University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine

The Great Divide?

The truly educated should be able to navigate the boundary where art and science meet

When I was in Grade 10 at St. Michael’s College School in Toronto 45 years ago, I studied history, social science, mathematics, Greek, Latin, German, French and English. This might seem like an unusual program for a future physicist, but science was dropped from the Grade 10 curriculum that year, and those in the accelerated class studied the humanities almost exclusively. So it is not so surprising that I later came to U of T on a Classics scholarship.

Others, in high school in the 1960s, had the opposite experience. If they were bright, they quickly got shunted onto the science track and found themselves waving languages, literature and the social sciences goodbye.

It is no wonder that there is a divide between the sciences and the humanities in our culture. In reality, the divide is an artificial one, a view that is supported in the cover story of this issue. The sciences and the humanities are all part of the human continuum. You cannot separate them and understand what it is to be fully human any more than you can remove the colour from a Tom Thomson painting and still call it great art.

Our fundamental purpose at the University of Toronto is to push the frontiers of knowledge on all fronts. Those frontiers are just as noble whether they involve an astrophysicist trying to explain the distribution of matter in the universe, a philosopher probing the meaning of justice in a democratic society or a playwright illuminating the intricacies of human relationships.

What’s more, the humanities play a special role in education for without them, we would merely be training students, not educating them. Typically in our high-tech age, engineers, for example, are no longer practising engineering 10 years after graduating. Therefore, instilling the ability to think about sociological, psychological and political issues is crucial in preparing them for the leadership roles they will play.

Likewise, it is critical for politicians, writers and artists to have some understanding from a scientific point of view about the world they inhabit. What are the fundamental constituents of the world? What role is the planet Earth playing in the universe as a whole?

The President’s Council on Undergraduate Education, led by Provost Adel Sedra and myself, has been charged with addressing the issue of what constitutes a proper education for our undergraduate students. The twist I am hoping to bring to U of T, and to undergraduate education in general, is to broaden the armoury of the educated person and incorporate science on an equal basis with the humanities. In my view, in the 21st century, if a person does not know what the genetic code is and has no idea what underlies DNA testing, then she cannot call herself an educated person. In the same way, if a person cannot communicate and write fluently, he is not an educated person. Of course, a deep appreciation of music, drama, film and the arts is also the hallmark of a well-educated person. The University of Toronto offers these experiences fully to its students.

If we widely exploit this scope, our graduates will be able to “read” the natural world. They will be able to navigate the boundary “where art and science meet,” as American scientist Stephen Jay Gould put it in a recent work. As Shakespeare expressed it for the ages in As You Like It, they will be able to live a life that “finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.”

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  1. One Response to “ The Great Divide? ”

  2. Jeremiah Ng says:

    Thank you for this much-needed insight on education. I am from Singapore where the arbitrary divide between the arts and the sciences is enforced strongly in pre-university education through standardized testing.