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Why The World Needs More Polymaths

Bechem Ayuk

Dec 1, 2023

"Just as the ocean's waves weave tales in their dance, polymaths craft stories of innovation by seamlessly blending knowledge from diverse domains."

A few days ago I set foot on a beach for the first time. It was as if I had stumbled into another world. The vast expanse of shimmering sand met the endless body of water, stretching beyond the horizon. The beauty and terror of it all left me in awe. 

Each wave was a story in itself. The way they curled and unfurled, like a graceful dancer in a cosmic ballet, was a spectacle to behold. It was as if the ocean itself were breathing, inhaling and exhaling with the tides. 

And so, as I stood on that shore, mesmerized by the ceaseless dance of the waves, I couldn't help but draw a parallel between the nature of the ocean and the essence of polymaths. Just as the waves continually adapt and transform, drawing from the depths of the sea, polymaths are individuals who embrace a multifaceted existence, their knowledge and skills ever-evolving and interconnecting.

In the world of polymaths, as with the waves, there is a harmonious blend of depth and breadth. They delve deeply into their chosen domains, just as the waves reach profound depths before returning to the shore. And, much like the waves' ability to bridge the gap between the land and the sea, polymaths possess the remarkable capacity to bridge the gaps between disparate fields of knowledge.

The beach, with its ever-shifting waves, served as a powerful reminder that the world needs more polymaths who can navigate the complexities of our time, just as the waves navigate the intricacies of the ocean. 

In this edition of The Value Junction, we will explore the multifaceted nature of polymaths and how they are uniquely equipped to address the multifaceted challenges of our modern world. Like the waves, polymaths are a force to be reckoned with, shaping the future with their endless adaptability and relentless pursuit of knowledge.

The Shift From Broad to Specialized Education

For centuries, education took a markedly broad approach. Classical education traced back to ancient Greece and Rome emphasized developing well-rounded citizens versed in topics like philosophy, rhetoric, mathematics, and physical education.  The likes of Leonardo da Vinci, a true polymath, emerged during this era. Da Vinci wasn't confined to a single discipline; he was a painter, sculptor, architect, engineer, and scientist. His ability to seamlessly merge the arts and sciences is a testament to the power of polymathic thinking. 

This model continued through the 18th century, when universities mandated studies across disciplines including sciences, humanities, and arts. 

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the rapid growth of knowledge led to increasing specialization. The Morrill Land Grant Acts funded specialized agricultural and technical colleges in America focused on practical subjects like engineering rather than classical liberal arts. Over time, secondary schools also transitioned to subject-specific curricula. 

Today, the educational pendulum has swung far towards hyper-specialization, particularly in higher education. Undergraduate students now typically declare majors immediately and take narrowly focused coursework tailored to their field. However, this laser focus on one discipline restricts exposure to different ways of thinking that spark creativity. 

Education scholar Sir Ken Robinson noted that the lack of interdisciplinary learning in our system leads many students to "become specialists in one area before they've even become a generalist".

This prevalent early specialization can deprive students of the intellectual versatility valued throughout history. To tackle complex issues in an interconnected world, students need both deep expertise and the ability to bridge disciplinary perspectives. Returning to a more polymathic model can better equip graduates with this agile, comprehensive mindset.

The rigid division of education into categories stifles creativity and innovation. We need minds that can connect the dots between silos.

The Benefits of a Polymathic Approach

Adopting a polymathic approach that blends interdisciplinary learning with specialized domains has many advantages. As polymathic thinkers like Aristotle and Goethe demonstrated, synthesizing diverse ideas and experiences can yield revolutionary insights and innovations. Key benefits of a polymathic model include:

1. Fostering Connections Between Disciplines

Polymaths are adept at identifying parallels across different fields that spur creative ideas. Polymathic architect Christopher Alexander found inspiration in poetry and mathematics to pioneer new architectural patterns. Interdisciplinary thinking enables the cross-pollination of concepts that drive discovery.  

In a world where many of our challenges require multidisciplinary approaches, polymaths excel. They can speak the language of different fields, facilitating collaboration and understanding. 

For instance, Temple Grandin, a polymath in animal science, psychology, and engineering, played a vital role in revolutionizing the treatment of livestock and advocating for more humane and efficient methods. Her work demonstrates how a polymathic approach can drive substantial change.

“Innovation emerges when we connect experiences.” - Steve Jobs

2. Enhancing Creativity 

The breadth of knowledge across multiple domains cultivates creativity. A study of patent holders found those with interdisciplinary expertise produced over 30% more creative innovations than specialised inventors(Lévesque, 2022). Exposure to arts and humanities also boosts scientific creativity.

Proponents of early specialization argue it allows students to fully immerse themselves and excel in a field. However, this study shows interdisciplinary learning enhances critical thinking, problem-solving, and cognitive flexibility. Exposure to diverse disciplines promotes connective insights and transferrable skills vital for innovation. 

3. Solving Multifaceted Problems

Real-world problems like inequality and global health require integrative solutions across disciplines. Polymaths with mastery in diverse domains are better equipped to develop holistic solutions by connecting the dots between specialities.

Several longitudinal studies on interdisciplinary college programs confirmed these benefits. Students who blended natural sciences, social sciences, arts, and humanities showed greater gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and intellectual flexibility compared to disciplined-focused peers.

How to Encourage Students to be Polymathic

One of the primary avenues for nurturing polymathic thinking is our education systems. To encourage students to be polymathic, we must reevaluate and reform how we teach and learn.

1. Embrace Interdisciplinary Learning: Encourage schools and universities to develop cross-disciplinary courses that allow students to explore connections between various subjects. For instance, a course that combines history and science can provide students with a more holistic understanding of the world. Educators should explicitly highlight connections between different subjects and areas of knowledge. Using an interdisciplinary lens in lessons demonstrates how diverse domains intersect to solve real problems.

2. Promote Project-Based Learning: Project-based learning that challenges students to tackle open-ended, real-world problems is a powerful way to build critical polymathic skills. Rather than memorizing facts and formulas, project-based learning encourages students to synthesize knowledge across disciplines to imagine and implement solutions.

For example, students might be tasked with designing sustainable housing solutions that integrate engineering constraints, aesthetic design, and socioeconomic considerations of a hypothetical community. They would need to conduct research, collaborate across teams, and iterate on ideas - learning key lessons in adaptability, communication and making interdisciplinary connections along the way. Other projects could challenge students to develop business plans for eco-friendly products, combining science, business, and ethics lenses. Or students may be asked to analyze works of art through both aesthetic and mathematical principles, blending right- and left-brain strengths.

STEAM education exemplifies project-based polymathic learning by organically integrating concepts from science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics. For instance, students can use programming skills to create video games that educate players on climate change. Such projects enable students to flexibly apply knowledge across traditionally segregated subjects to solve multifaceted problems.

The open-ended nature of projects teaches students creative agility since there is no single right answer. Having to work through ambiguity fosters the same critical thinking skills used by transdisciplinary polymaths in the real world. Passion-driven projects give students autonomy over their learning process, which further motivates polymathic exploration. With the right scaffolding and guidance, project-based learning develops core competencies for cross-domain thinking and innovation.

3. Encourage Extracurricular Exploration: Beyond core academics, schools should actively nurture student participation in diverse extracurricular activities. Exploring varied pursuits sparks passion and builds real-world skills. Rather than a bullet point list, schools can encourage this in several ways:

  • Offer a wide array of affordable on-campus clubs and programs. From arts to athletics, academies to gaming clubs, provide on-ramps to different interests.

  • Schedule flexibly to allow students time for activities. Avoid overloading with homework that restricts exploration.

  • Spotlight extracurriculars at assemblies and events. Recognize student participation and achievements to motivate engagement.

  • Collaborate with community centres and experts to run stimulating programs on campus. Bring in artists, scientists, and builders to instruct.

  • Host "passion fairs" for students to discover local opportunities from nonprofits, companies, and colleges. Connect interested students.

  • Train teachers as activity advisors. Compensate them for this added guidance of students' development.

Exploration leads to engagement, keeping students invested in their own lifelong learning.

4. Socratic Questioning: The Socratic method of teaching through questioning helps students develop critical thinking skills and intellectual versatility. By asking a series of thought-provoking, open-ended questions, teachers can:

  • Guide students to think more deeply about assumptions and consider alternative perspectives. For example, asking "What might we be overlooking?" or "How could this issue be viewed differently?" pushes them to examine ideas from multiple angles.

  • Encourage students to identify and challenge biases. Asking "What evidence supports that conclusion?" or "Is there a conflict of interest?" prompts objective analysis.

  • Stimulate imaginative solutions by asking "How else could we approach this problem?" and "What if we changed the constraints?" Divergent thinking stretches cognitive flexibility.

  • Foster connections between disciplines by asking questions like "In what other domains might this concept apply?" and "Where else have we encountered similar patterns or issues?" Transferring insights across subjects exercises integrative thinking.

Teachers can further develop critical thinking by having students generate their own Socratic questions on course material. The act of formulating probing questions builds creative problem-solving skills. Students can collaboratively discuss answers, practising respectful dialogue while exercising intellect.

In a Nutshell

At first glance, one might assume that specialization is the most efficient way to progress. The prevailing assumption is that in a world of increasing complexity, we need specialists who can delve deeply into specific areas. This idea is grounded in reason – specialists have indeed driven many of the incredible advancements we've witnessed. However, the world's challenges, from inequality to healthcare, rarely come neatly packaged in a single discipline. They are intricate, interconnected problems that demand multidisciplinary solutions.

Consider the case of Steve Jobs. Widely regarded as one of the most innovative minds of our time, Jobs wasn't just a tech genius; he was a polymath. He seamlessly blended technology and design, understanding that creating transformative products required more than just technical know-how. It demanded a multidisciplinary perspective that drew from the arts, the sciences, and the humanities. The result? The iPhone; a device that revolutionized not just the tech industry but also how we live and communicate.

This brings me to my central argument: the world needs more polymaths because they are uniquely equipped to navigate the intricate web of modern challenges. They are the individuals who can bridge the gaps between seemingly unrelated fields, drawing inspiration and knowledge from diverse sources to innovate and create.

The future belongs to versatile innovators like Elon Musk and Naval Ravikant who can complement specialized expertise with the ability to integrate insights across domains. Graduating polymathic students equipped with this agile mindset is critical for raising a new generation of creative problem-solvers ready to tackle the complex issues ahead. The time has come to reimagine education and unleash a wave of boundary-pushing polymaths once more.

**This article is a direct republish without changes from The Value Junction.


Bechem Ayuk is an award-winning EdTech consultant, a web developer, and the author of The Value Junction. Newsletter.


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