Our modern world is obsessed with specialization. Yet this specialization is often unhealthy, both culturally and personally. Aeon Magazine contributor Robert Twigger suggests we need a new area of study—“polymathics”—to counter this monopathic obsession:
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.
The study methods Twigger prescribes have actually existed for quite some time, although in a slightly altered form, as the classical liberal arts. First developed in ancient Greece, the liberal arts encompassed those skills necessary for civic and personal freedom. The Greeks even emphasized the importance of physical athleticism, as Twigger suggests in his article. The “arête” they sought fostered excellence of mind, soul, and body.
In modern academia, the liberal arts usually include a core curriculum that enables students to “master multiple fields.” The liberal arts classically emphasized a progression from rudimentary learning (the “grammar”) to practical application in communication and circumstance (similar to Twigger’s idea of developing “transferable learning methods,” “crossing unrelated things to invent something new,” and ultimately building “better judgment”).
Twigger’s emphasis on learning many fields is good. Specialization, while useful in many job settings, can disparage the interconnected and complimentary nature of learning. Twigger reminds us that the humanities do advance educational growth in multiple subjects:
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.
But note that Twigger is arguing from a claim of practicality: “polymathics will make you smarter, more creative, more humorous,” etc. This is a common attitude toward the humanities: if learning isn’t practical, it shouldn’t be practiced. Twigger points out the quantifiable practicalities of the humanities in his article, but there is no mention of the purpose the Greeks sought after: their vision of arête and freedom.
In a Wednesday New Yorker article, Lee Siegel argues that recent studies on literature—the ones claiming literature makes you more empathetic—soil the beauty of reading literature for its own sake. “Fiction’s lack of practical usefulness is what gives it its special freedom,” Siegel writes. “When Auden wrote that ‘poetry makes nothing happen,’ he wasn’t complaining; he was exulting. Fiction might make people more empathetic—though I’m willing to bet that the people who respond most intensely to fiction possess a higher degree of empathy to begin with. But what it does best is to do nothing particular or specialized or easily formulable at all.”
Perhaps the same is true for Twigger’s “polymathics,” the humanities, and the liberal arts. Despite their quantifiable benefits, one shouldn’t denigrate the “special freedom” of learning for its own sake.