The Multi-Functional Mind
Issue 92 May 2012
Throughout history, intellectuals have embraced a multitude of fields. But how might we become polymaths in the modern world? Ali Khimji explores the ways.
Life today seems to be all about specialisation. Take the education system for example. You start by picking up the basic tools of learning: literacy and numeracy. As you progress, you begin to study a wide range of subjects: math, literature, grammar, history, geography, science, and art to name a few. Once you reach college age, you drop a few of them to concentrate on the ones you excel at. And then on to university, where you choose one, perhaps two subjects to study to the highest level. It seems very strange that we are asking teenagers to make such tough decisions that will affect the rest of their lives, when their minds are ripe for learning and are able to absorb and process information a lot more efficiently now than years later.
How can one know what one wants to do, when one has had little to no exposure to the real world? What is even more peculiar is that we do not realise what we are asking of students when they make these decisions. Any young person who appears uncertain or confused is cast aside as unambitious and indifferent to the pressures of life.
If we look back in history, particularly during the Islamic Golden Age and the Renaissance period, we see many intellectuals who were termed polymaths. A polymath is a person whose expertise spans a number of different subject areas. Today, we often hear the phrase ‘jack of all trades, master of none’, but some of these individuals were most definitely masters in all their spheres. Take Leonardo da Vinci. Not only is his art admired around the world, but he observed the human anatomy and studied the mechanical functions of our skeleton. He embarked on civil engineering projects, and had a deep understanding of geology. It appears as if his thirst for knowledge knew no bounds.
Given our rich human tradition of producing polymaths, why do we not see as many today? Some would argue that the likes of Noam Chomsky, Stephen Fry, or Steve Jobs might perhaps be our modern incarnations of polymaths. All three of them could be characterised by their thirst for knowledge or yearning for perfection. But you could say that after achieving excellence in one field, they were afforded the luxury of moving into others. But even then, what stops the everyday human being from becoming a polymath for their own benefit? Could it be that we have discovered so much in each academic field that it is impossible to be an expert in many subjects and still make valid contributions? When da Vinci was dissecting human bodies, not much known was about their function, so even though his discoveries were not in-depth, they were still groundbreaking. Or could the other reason be that we are under pressure to generate income, and so no one can afford to indulge in education without it having any monetary value?