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NEXT: Jack-of-All-Trades, Bachelor of Polymathy

David Staley David Staley NEXT: Jack-of-All-Trades, Bachelor of Polymathy
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For the last two weeks, I’ve been an avid participant at the (virtual) Polymath Festival, organized by the Da Vinci Network, and specifically by Waqas Ahmed, author of The Polymath. It has been a pleasure meeting like-minded practitioners because, I fear, there are very few such venues or opportunities to do so.

A polymath is an individual who displays competence or mastery in a wide number of areas, rather than excellence in just a single domain. Adrienne Marie Brown describes herself as “auntie, sister, daughter, woe, writer, facilitator, coach, mentor, mediator, pleasure activist, sci-fi scholar, doula, healer, tarot reader, witch, cheerleader, singer, philosopher, queer Black multiracial lover of life living in Detroit,”  to me, the very definition of a polymath.

Yet in our contemporary language—even as we lionize someone like Leonardo da Vinci—we tend to dismiss polymaths as “dilettantes,” meaning someone who is not serious or a mere amateur at something they should be leaving to professional specialists. Or we sometimes use the term “jack-of-all-trades” to describe polymaths, implying with disapproval the unstated “master of none.”  

I have actually met a number of students who display what we might term polymathic tendencies, but are frustrated by an educational system that insists that they specialize. These students chafe under the demand that they major in one subject; even double majoring or adding a couple of minors seems unsatisfying to them. Such an institutional requirement does not allow them to satisfy their intellectual curiosity. Or, at least, the problems they are interested in do not neatly line up under the rubric of a disciplinary subject. What if we permitted these students the opportunity to design their own course of study, to, in effect, major in polymathy? Universities could create a new degree: the Bachelor’s of Polymathy (BP) or the Doctor of Polymathy (D.Poly).  

My students fear that such a polymathic degree would not signal anything specific to potential employers or graduate schools, that they would need to spend time explaining their preparation to an impatient potential employer. Better to major in something commonplace and obvious that is easily understood. Such is the hold of specialization and silo-enforcement in academia—and society at large—that polymathic students feel forced to conform to a single discipline.  

We need more educational institutions that cultivate polymathism. We also need more institutions in society that depend upon the insights of polymaths.  

Polymathy—or at least the polymathic mindset—is probably more commonplace than we might think. Indeed, it is Ahmed’s contention that polymathy is our natural condition: specialization is the historical oddity, favored only over the last 150 years or so. We tend to think that Leonardo da Vinci is the exceptional human, but Ahmed maintains that there have been many da Vincis that we simply do not know about. Cultivating more Leonardos should be the objective of higher education.  

There are two general kinds of polymaths. The first is the person who exhibits mastery of several domains. Today they are a poet, tomorrow a physicist, next week they are an athlete. Like the polyglot, who can speak several languages fluently, this kind of polymath is “fluent” in several domains and can easily toggle between them. At the Polymath Festival, I was privileged to hear a talk from Merritt Moore, who is both a quantum physicist and a ballerina. Polymaths like Moore are not just fluent in many domains; their competence stretches between very different, disparate, seemingly unalike domains.  

The other kind of polymath blends or otherwise mashes-up insights from many different domains to produce something new, innovative or creative.  

This is not to say that everyone should aspire to be a polymath. We still need laser-focused specialists to keep our society functioning. But could we open up a place for cultivating more polymaths in contemporary society? We could start with schooling: we could allow more students to pursue degrees in polymathy. We could encourage some students to major in three very different disciplines—physics, dance and sociology—or do not require any one major but instead allow these students to minor in six or seven disciplines. Universities should then determine a mechanism for signaling to businesses—and especially to HR managers—that these students with BP degrees are exquisite intellects that any company would want to hire. 

Urban Meyer has said that, when he was recruiting college football players, that he sought out “athletes,” those who had excelled at many sports, not just football. He maintained that he could place these athletes anywhere on the field, instead of recruiting for specific football positions. What if businesses took a similar position: that they seek out polymaths because of their wide-ranging talents, and then place them somewhere—anywhere—in the organization.

Polymathic education would be excellent leadership training. Today the MBA or the law degree are the usual qualifications for leadership positions. In the future, the Bachelor’s of Polymathy or the Doctor of Polymathy could become the new qualifications, the new signal of leadership ability in society.  

The world needs more polymaths. Let’s build more institutions to cultivate and recognize them.  

David Staley is an associate professor of history, design, and educational studies at The Ohio State University. He is host of the “Voices of Excellence” podcast, CreativeMornings Columbus and president of Columbus Futurists.

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