knew what score we deserved in the exams before they were even set, and mostly we were proved right.
None of my friends on the liberal arts courses could ever predict their own exam results. They had real stress before each end-of-year test. For us it was just the culmination of what we had done or had failed to do over the previous two or three terms. For them, each new essay or exam really was a voyage into the unknown.
In engineering we had a heavy timetable. Lectures covered 30 or more hours per week. Add on practical training in the workshop, extra design effort and lab work, and that was up to 34 or 35 hours before any kind of preparation or exercises.
When I first encountered people on the English and History courses, I was envious of their free time. I looked at their timetables and saw only 10 hours of lectures and seminars per week.
But when they described their workload, with essays, and seminars, reading lists and debates, I saw that it worked out about the same.
For me, the revelation was that on the arts side, the whole purpose of the course was to produce a theory or standpoint, and support it with evidence taken from the literature and then argue the point as persuasively as possible.
On the science side, we took the theories as gospel. We might derive them, or prove them once or twice in our training, just as an intellectual exercise. But the point of the course was to use these theories to develop a better understanding of the physical world around us. They were the foundations upon which we built our structures and ideas.
With each new concept we added to the hierarchical structure of our understanding. And as we added more layers of knowledge, we relied more heavily on the underlying foundations of that knowledge.
Those foundations became absolute truths, inviolable and unquestioned .
On the arts side, the whole point of the course was to teach people to find evidence to use as the basis of a powerful, persuasive presentation. It was incredible to us scientists that the arts students were encouraged to propose many different interpretations of the text, irrespective of the ‘truth' or otherwise of those propositions.
The arts teaches us very clearly that there is no absolute truth. The truth is defined by the person who argues most persuasively, or who most skilfully rebuts the opposing view.
Now, tell me which of these skills is more use in life?
As an engineering student, I worked alone, with my calculator and my drawing instruments, perfecting my orthographic projections and trigonometric calculus. Those liberal arts students spent their time arguing and talking and writing for the purpose of portraying love and beauty.
Which of these skills is more desirable in a friend?
The engineers hid their feelings behind their theories and axioms, exchanging symbols and equations, while the poets bared their souls and reached into their hearts to touch the essence of Byron and Donne.
Which of us learned more about our fellow humans?
I could do my work and then switch off. Once I had grasped the concept of those Boolean mappings, I could divert my thoughts to more frivolous things. They never could. They were completely consumed by this week's book. Struggling to grasp how early 20th century literature grew from the Victorian novel and how social and cultural patterns had changed and how those changes were expressed in words, images and subjects. Constantly thinking and arguing what the authors thought and what their words might have meant
They were trained to justify their point of view, no matter how counter-intuitive. They spoke powerfully, using techniques refined by writers and orators over the millennia to convey authority and wisdom. I solved my equations and two days later, the paper was returned with a percentage score that I had already guessed.
So we all hung out together, and talked and drank and dated and, years later, some of us still hang out together. We all learned a lot at university. I learned some equations and some fundamental constants. They learned some universal truths.
Sure, I am the one who programs their video recorders and sets up their computers and mends their broken stuff. They are the ones who entertain me with their stories of this film or that play. I might have been at the same movie, but I can't remember, or didn't notice those details, and I can't re-tell the story like they can. And yes, I have some skills that they don't have. I can strip away layers of complexity in an instant, while they struggle with irrelevant or conflicting details . I am good at doing things quickly and efficiently, while they want endlessly to discuss how it might be done.
Neither course was easier or more difficult, neither course prepared us for life any better or worse. Twenty years after we graduated, we all have colleagues and friends, and those colleagues and friends have very different backgrounds and education, yet, we can all do our jobs and live our lives well enough whether we studied arts, or sciences or simply learned at the University of life.
At a deeper level, however, the attitudes and knowledge-gathering skills we learned at college still have had a very profound impact on our thought patterns.
The sciences remain hierarchical. You can't properly understand top-level stuff like human cloning, without first doing that apprenticeship and learning about cell division, DNA, base pairs, monoclonal antibodies, and so on. And this is what makes the sciences a weird and wonderful world to many arts specialists.
By contrast, many scientists believe there are absolute truths in everything. That Shakespeare definitely meant such and such in that scene in The Tempest, for example.
The difficulty comes when something looks like science, but is not. Take human cloning. We know the science, but we are still struggling with the ethics and morals. So we are faced with scientists who are ill-equipped to analyse the ethical issues and ethicists who are ill-equipped to understand the scientific basis of the technology.
We need to find individuals who can cross the boundaries set out in The two cultures and use deterministic, scientific thinking where appropriate, but break out of that, and apply the less rigid thought patterns where that is appropriate. Those people are very rare indeed.