Pursuit of Polymath

I’ve been called a Renaissance woman, a Heinlein girl, and asked many times how I can reconcile my artistic tendencies with a passion for science. The reality is that I grew up with no barriers, no one telling me ‘you can’t do that because you’re a girl.’ I took to heart early, Heinlein’s words that specialisation is for insects. So I write, and take pictures, and study physics, chemistry, and math, and plan to stop learning on the day I become tree food. I was taught to be an autodidact, and that gave me the power to self-propel my knowledge of whatever subject I wanted to learn. Teach a man to fish… and so on.

I think my readers will enjoy this article (emphasis added by me).

People as old as 90 who actively acquire new interests that involve learning retain their ability to learn. But if we stop taxing the nucleus basalis, it begins to dry up. In some older people it has been shown to contain no acetylcholine — they have been ‘switched off’ for so long the organ no longer functions. In extreme cases this is considered to be one factor in Alzheimers and other forms of dementia — treated, effectively at first, by artificially raising acetylcholine levels. But simply attempting new things seems to offer health benefits to people who aren’t suffering from Alzheimers. After only short periods of trying, the ability to make new connections develops. And it isn’t just about doing puzzles and crosswords; you really have to try and learn something new.

Monopathy, or over-specialisation, eventually retreats into defending what one has learnt rather than making new connections. The initial spurt of learning gives out, and the expert is left, like an animal, merely defending his territory. One sees this in the academic arena, where ancient professors vie with each other to expel intruders from their hard-won patches. Just look at the bitter arguments over how far the sciences should be allowed to encroach on the humanities. But the polymath, whatever his or her ‘level’ or societal status, is not constrained to defend their own turf. The polymath’s identity and value comes from multiple mastery.

There is, I think, a case to be made for a new area of study to counter the monopathic drift of the modern world. Call it polymathics. Any such field would have to include physical, artistic and scientific elements to be truly rounded. It isn’t just that mastering physical skills aids general learning. The fact is, if we exclude the physicality of existence and reduce everything worth knowing down to book-learning, we miss out on a huge chunk of what makes us human. Remember, Feynman had to be physically competent enough to spin a plate to get his new idea.

Polymathics might focus on rapid methods of learning that allow you to master multiple fields. It might also work to develop transferable learning methods. A large part of it would naturally be concerned with creativity — crossing unrelated things to invent something new. But polymathics would not just be another name for innovation. It would, I believe, help build better judgment in all areas. There is often something rather obvious about people with narrow interests — they are bores, and bores always lack a sense of humour. They just don’t see that it’s absurd to devote your life to a tiny area of study and have no other outside interests. I suspect that the converse is true: by being more polymathic, you develop a better sense of proportion and balance — which gives you a better sense of humour. And that can’t be a bad thing.

Read the whole thing here.. 

3 thoughts on “Pursuit of Polymath

  1. “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks is one of those false “wives’ tales”. A dog that learns tricks well as a pup usually learns them well as an old dog. A pup that can’t learn tricks won’t learn them as an adult.

    Which one do you want to be?

  2. I do have one concern about this: sometimes I think that a lack of learning new things can be a side effect of Alzheimers. The idea of Alzheimers, or of dementia in general, kindof scares me, because I technically have a family history of it, and a bout of mononucleosis further makes it difficult to find the time and energy to learn new things.

    Having said that, I first learned about “tenure” when I was an undergraduate, and fully appreciated what “tenure” means while in graduate school. When I fully understood it, my thought was, “So, basically, if I became a professor, I would be stuck at that school forever, excepting for the occasional sabbaticals? Why would I want to do that? I’d like to keep my options open!”

    It would seem to me that, rather than keeping inquiry open, tenure would ossify those who participated in it…particularly since its goal seems to be in favor of stability over risk…

    1. I think I agree with you about tenure. On one hand it frees someone up to pursue research and on the other hand it takes the risk away. You don’t have to push hard to come up with new things, you have security. There are people who have an endless thirst for knowledge, but they aren’t a majority.

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