Image: Science Museum
As anyone who has visited the London Science Museum’s current exhibition will know, Leonardo da Vinci is famed as an artist, mathematician, inventor, writer … the list goes on. He was a figure who did not see disciplines as a chequerboard of independent black and white tiles, but a vibrant palette of colour ready to be combined harmoniously and gracefully. Today, the polymath may seem like a relic of the past. But with an emerging drive towards interdisciplinarity in research and across the tech and creative sectors, the Renaissance man – and woman – is making a comeback.
Often cited as the archetypal “Renaissance man”, Leonardo came from an era in which the well-rounded individual, prolific and curious of mind, was highly valued. A comprehensive education was the marker of a gentleman. Universities were seats of broad learning, tasked with preparing future apprentices by encouraging them to interrogate and question many aspects of science, philosophy, theology and the arts.
The typical contemporary university is rather different. Targeted learning dominates today, particularly in the UK. Students are forced to specialise earlier and earlier – to be a doctor before you’re 30, you’ll need to know that you want to practice medicine by the time you’re 16. Undergraduate students are trying desperately to align themselves with what seems like a universal drive towards hyper-specialism. A 2015 report by Universities UK, revealed a boom in higher education entrants pursuing specialised subject areas such as business and administration studies, engineering and the biological sciences. In the same year, combined award degree enrolment saw a sharp decline of 54%.
This is perhaps to be expected. Incoming students are simply responding to a professional world that is extremely competitive, and so see hyperspecialism as a way of distinguishing themselves from the crowd. But monomath ubiquity has its pitfalls.
Within the sciences, experts quickly get out of touch with content beyond their immediate area and become siloed. Within the arts, those who gravitate towards a single practice such as creative writing, acting or photography often sidestep the benefits that multidisciplinarity lends to creativity. Super focused, one-track graduates run the risk of slipping off the career ladder should they wish or need to transition between fields in years to come.
The contemporary polymath
Individuals who set out to be proficient at many things are rare. Practitioners who cross the arts/sciences chasm seem few and far between. But this is unlikely to be true for much longer when we consider that some of the fastest growing and most influential fields of research – such as global sustainability or bioinformatics – straddle, distort and even disregard traditional discipline boundaries. Take “serious games”, a category of game design that attempts to solve real world problems. With applications in education, psychology, the military, archiving and healthcare, it is easy to appreciate the value of a serious games developer who can operate fluidly across multiple subject areas.
For new economies to emerge, and breakthroughs to be made, we need multi-specialised lateral thinkers who can connect the dots in unexpected ways. We need contemporary Leonardos. We need 21st century polymaths.
Tech companies such as Google understand this, and look for ways to expose their employees to methods of thinking that fall outside their immediate experience. Talks at Google was launched precisely for this reason. The programme invites fantasy writers, top chefs, fringe comedians, and popular musicians into Google HQ to talk about their art.
Last year saw Micheal Moore critiquing US international strategy in “Where to Invade Next”, cast members of the West End’s The Illusionist revealing insights into the world of magic, and Magnus Nilsson sharing the nuances of Nordic food culture. Talks at Google serves as a forum for internal enrichment, with an expectation that encountering the myriad ways in which the minds of its presenters are wired will jolt its employees into thinking outside of the box.
This sort of cross-pollination isn’t limited to the tech giants either. It’s a big deal in research. Major UK and EU funding bodies such as Horizon 2020 and the Arts and Humanities Research Council prioritise interdisciplinary collaboration, looking favourably on bids that cut across fields of study. Some of this year’s “hot themes” that bring together scientists, designers, artists and technologists collide virtual reality with heritage, smart device app development with healthcare, and big data with climatology. The success of such research relies on open minded, inquisitive people who know enough about one another’s disciplines to find meaningful points of synergy.
Our universities should strive to nurture this type of individual. One that rejects the frankly artificial confines that currently exist. One that has the ability to identify novel resonances between disciplines that others just don’t see.
Polymathism in the 21st century is no longer about “mastering” multiple fields of study, nor is it about being a generalist. It’s about acquiring a set of critical attributes that allow one to excel across subject areas as opportunities occur, and to negotiate interdisciplinary collaboration with a critical eye, and an informed outlook.