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The Cosmopolitan Expert: Dancing with Numbers and Narratives

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The division of our culture is making us more obtuse than we need be: we can repair communications to some extent: but . . . .we are not going to turn out men and women who understand as much of their world as Piero della Francesca did of his, or Pascal, or Goethe. With good fortune, however, we can educate a large proportion of our better minds so that they are not ignorant of the imaginative experience, both in the arts and in science, nor ignorant either of the endowments of applied science, of the remediable suffering of most of their fellow humans, and of the responsibilities which, once seen, cannot be denied.

C.P. Snow. The Two Cultures

Apparently, our society lives in two different worlds – or at least our world of perspective and practice—and even more fundamentally our notion of what constitutes knowledge and ultimately some sense of what constitutes reality—and what constitutes valid expert advice. These two different worlds have been with us for many years (even centuries); however, it was C. P. Snow’s (2012) notion of “two cultures” that he delivered in the 1958 Rede lecture that brought the disturbing notion of two world to prominence. Snow stirred things up and began a debate among not just educators, scholars and academicians, but also those who write and speak about the condition of contemporary society.

Fundamentally, what Snow has to say is directly related to the way in which reality is being seen and assessed. From one of the two cultural perspectives—the scientific—reality is best understood through the use of quantitative measurement. Numbers reign supreme. The second culture—humanities—considers reality to be much more elusive. Numbers are not enough. Other modes of assessment are valid—including narrative (story telling) and various artistic representations. For those in the humanities, the human enterprise is particularly elusive. Measurement is inadequate when seeking to represent the human experience. History is constituted of something more than number and the future is best predicted through something more than mathematically based trend analyses. It seems that human beings are fickle entities and are inclined as Taleb (2010) indicates to produce unanticipated “black swans.”

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