polymaths

Airport Reads: Scientific American

So, you’re standing in an airport and, once again, you’ve committed the cardinal sin of bringing along the wrong book for your trip.  In my case, the wrong book was Paradise Lost, which, though a cultural keystone, is not exactly light reading.

So what does one do?  You head for the newsstand, of course (I like reading on paper – I spend a lot of time writing on a computer, so the paper experience represents a break) and look for one of the staples of my airport reading.

Scientific American April 2017

In this particular case, I picked up the April 2017 edition of Scientific American (when it arrived unread, I tossed it into the TBR pile, which is why I’m just now writing about it–publications take forever to cycle through my TBR pile).

Now, looking at the cover, it’s easy to wonder why I’d have picked that one up.  I’m not particularly interested in Alzheimer’s research (ask me again in thirty years and you may get a different view), and water and conspiracy theories aren’t my passion either (although I will admit to being intrigues by supermassive black holes).  The thing is, none of that made any difference.  I picked it up with little thought for the articles listed, because Scientific American is a publication I like to read.

I like it so much, in fact, that I used to subscribe a couple of decades back.

Why?  Because it straddles the gap between National Geographic and things like Science or the New England Journal of Medicine nearly perfectly.  It speaks to the more educated layman as opposed to the specialist or the person who is curious but, perhaps doesn’t have enough training to be able to follow a overly scientific language.

It lands in that sweet spot that, though inhabited by relatively few people, is inhabited primarily by people who read.  The demographic is probably very similar to readers of The New Yorker or Fine Books and Collections.  It’s a world of polymaths and, hopefully of Classically Educated readers.

And the fact that every single airport newsstand in the US has copies of this one is no coincidence: Airports probably concentrate a higher proportion of potential readers than any street corner location outside of certain university towns or business centers.  Polymaths are, by their very nature, the kind of people who fly from one place to the other.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story author.  His latest book is entitled The Malakiad, and combines his fascination for history, Greek Mythology, anachronism, humor and Monty Python.  You can check out the ebook here and the paper version here.

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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.

On Hunters, Farmers and ADD

11th Century Chinese Warrior

Earlier this morning, I was thinking how much easier (yes, easier) life was in the 11th century.  Essentially, if someone was irritating you, you rode out (or walked out, depending on your level of income) armed with as many instruments of mayhem as you could take with you, and resolved the issue.  I am not a particularly violent person, but sometimes, when modern life gets political, whiny and just plain moronic, I do envy those inhabitants of simpler times (although the lack of bidets is always “problematic”, as the PC crowd likes to say) when society wasn’t as apt to frown upon occasional major bloodshed in the course of friendly arguments.

And now, it seems that this may be linked to the fact that I am easily distracted.  Hmm…

Research into Attention Deficit Disorder has led to any number of avenues, most of them focused on getting hyperactive children to be able to focus and learn at the same rate as other kids (drugs, mainly). While your attitude towards this might vary, there is little question that the drugs make these children nice little zombies who can actually stay awake through boring history classes without distracting those around them who are more teachable and focused.

hunting a wooly mammoth

However, another current believes that there is little wrong with these children psychologically, but that their minds have a preponderance of hunter-type characteristics – a genetic remnant of less civilized past. As you can imagine, most elementary schools on the planet are not equipped to train children to hunt mammoths, something in which this kind of child would probably excel as they are generally better at improvisation and real-time problem-solving than they are at concentrating on something they don’t need at the moment. They aren’t necessarily bad students, but they are the type which will toss things together at the last moment. In modern life, they tend to be the brilliant thinkers who put the great ideas out there and let others take care of the details.

On the other hand, ”normal” children are those in which the ”farmer” brain type is dominant: meticulous, detail-oriented, planners. They are generally a teacher’s dream, and are the ones who can turn the great ideas into working systems, which they then enjoy refining and refining some more. They are the ones who will give us a working highway system, but also the ones that give us 65 mile-per-hour speed limits because their nature is to plough the furrow again and again, as far as they can. Most overdone social trends (see helmets on ski slopes) have to do with farmers going a little too far into the details, into places where people outside the extremely specialized clique can no longer communicate effectively with them. Most people have a little of both, with one side predominating, while some – very few – are able to balance both sides, and can be Farming Hunters or Hunting Farmers.

Of course, all of this is extremely relevant to the business world, on two fronts: marketing and recruiting. Marketing because it is important to remember that you can’t sell things to farmers the way you would to hunters, and recruiting because, for technical reasons I won’t go into here, it is important to have a good balance of both personality types on your sales force (and I assume you would want your accounting department to be composed exclusively of farmers). Internet entrepreneurs tend to be hunters (which explains why they break the mold, and also why their long-range planning is sometimes… questionable).

So how does all of the above relate to this blog?

 

detail oriented

Simple. Polymaths seem to be Hunter-type personalities, while specialists, those men and women who are completely absorbed in one topic, seem to be farmers (remember that ADD research?), which is what makes academia so frustrating for so many.  The plodding, bureaucratic specialist is prevalent – and that means that the maverick needs to either learn to accept that or to ply his trade elsewhere.  That may be the reason that the less detail oriented personality types tend to find their way into business or the military as opposed to academia.  Hell, even in these fields, detail orientation is often praised, while big-picture thinking is suppressed.

Which begs the question: How much are we losing because of this?  Is over-specialization driving us to a dead end?  We at Classically Educated think so – which is why these posts are so eclectic…  But, ask around, you’ll find that most people disagree with us!