Have you ever heard someone say they want to be a polymath? Have you ever heard anyone ask, how do I become a polymath? I haven’t. The word comes from the Greek polymathes or having learned much. A polymath is a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas. When we think of polymaths we tend to think of dead scientists from another era like Aristotle and Leonardo da Vinci. Rarely do we apply the moniker in modern times. We need more polymaths. We need a generation of youth who want to be polymaths when they grow up.
It’s easy to wrap our minds around the idea of a polymath in the context of ancient eras long gone. The entire body of knowledge on earth was accessible to an elite few. Those with an exceptional mind, privileged access, and the freedom to focus on interdisciplinary study, could become polymaths. In 384–322 BC Aristotle studied under Plato in ancient Greece. His writings spanned many subjects including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theatre, music, logic, rhetoric, politics, government, ethics, biology and zoology. In the late 15th and early 16th century Leonardo da Vinci was a prototype of the universal genius or Renaissance man. He was a painter, sculptor, engineer, astronomer, anatomist, biologist, geologist, physicist, architect, philosopher and humanist. Where have all the polymaths gone?
Polymaths need not apply in an industrial era defined by specialization. As the entire body of knowledge exploded beyond human capacity to absorb it, silos creating manageable chunks were inevitable. Each silo represents an opportunity to develop expertise and deludes us into thinking the brightest and hardest working among us can absorb all the available knowledge within it. The industrial era constrained knowledge access, limiting it to the privileged few. Barriers to entry proliferated along silo and socio-economic lines with exclusive professional credentials established in the name of protecting the public interest from charlatans without prerequisite experience and knowledge. In the industrial era, knowledge in the wrong hands was thought to be dangerous. Our current education and workforce development systems were designed for an era defined by specialization. It worked fine until it didn’t.
Three important inflection points have emerged calling to question an over reliance on specialization.