Rivalries amongst friends have always been a source of fun, of mock competitiveness and late-night debates. Rarely has there been a losing rugby team where the forwards don’t blame the backs, and the backs don’t blame forwards, no matter what great mates they are on and off the field. On the cricket pitch, fast bowlers get pigeon-holed as intellectually challenged; batsmen as lazy aristocrats. And in a local educational context, the sisterhood of BMS and our own school is forever challenged by arguments over the dinner table in the home of our Harpur Trust parents. Well, just recently, another old chestnut has come back and, notwithstanding the extreme seriousness of its context, it has been quite interesting to watch the revival of the Arts vs Science debate. It seems on the face of it so obvious that the scientists at the moment provide the key to unlock the world. All the talk is of vaccines, of statistics and models, of apps and technological advances, and of the wonderfully named SAGE (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies); and understandably so – this is a crisis which requires a scientific solution. But, as lockdown marches on, people are also beginning to question the wisdom of the ubiquitous phrase, uttered by a Classicist no less, that “we are following the science; we will be guided by the science”. Has this approach been justified? Is it still justified? Do the scientists not simply argue amongst themselves most of the time?
What about the human cost? Should life be guided by science? Or is it more nuanced than that? Where should the balance rest? These are all impossibly difficult questions, and I genuinely wish our decision-makers the wisdom of Solomon in their application – they must be losing a lot of sleep at the moment.
Yet at a time when the world is crying out for scientists, the decisions seem to be made almost exclusively by Arts graduates. It was only six years ago that the Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, was quoted as saying, alarmingly, that “young people choosing to study arts subjects could be held back for the rest of their lives”, this despite the fact that she herself read Law and, amazingly, only one of her 21 cabinet colleagues (Vince Cable) had studied a science degree. Fast forward to Summer 2019 and Boris Johnson’s first cabinet. It was widely, and correctly, reported that being male and independently educated with an Oxbridge degree gave you a huge leg up for a post around his table. However, it was also true that of the 33 in the room, only a single one (Alok Sharma, the International Development Secretary) was a science graduate. Yet go back to 1991, roughly the student era of this cabinet, and you find that over half of university degrees were awarded in the fields of Science and Engineering (with almost a quarter in natural sciences alone). Margaret Thatcher, with a Chemistry degree, remains the only Prime Minister of this country to have graduated in science.
And it is not just here, either.
In 2016, only 5% of the US Congress had a science degree; and currently, although Angela Merkel herself was a Chemist at university, the picture is pretty much the same in the Bundesstag.
In an era where so many of the major global issues concern tricky science – Climate change; artificial intelligence; Covid-19 – no matter how good those Arts graduates are, the make up of the current cabinet seems unbalanced and counter-productive. We should all ask ourselves why this is the case; and especially, perhaps, scientists should ask themselves why it is the case. It should also provide a real incentive for some of you at school now – might you be one in the future who works their way to Number 10 with a science degree? And when you do get there, what will your team look like – will it have the equivalent of 10 batsmen and one fast bowler? Fourteen props and a winger? Or will you be aiming, whatever your own predilection, for a more balanced divergence of skills? For what it is worth, I think it is highly unlikely that Solomon ever considered wisdom in terms of Arts or Science at all.