Polymathy

The overwhelming majority of academics today are specialists. Indeed, mainstream academia encourages an increasingly narrow specialism. There is suspicion and outright hostility to multidisciplinary scholars within university departments, which are drawn to protect their turf by the present funding regime, and a concentration on measurable outputs that is at odds with the pursuit of scholarship for its own sake.

This approach suits a certain type of person – the monomath – very well. It establishes firm boundaries, sets clear expectations and ring-fences expertise such that it becomes an impenetrable boundary that can keep outsiders at bay. It also provides a ready home for dullness, mediocrity and the growth of insider jargon designed to catch out anyone not in that particular club. These are the intellectual heirs of Malcolm Gladwell, who argued that genius was the outcome of obsessive focus.

The polymath is not merely someone who knows a lot about many different areas of enquiry, but in my definition, someone who has effectively mastered multiple specialisms such that they have made a significant scholarly contribution to each of the areas they have chosen to work in. Writing in “Life Stages of Creativity”, Robert and Michèle Root-Bernstein propose six different types of creative typologies, developed from work first published in 1993,

  • Type 1 represents people who specialize in developing one major talent early in life (e.g., prodigies) and successfully exploit that talent exclusively for the rest of their lives.
  • Type 2 individuals explore a range of different creative activities (e.g., through worldplay [the Bernsteins’ term for the invention of imaginary worlds] or a variety of hobbies) and then settle on exploiting one of these for the rest of their lives.
  • Type 3 people are polymathic from the outset and manage to juggle multiple careers simultaneously so that their creativity pattern is constantly varied.
  • Type 4 creators are recognized early for one major talent (e.g., math or music) but go on to explore additional creative outlets, diversifying their productivity with age.
  • Type 5 creators devote themselves serially to one creative field after another.
  • Type 6 people develop diversified creative skills early and then, like Type 5 individuals, explore these serially, one at a time. (1)

It can be seen that the purest typology of the polymath is Type 3. It is with that type that I identify personally. I have also encountered and collaborated with other Type 3 individuals. The author Waqas Ahmed further defines polymaths as those who have made significant contributions to at least three different fields (2)

In my own experience, Type 3 is often associated with high IQ and is the outcome of an essentially creative temperament that is understandably impatient with the restrictive constraints of mainstream academia (leading in my case to the exploration and creation of alternative academic institutions). However, Ahmed and others disagree with the identification of polymathy with high IQ, maintaining instead that polymathy is natural to all people and that specialization is a cult deriving from the mechanised production lines of the Industrial Revolution. According to Ahmed, “specialisation is nothing but an outdated system that fosters ignorance, exploitation and disillusionment and thwarts creativity, opportunity and progress.”

Because knowledge is so freely available today, there are many people who, through self-education, have a more than average grounding in multiple areas of knowledge. The number who can turn these interests into significant output, however, is limited. This is what distinguishes the polymath from the dilettante, whose knowledge is essentially shallow and not directed towards clear aims or outputs.

The academic polymath can be identified in a number of ways. Perhaps the most obvious is through having obtained academic credentials in multiple areas. Although still uncommon, it is the case nowadays that some individuals have obtained multiple doctoral degrees in different disciplines. In the course of this website, I discuss my own academic history and how I came to earn doctorates in history, education, the humanities, music and divinity, followed by consulting, honorary and emeritus professorships in education, history, music and religion. In doing so, I also discuss the ways in which my academic path has diverged from the modern academic specialist mainstream, and the reasons for this.

A second identifier is output of significance in the areas that the polymath has chosen to work in. I have chosen to work simultaneously in the areas of education, music and the Church (with history and, to a lesser extent, law, being connecting threads between them). In each area I can identify the following principal outputs:

  1. Education: teaching, administration, founding, management and leadership in multiple institutions; expert in the equivalency and status of international credentials leading to the preparation of over 5,000 expert opinions on credentials for use before the United States Government. My book “The University outside State Control” was one of the first to explore its subject.
  2. Music: pianist giving concerts and making recordings; founder of own recording label for which I issued over 100 CDs of world première recordings of piano music of the Romantic era including first recordings of Beethoven, Alkan and Mendelssohn et al; further premières on my YouTube channel have included a major series on German composer Walter Niemann.
  3. Church: bishop exercising leadership, management and administrative roles within a number of historic communions of a generally traditionalist outlook; my biographical studies of Arnold Harris Mathew and Joseph René Vilatte have become standard references and have been quoted in other scholarly work.

A third identifier would be awards from third parties recognizing achievement of particular note. The various honours and awards I have received are also detailed in this website.

I became interested in all of my chosen areas relatively early in life and subsequently evolved the role which I would take within each, according to my abilities and interests. It is probably not insignificant that all three of these areas are now dominated by the ideas of the Left within the academic mainstream, whereas my own perspective is of the traditionalist Right. For me, the overall holistic context of all of my work is provided by my Christian faith.

In the process of attunememt, I was aware that there were some areas that I was interested in but could not reasonably pursue, either because they required academic resources to which I could not gain access, or because (as with most contemporary scientific research) they had essentially now become group rather than individual endeavours. In each case, therefore, I sought to pursue areas that were either receptive to a high degree of individual input or that had not been previously explored by others, so as to be able to make an original and worthwhile contribution.

The result is that I have established a depth of expertise in multiple disciplines. It would have been possible to have achieved each of these as a monomath, but that would have involved the sacrifice of the other elements as well as the necessity for a focus on other aspects of a given discipline that either do not interest me or are not suited to my abilities. Sir Isaiah Berlin, in a famous essay, defined intellectuals as either hedgehogs, who view the world through the lens of a single defining idea, or foxes, who draw on a wide variety of experiences and for whom the world cannot be boiled down to a single idea (3). Berlin does not imply that the one is better than the other, simply that some thinkers naturally tend towards either classification. Most contemporary academics are hedgehogs, and the academic world is designed around their proclivities and preferences. I, on the other hand, am a fox.

These are not easy times for polymaths. There is a lack of understanding of polymathy within society and a deference to academic monomathy that causes the polymath to be generally misunderstood or treated as a threat to academic good order. As I became aware of academia in my youth, there were still a few notable polymaths at the elite universities, along with a residual concept of scholarship without boundaries that owes its genesis to Western civilization itself. This was swept away by successive Tory and New Labour governments who wanted to commodify education and had no time for anything that did not fit easily into a tickbox culture of cheap accountability. Globalisation and technology, too, have rejected the polymath as advertisers and multinationals try to push people into ever narrower categories to be sold their products. Within the musical profession and specifically for pianists, polymathy is seen as a threat given that the monomathic model of solitary and obsessive focus has become endemic.

And yet it is the polymath who can take a unified vision across a range of disciplines, producing insights and seeing connexions that would defeat those wearing intellectual blinkers. A large part of the reason why our politics is in such a dire situation today is because it is the product of an intellectually stultified environment. Dominic Cummings, former adviser to the Prime Minister, seems to have been the only person in public life to have really understood this, when he sought to recruit individuals from outside the establishment model (4),

“People in SW1 talk a lot about ‘diversity’ but they rarely mean ‘true cognitive diversity’. They are usually babbling about ‘gender identity diversity blah blah’. What SW1 needs is not more drivel about ‘identity’ and ‘diversity’ from Oxbridge humanities graduates but more genuine cognitive diversity.”

This was what our country desperately needed, but it was not what it got, most likely because such a challenge to the civil service and wider environs would threaten those who were powerful enough to stop it. As was the case earlier with Michael Gove’s courageous and much-needed educational reforms (also with Cummings’ input) the “blob” had won.

It is sometimes proposed by writers on polymathy, notably Professor Peter Burke, that there needs to be greater focus on and opportunity for interdisciplinary work (5). Doubtless there are some polymaths who would welcome this. I also do not deny that the polymathic overview is important for any unified grasp of the connexion between different fields. But interdisciplinary work is not particularly my aim; rather my interests lie in multidisciplinary work. For a time, I thought that this might be achieved in teaching at the upper school level (where I taught a variety of subjects at GCSE and A level, notably business, information technology, English language and literature, history, and music). Even in that setting, however, there was decreasing support for polymathy. This led me eventually to create my own alternative academic institutions, and since doing so I have on principle sat on all their examining and assessment boards, whatever the subject, believing that it is firstly incumbent upon me to grasp the area of achievement in question sufficient to understand both the presentation itself and the reports of subject examiners, and secondly that I can often offer an insight from a broader intellectual context.

Ahmed says of polymathy that it “is a powerful means to social and intellectual emancipation”. It is certainly true that a world in which polymathy were encouraged in place of monomathy would look very different from that of today. Above all, it would be a world in which the critical faculties would be much more profoundly and justly exercised than they could ever be through a narrow viewpoint. Polymathy is also a guard against arrogance; working in multiple areas makes one strongly aware of the limits to one’s knowledge and of the level of application and achievement that would be required to ameliorate this.

We need only look back fifty or so years – perhaps not even that far – to see polymathy ingrained in the English intellectual character and an important contributor to the concept of the educated person. Perhaps the time may yet come when it regains that exalted place.

References

1. Root-Bernstein, R., & Root-Bernstein, M. (2017). People, passions, problems: The role of creative exemplars in teaching for creativity. In Creative contradictions in education (pp. 143–164). Springer, Cham.
2. Ahmed, Waqas (2018). The Polymath: unlocking the power of human versatility. Chichester, West Sussex, United Kingdom: Wiley. ISBN 9781119508489.
3. Berlin, Isaiah. Ignatieff, Michael (ed.). The Hedgehog and the Fox An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History (2nd ed.). Princeton University Press. ISBN 9781400846634.
4. https://dominiccummings.com/2020/01/02/two-hands-are-a-lot-were-hiring-data-scientists-project-managers-policy-experts-assorted-weirdos
5. Burke, Peter (2020). The Polymath: A Cultural History from Leonardo da Vinci to Susan Sontag. Yale University Press. p. 213 foll. ISBN 9780300252088.