The worth of the polymath

By Maral Margossian

In ninth grade, I was convinced that the circus was the perfect place for me to begin my career. I wanted to travel, be a fashion designer, photographer, trapeze artist, journalist and I loved lions. I didn’t want to sacrifice one career for another, so I figured that if I joined a circus, I could create the costumes, take photographs of the shows, participate in the shows as a trapeze artist, write about our adventures, be around lions and travel.
I’ve come a long way from my “circus phase,” but that period of my life reflects a crucial aspect of who I am. I still love fashion design, photography and writing, along with math, human rights, philosophy and literature, though I am by no means an expert in any of these subjects. In short, I am a jack of all trades, master of none.

The term “Renaissance man,” or polymath, refers to “a person with many talents or areas of knowledge,” according to the New Oxford American Dictionary. Leonardo da Vinci – who was a painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist and writer – is the most famous example of a Renaissance man.

Humanism, an outlook that stresses human potential, characterized the Renaissance era, which produced some of the most notable figures in history, including da Vinci, Michelangelo, Galileo and Copernicus. During this period, people were encouraged to expand their knowledge into a vast array of subjects.

Fast forward to today: polymaths are a dying breed and education values specialization. The process of applying to college clearly displays this emphasis on specialization. When high school students are applying to college, they are told that admissions officers are looking for applicants who display passion and focus through their choice of classes and extracurricular activities.

In the “Answer Sheet” in the Washington Post’s Education section, Valerie Strauss asks the question, “Do colleges want well-rounded students or those with a passion?”

“We are always suspicious of students with laundry lists of extracurricular activities because it suggests that the student is not developing an in-depth engagement with any one activity,” Eileen Brangan Mell, director of Public Relations at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, said in the article.

Of the 12 college admissions officers interviewed in the article, seven came to similar conclusions. Some added, almost as an afterthought, the qualifier that there is still room in college for those who have not yet found their passion. Generalist students can easily be dismissed by admissions officers as mere resume builders with no true focus and get left in the dust.

This tendency toward specialization is reinforced in college, where students declare a major with the hope that they will one day work in that field. The drive to do one thing and do it well is so engrained in our culture that our jobs have become synonymous with our identities. When we meet people for the first time, one of the first questions we ask is, “what do you do” or “what’s your major,” as though one’s job or major gives a clear indication of who that person is.

Specialization discourages us from perceiving each other as complex, multidimensional, human beings and instead creates the illusion that we can achieve a definite understanding of each other simply through our majors or jobs.

There are few options for the generalist in college. General education requirements allow students to explore various subjects, but ultimately specialization takes over in the form of a declared major. Ironically, while the purpose of a major is to prepare students for their future careers, many employers find that college graduates are not adequately prepared in the other, more general skills necessary for employment.

College graduates are “lacking basic workplace proficiencies, like adaptability, communication skills, and the ability to solve complex problems,” according to a special report by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

This problem can be solved by generalists. Since generalists know a little bit about a lot, they can approach complex problems from various perspectives, coming to a solution faster than if they approached the problem from a single perspective.

“Only by understanding the work within fields to the right and the left of your own can you understand the bigger picture … whether you’re talking about a corporation … or the world as a whole,” Meghan Casserly quotes writer Carter Phipps as saying in an article for Forbes.

We have lost sight of the value of the polymath over the course of time. The men of the Renaissance is reason enough to believe that a generalist approach to education results in a beneficial outcome. If we shift back to valuing the Renaissance man, we can rediscover human potential.

In the words of science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein, “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

Maral Margossian is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected].