Saturday, September 27, 2008

On Polymaths

Several months ago, I wrote about the phenomenon of the encyclopedia in our culture, and argued that the decline in prominence of a bound collection of knowledge indicates that we are transitioning from an era which emphasized accumulation of knowledge to an era in which knowledge is categorized and organized.

I see further evidence of this trend in the decline of the "polymath." In fact, this concept has declined so far that not only is one hard pressed to identity polymaths alive today, but the very word has all but slipped out of our lexicon. (And what better way to illustrate the passing of a concept than to observe that the word that permits conception has been elided).

A polymath is, by definition, someone who has exceptional knowledge in more than one field. Classic examples are Aristotle, who wrote seminal treatises in both the sciences and humanities; Da Vinci, who created some of the world's most enduring artwork when he wasn't postulating human flight and figuring out secrets of anatomy; Newton, who was studying astronomy and geometry when he wasn't authoring modern physics; and Ben Franklin, who was busy channeling electricity when he wasn't helping to start countries.

As recently as the first half of the 20th Century there were people who might be considered polymaths, such as the somewhat obscure Harry Smith, who as an ethnomusicologist paved the way for the "folk revival" which produced Bob Dylan, as a film-maker pioneered the avant-garde movement, and who also practiced magic and collected tens of thousands of Ukrainian Easter eggs, among the many, many, other collections he accumulated. But in actuality, Smith also represents the passing of the polymath tradition. His work in film notwithstanding, most of his contributions to culture came about because of his archival skills, his ability to separate the wheat from the chaff. The fact that he applied this skill in such diverse areas might be a throwback to a previous ideal. But those that came after him would be forced to limit their archival impulse to a specific area of specialization.

And "specialization" would be the best way to describe the way people now pursue knowledge. While one can acquire multiple degrees in academia, you don't hear about anyone holding entirely unrelated ph.D.s. And a single ph.D. in say, themes in the plays of Shakespeare seems an unlikely proposition (largely because this has already been considered, tagged, and archived in various publications). Best to focus on how animals are represented in the tragedies, or something equally narrowing. And while you may have the occasional magazine editor try to buck the trend of specialization by reading the whole of the Encyclopedia Britannica, I'd like to see him try to read the whole of Wikipedia.

For a pop culture example of the passing of the polymath, consider the most popular movie of 2008. The Christian Bale Batman is considered to be an improvement over the Adam West 1960s version because the camp has been removed, substituted with verisimilitude. Yet this involved more than simply distilling the corniness. The Adam West Batman was a polymath- he had an invention for every problem, he had a breadth of knowledge that enabled him to solve any of Frank Gorshen's riddles, and in the King Tut episode he ran a three minute mile. The Bale Batman requires Morgan Freeman's Lucious Fox to help him with his inventions and the running of his company, and while a tactical genius, his knowledge base is more in line with a 21st Century man than a Renaissance Man.

So while every indication is that our culture has accepted the polymath as a relic of a previous era, there is curiously one area in which we still demand a perhaps unrealistic level of competence. Barack Obama has seized upon a statement that John McCain once made that “the issue of economics is not something I've understood as well as I should."
Even as recent events have revealed that those paid to understand economics have also come up short in this category, this quotation leads to the larger question of whether any one person today can be expected to have a level of expertise in all the various facets that the presidency oversees. If the polymath is a dated concept, should we also re-consider the nature of presidential campaigns? For example, should the party nominees announce cabinet nominees before they are elected? Should there be debates between each party's Secretary of the Treasury nominee?

I'm not sure what the answers to these questions are, but I'm concerned that we are getting to the point where it will take a polymath just to determine who is most qualified to run a country.


Blogger katie rose hanson said...


2:49 PM  
Anonymous Luke said...

Interesting, I didn't see the entry progressing the way it. I like the subtle touch of politics at the end which only emphasized the end-all statement.

Anyone else would have just rambled on about politics, and well, anyone with cable could have heard that. I like the mix.

10:31 PM  
Blogger zen ironman said...

Possibly not timely or applicable, but I think Frank Herbert of "Dune" noteriety might qualify...

4:21 PM  

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