In Praise of Polymaths

Da Vinci

Flywheels – Leonardo da Vinci

The Liberal Arts can be your best educational path to achievement in a specialized field, according to Robert Twigger in his article “Anyone Can Learn To Be a Polymath.”

Polymath refers to one who has learned much, people like Da Vinci, Goethe, and Benjamin Franklin. Yet the Western World now prizes the opposite: a “monopath” who often turns out to be a one-track, over-specialized bore. While specialization promotes a beneficial division of labor, Twigger argues that “[h]uman nature and human progress are polymathic at root.”

Reasons for the success of polymaths are both practical and scientific. A polymath is not as bound to the conventional wisdom of a particular discipline. He can see and be inspired by connections among disparate things. Brain researchers also find that the capacity to make intellectual connections thrives among people who take on new subjects.

Over-specialization in intellectual pursuits traps us in repetitive activity that dulls the brain. Physical activity is beneficial, and a job that is highly repetitive physically, such as working an assembly line, leaves the mind free to retain its creativity. But, Twigger says, “When the body remains still and the mind is forced to do something repetitive, the human inside us rebels.”

For those of us who stress arts education as much more than an elective, this serves as one more confirmation of what we know instinctively:

An intriguing study funded by the Dana foundation and summarised by Dr Michael Gazzaniga of the University of California, Santa Barbara, suggests that studying the performing arts — dance, music and acting — actually improves one’s ability to learn anything else. Collating several studies, the researchers found that performing arts generated much higher levels of motivation than other subjects. These enhanced levels of motivation made students aware of their own ability to focus and concentrate on improvement. Later, even if they gave up the arts, they could apply their new-found talent for concentration to learning anything new.

So, if you’ve always wanted to speak Portuguese or learn nuclear physics, this may be the time to do both. And don’t forget to choose a musical instrument (or two). The repetitive physicality of practicing will pay off. Be warned, however, that only genuine efforts at mastery, and not simply dabbling in new pursuits, can cure you of being a monopath.


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