The Curse of the Polymath

Photo of the Vitruvian Man

Photo of the Vitruvian Man

Most of the time, the Classically Educated Manifesto is a document which we are all proud of.  But, on occasion, we stop and look around the world and realize that modern human society is not really designed to cater to polymaths.

Generalists as a species have been out of favor even in places where they should thrive, such as multinational corporations, for twenty years or so.  But this is just a deepening of a trend that has been around for a century or more.

The case of companies can be quickly studied.  The reason generalists are useful for corporations is that, from a certain size onwards, companies need managers.  A manager’s job is twofold: to get results for their particular area of responsibility through the work of others, and to coordinate activity with other managers with a view toward optimizing shareholder value.

So, for instance, the company’s best programmer really can’t be promoted to management unless a) he has a grasp of human resources management, and b) an understanding of what the rest of the company is doing, from finance to marketing to production.  This is why people with MBAs tended to get those promotions.

Over the last few years, however, many companies have been ignoring this hard-learned truth and simply promoting the best-performing functional experts, people who really, really  know how their department works, causing much laughter among experienced managers who then get to watch the train wreck while munching popcorn.

There are many explanations for this phenomenon, starting with a sense that MBAs are elitist, and elitism goes against the inclusive culture of many new companies, especially in the tech arena, and continuing with the fact that a lot of HR people have gotten extremely conservative and only hire / promote technical experts within their fields in order to cover their own asses – they seem to have forgotten the immutable truth that a good manager can manage anything, even complex technical departments.  And it ends with the fact that companies aren’t getting any smarter.

While this is all very interesting, it doesn’t seem to cover the root problem, which is that as the world becomes more complex, obsession is beginning to trump… well, everything else.

Lewis Carroll portrait of Beatrice Hatch

Lewis Carroll portrait of Beatrice Hatch

So, you have people who live, breathe and dream computers, all day, every day.  Or any number of individuals who take their company work home with them and think about it to the exclusion of all else.

Even those people aim at balance tend to have one all-consuming hobby, whether it be rock climbing or model trains.  They then get together with people who have the same hobby.

So a person who works as an engineer at an airplane factory, and reads renaissance literature during his lunch break, practices amateur theater two nights a week and plays softball with friends over the weekend before his painting class and then gets together with friends from none of these activities is about as common as hen’s teeth.

It wasn’t always like this.  As recently as the Victorian and Edwardian ages, amateurs were making important contributions to both the arts and sciences (and probably even moreso to that ultimate mixture of the two: the soft “sciences”).

Lewis Carroll was a mathematician and a social critic who is best remembered for his children’s books (although a close reading of Alice will show that “children’s” is a bit of a misnomer).  He was an example of the gentleman polymath of his time.

And perhaps therein lies the problem.  The twentieth century was a century of democracy, and elitist concepts such as that of the gentleman with the leisure time to be an expert in various fields fell into disfavor – and distrust.  Even today, deep knowledge on too many subjects can get one branded as elitist extremely quickly. (If someone brands you as elitist, please let us know immediately, and we’ll offer you a place on our writing staff – unpaid, but proud to join a whole raft of elitists).

The loss of polymath pride since the turn of the 20th is a tragedy, perhaps, but even those Victorians and Edwardians were but a pale shadow of the true colossi of polymathy: the men of the renaissance.  Why, even today, the term “renaissance man” is used to refer to anyone who masters various disciplines.

Choosing one giant from among them would be an arduous task were it not for the unsurpassed genius of Leonardo, of course, but he was simply the giant among giants.  From Michelangelo to Galileo, they reveled in a society that celebrated breadth of genius far more than depth of expertise in a single subject.  They were even allowed to build huge buildings… although they were actually painters and astronomers (clearly, there were fewer lawyers back then, or the lawyers were also polymaths who got it).

That is what we have lost.  Today, the admiration that was once reserved for giants of the intellect is reserved for actors who often can’t count to ten and for surgeons who likely wouldn’t understand references to Humbert H. Humbert.  Guitar players for whom impressionism is a side effect of cocaine.  Geniuses in their fields, all, but limited in scope.

And it won’t change.  The 21st century will see a deepening of democracy globally, and one of the central tenets of democracy  is that equality is a right.  Most peoples of the world have chosen to interpret that as “no one is better than anyone else”, and if achievements show the contrary, then the person flaunting those achievements must be brought down a peg.

So polymathy, especially in “elitist” intellectual pursuits, will only get less popular as time passes and the world panders to the easily-bruised egos of the masses.  Polymaths will increasingly become dinosaur-like rebels flying in the face of social convention, the crazy old uncle no one ever talks about.

But that’s fine.  It’s more fun to offend than to conform.

Anything that requires  an exertion of sheer bloody-mindedness must, necessarily, be a good thing.

So onward the polymaths.

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