University of Wisconsin Digital Collections
Link to University of Wisconsin Digital Collections
Link to University of Wisconsin Digital Collections
The State of Wisconsin Collection

Page View

Batt, James R. (ed.) / Wisconsin Academy review
Volume 20, Number 4 (Fall 1974)

Holstein-Schoff, Gretchen
A one-eyed glimpse of the garden,   pp. 2-5

Page 3

Poor Alice! It was as much as she could do, lying down on one side, to look
through into the garden with one eye.  - Lewis Carroll
  As a student of language, I have long been fasci-
nated by what Wallace Stevens called our "flawed
words and stubborn sounds." The imperfect, so hot
in us, drives us in our struggling toward more preci-
sion, so that with each passing day of our knowledge
explosion we are presented with a bigger knowledge
pie, sliced into finer and finer pieces. Workaday aca-
demics, whose business is the pursuit of knowledge,
must now more than ever make an extra effort if they
seek to maintain some sort of holistic perspective.
Laurels and depth of insight are earned through
rigorous application to a specialty, frequently at the
price of bDing able to communicate with fewer and
fewer people. The Chaucerian hasn't much to say to
the Faulkner specialist, the medieval historian to the
twentieth century European scholar, or the theoretical
chemist to the applied.
  If the communication thicket has grown higher
between persons tending adjoining fields, it has be-
come impenetrably thorny for those working in widely
separated geographies of the academic landscape. It
was C. P. Snow, standing with one foot in the hu-
manistic field and the other in the scientific, who first
described in ominous tones the depth and terror of the
rift between scientists and humanists. The arguments
of his now-classic essay are too familiar to warrant
reiteration, describing as they did the blindered vision
of the scientist who knows nothing of Shakespeare or
Plato, and the humanist totally ignorant of the basic
laws of thermodynamics or genetics.
   Unfortunately, Snow's description of the disease
was so much stronger than his prescription for its
remedy (at best, a kind of "We must all try harder"),
that his essay has probably had the opposite of its
intended effect, setting a permanent seal upon a popu-
lar cast of mind which is now convinced that scientists
and humanists live in warring camps. On the one
hand, a sizeable segment of the world shares an un-
spoken confidence that technology and science offer
ultimately infallible problem-solving systems-systems
which are both a wonder, with Armstrong on the
moon, and a horror, in the age of nuclear and bio-
logical weapons. On the other, the humanists have
found themselves squeezed onto a narrower and nar-
rower strip of land, crying out for humanistic value
systems, usually too late, after some new tidal wave
of scientific advance has already begun its fatal sweep.
The common assumption is that Snow and others like
him, who speak the vocabularies of both the scientific
and humanistic realms, are rare figures, furtively
shuttling from the literary club to the laboratory.
Gretchen Holstein-Schoff is a lecturer in the Integrated
Liberal Studies department of the University of Wis-
consin-Madison. She was able to pursue her interest
in 'border conversation" during a one-year sabbatical
spent at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
  The truth is that shuttling like Snow's takes an
enormous amount of energy, a measure of genius,
and a great deal of time-all scarce commodities.
What most of us manage instead is the periodic
raiding party into foreign territory. Cases in point
abound-the scientist who plays a fine fiddle, the hu-
manist who is a wild flower expert or bird watcher,
the poet Robert Frost who claimed that the only mag-
azine to which he subscribed was Scientific American.
Most of these would readily admit that their forays
into other fields are no more than casual dalliances
or sanity savers from the perils of "too muchness."
For centuries, the shuttling technique has served us
well, and in rare cases has produced true Renaissance
types, the "men for all seasons" of the Leonardo
  All kinds of pundits and doomsayers have pointed
in recent years to the phenomenon of fragmented,
modern man. He has been painted in psychedelic hues
by Toffler and Roszak, Plath and Kesey. He has been
clinically observed by acute students of the human
psyche-May, Menninger, Frankl. The "crise meta-
physique" is as old as Oedipus and Job, but its forms
change with our changing world views, and nowhere
in recorded history has our world view changed as
rapidly as it has in the last decade. Mass communica-
tion has forced the moonwalk and genetic engineering
into the living rooms of millions who never read a
scientific journal.
  It is the business of historians of science to chroni-
cle and pinpoint crucial scientific events in human his-
tory which affect world view. They have noted, how,
in the twentieth century, scientists have been drawn
inevitably into the great mechanisms of industry, war
making, information retrieval, and medical research
and have turned their hands to the problems these
mechanisms present. Humanists, on the defensive,
have hardened their battle lines, assumed a Luddite
position, and turned their faces toward a nostalgic
past, wishing for the clock to stop.
  Garden variety citizens, whether they be academics,
salesmen, grocers, or athletes, are buffeted on all
sides. Every day presents us with the mind-numbing
ambiguity of technical progress. I find myself loving
the television (for bringing me Nureyev dancing at
Israel's twenty-fifth anniversary) and hating it (when
I read that its rays might be harmful to my children).
Every day presents us with the bitterness of ethical
decisions so complex that there are no blacks or
whites, but only vast areas of gray where one must
choose the least evil rather than the greatest good.
(Is it better, if you have only one donor, to give a
transplant kidney to an eighteen-year-old boy whose
potential is still unknown or to a famous sixty-five-
year-old brain surgeon?) The best that most of us
manage is a kind of brave hopefulness, a sense of
humor, and a concerted effort not to think about
it too much.

Go up to Top of Page