Ryan Joel Brown is an Interdisciplinary Educator/Writer and Director of Music and the Performing Arts at an international school in the UAE. He has taught professionally in a range of subjects, using concepts of each to inform others, constantly striving to share the interconnected aspects of these fields. He believes we are lifelong learners and constantly thirst to know more, whether we realise it or not. Follow his writing and quest for polymathy on his website or twitter.
Helping students understand the value in a broad and disparate field of studies could be the winning edge for innovation. In particular, thinking like a polymath to link skill sets and ‘cross-pollinate’ across the academic divide of Arts, Sciences, and Mathematics, can have profound benefits.
In this highly connected and competitive world, it’s easy to believe that specialisation and laser focus is required to be a master of a field or gain recognition. Sure, great focus and specialisation often leads to mastery but to standout and advance in this world our students need to innovate and push boundaries into un-explored territory. Recent appraisal of the most impactful scientific studies of the last century found that the majority were completed by multidisciplinary teams that created links across different fields of studies. Students need to link and synthesise. That’s where polymathy comes in.
To varying degrees, schools and parents alike are of guilty of funnelling students into a specialty. Every time I hear something like, “I have to drop the school musical so I can study for chemistry,” I shudder. While there are obvious benefits to a student focussing on subjects in which they ‘need’ to succeed, they’re missing out on the benefits that can be gained from being well-versed in multiple and disparate fields, even if those fields are as different as Poetry and Physics, Art and Maths, or Music and Chemistry.
But don’t you have to be a genius to be a polymath? The classical example of a genius ‘Renaissance Man’ like Leonardo Da Vinci is so far removed from modern times that we often fail to realise that the potential for such capacity lies within our students. Da Vinci was human, like you and me.
Polymathy can be broken down into its components and exercised. Broadly speaking, a polymath must exercise the three components of breadth, depth, and integration. It’s the component of integration that makes becoming a polymath more achievable. There is much to be explored in the components of breadth, depth, and integration, but this is outside the scope of this article.
The first thing you’re going to think about it your school’s STEAM program, but the polymath approach is more entrenched in daily life and learning experiences. Being a polymath is a life project, and those who do think like one tend to place value on two principals: the development of knowledge-rich consciousness and to use their faculties to enhance or transform the world2.
Shared Psychological Profiles
Gone are the days of thinking ‘Thinking like a Scientist’ or ‘Thinking like an Artist’; they’re almost identical. In research spanning 25 years, Bernice Eiduson of UCLA explicitly investigated the psychological profiles of professionals from various fields. She found that, while they were distinct from others in the test group, the psychological profiles of Scientists and Artists could not be distinguished from each other. Why? Both groups shared these key traits: they had diverse intellectual interests, extravagant fantasies, were very responsive to sensory experiences, and strived to find diverse ways to express these experiences.
Proof is in the Petri Dish (and concert hall)
Hilary Kaprowski, virologist, and creator of the world’s first polio vaccine was also an accomplished composer, arranging performances and recordings of his works, often taking time out from his research to do so.
Pasteur’s scientific work goes beyond pasteurization. Before the groundbreaking work on vaccines and microbial fermentation, he was portrait artist, and a very talented one. At 13 his mother asked him to paint her portrait and from there his interest and talent grew. He painted stunning and bold portraits of his friends and family, the collection of which you can view here.
Carl Jung’s artistic output was so prolific it could be compared to his output of psycho-analytical work. He described his engagement in art as a necessary “right of entry” into his scientific work2.
Physics Laureate Werner Heisenberg, whose work in quantum mechanics and atomic particles changed the course of history, was also an accomplished pianist. It was the complex patterns and structures of music that first intrigued the young Heisenberg before those of quantum mechanics did. All these scientists were benefiting from the skills of a polymath.
Benefits to Thinking like a Polymath
- Innovation. Research has shown that the most impactful scientific studies were executed by teams with diverse fields of experience. This research also found that, while 90% of their citations were from resources in their field, the remaining 10% were from fields normally considered completely unrelated1. If creativity is the application of multiple sets of knowledge in unique ways to achieve novel results, one must engage in some degree of the polymathic components of breadth, depth, and integration of knowledge to demonstrate creativity.
- Complex tasks require a multidisciplinary approach. Think about all the different skills or knowledge that goes into the design and construction of a major building or bridge. Because their brains need to delve into new and diverse fields regularly, polymaths may often have better faculties to improve productivity, efficiency, creativity, and resource management3.
- Non-bias. Bias is hard to avoid, no matter who you are, but research has found that those engaged or advanced in a numbers of fields (polymaths) are more open to differing perspectives, new ideas and approaches to problems. On the other hand, specialists in one field tend to follow typically engage in groupthink. As Aristotle said, “It’s the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
- Contentment. Polymaths, who get to engage on a range of different of different subjects and skills sets are constantly stimulated and challenged. Variety is the spice of life, of course, but it goes deeper. When there’s always new project that piques your interest, you’re never stuck in a rut or bored. For this reason, polymaths often have extended motivation, their willingness to expend effort is constantly renewed by pursuing meaningful objectives3.
- Interpersonal/social skills. Forget this ‘smartest person in the room mentality,’ everyone hates that guy. What truly impresses and engages people is someone who can hold a discourse in a range of topics, in particular, the top that they are interested in. Polymaths are more likely to know enough about that field to have a great conversation without dominating it.
Now more than ever we need our students to have a diverse and adaptable skillset. Jobs are becoming more multi-faceted and work itself is moving towards more of a ‘gig economy’. Our students will need to draw on a wide range of fields and skills in order be successful in the jobs of the future.
Imagine how far our students could take their scientific inquiry if they were also able to regularly exercise their creative cognitive processes through their artistic endeavours or expand their knowledge sets dramatically using the breadth, depth, and integration. These are the approaches that make discoveries, create new ideas, fresh art and, if not the course of history, the course of a young person’s life.
We need to stop thinking about the idea of being a Poymath as something only geniuses can achieve, to a learning and lifestyle approach that values all fields of human knowledge and the links between them. Let’s show our students that being skilled in disparate fields is not only highly valuable, but achievable by many.