In 1959, C. P. Snow wrote an essay entitled The Two Cultures in which he illustrated how the scientific intellectuals and the literary intellectuals belong to two very distinct groups that do not inter-communicate. Although some have argued that there is a third culture developing in our modern society to help bridge this gap, I feel that there is still a lot to be done. A bridge of mutual understanding does not yet exist. An important factor in the existence of this gap is the very idea of an intellectual. The elite of any field of study are those who understand a subject that is very difficult for the common person to grasp. Those who attempt to explain the intricacies of their area of specialty on a level that everyone can understand are shunned by the rest of their community for belittling or oversimplifying the important concepts. Stephen Jay Gould explains, in a tribute to Carl Sagan, that “[t]his narrow-minded error — our own Philistinism — arises in part from our general ignorance of the long and honorable tradition of popular presentation of science, and our consequent mistake in equating popularization with trivialization, cheapening, or inaccuracy. Great scientists have always produced the greatest popularizations, without compromising the integrity of subject or author” (Gould).
Because of the popularly held view that ideas on the frontiers of knowledge are untouchable to all but the most elite, many people never attempt to understand even the most basic fundamentals of these areas. These areas are passed off as “too hard” or “too confusing.” Very few people take the time to understand and appreciate the fundamentals of many areas of study — the same basic concepts that the intellectual elite within that area take for granted. This apathy towards understanding challenging, engaging subjects reflects a generally-held, but misguided value system. The nightly news alerts us that our high-school seniors are falling shockingly behind those in other countries in some of the more basic realms of knowledge such as math, geography and science. Many people are all too content to say “So what?” or to argue that the students in those countries have no social life and are depressingly behind the U.S. in high-school basketball.
This illiteracy in some of the more basic realms of knowledge is not limited only to high-school students. “In American polls in the early 1990s, two-thirds of all adults had no idea what the ‘information superhighway’ was; 42 percent didn’t know where Japan is; and 38 percent were ignorant of the term ‘holocaust.’ But the proportion was in the high 90s who had heard of the Menendez, Bobbitt, and O. J. Simpson criminal cases; 99 percent had heard that the singer Michael Jackson had allegedly sexually molested a boy. The United States may be the best-entertained nation on Earth, but a steep price is being paid” (Sagan, 376).
I know that there are people in this country who, from a very young age, have felt stifled in their individual quests for knowledge — I am one of them. My hope is that the Internet will be a place where those people can venture beyond the limits of their classroom education and where those who have long since left the classroom can learn that it’s never too late to find inspiration in the wonders of the world. I hope that the Internet will provide an atmosphere where both of these groups can find challenge and intrigue in the countless realms of knowledge available to them.
Gould, Stephen Jay. “Bright Star Among Billions.” Science 275 31 Jan. 1997: 599.
Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World. New York: Random House, 1996.