Monomaths vs Polymaths: Tribal Warfare Over the Future

The Monomath:

The average job now is done by someone who is stationary in front of some kind of screen. Someone who has just one overriding interest is tunnel-visioned, a bore, but also a specialist, an expert. Welcome to the monopathic world, a place where only the single-minded can thrive. _Robert Twigger

vs The Polymath

Classically, a polymath was someone who ‘had learnt much’, conquering many different subject areas. As the 15th-century polymath Leon Battista Alberti — an architect, painter, horseman, archer and inventor — wrote: ‘a man can do all things if he will’. During the Renaissance, polymathy became part of the idea of the ‘perfected man’, the manifold master of intellectual, artistic and physical pursuits. _Robert Twigger

It may be true that “Anyone can learn to be a polymath,” but to be the best polymath you can be, you need to start early. As the years pass, and the windows for sensitive periods of development close in succession, the number of skills and areas of knowledge a person can master begin to drop by the wayside.

One can still become a polymath if he begins late, however, just as “it is never too late to have a dangerous childhood.”

A polymath is not the same thing as a “genius.”

Polymaths such as Da Vinci, Goethe and Benjamin Franklin were such high achievers that we might feel a bit reluctant to use the word ‘polymath’ to describe our own humble attempts to become multi-talented. We can’t all be geniuses. But we do all still indulge in polymathic activity; it’s part of what makes us human. _Robert Twigger

Learning to be competent at multiple skills and learned in multiple areas of knowledge does make us more human. It also makes us more interesting, and tends to make us more capable of solving a wider range of problems.

How unfortunate that the modern system of learning and employment — including the professions — tends to force one into narrow slots of specialty.

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. _Robert Twigger

It is easier to learn when one is young, and brain plasticity is going through its multiple peaks. But the mature brain is capable of instituting mini-peaks of plasticity if it is pushed hard enough.

Like a polymath, a Dangerous Child is a child with multiple skills, competencies, and areas of expertise. On the surface, a Dangerous Child will behave like most any other competent polymath. And that is how it should be.

The world has plenty of problems to be solved, even neglecting the faux crises of anthropogenic climate doom, peak oil apocalypse, overpopulation armageddon, and eco-oblivion.

A lot of unpleasant things could happen to the planet and its human population, plausible existential threats which might provide very brief warning, if any.

A society that encouraged its people to be the best and most competent might have a better chance at surviving. But don’t hold your breath.

Hope for the best, plan for the worst.

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3 Responses to Monomaths vs Polymaths: Tribal Warfare Over the Future

  1. bob sykes says:

    True polymaths are at the extreme outer edge of the distribution, maybe the 0.001% edge. It’s genetic and unteachable. The average person functions about as well as can be expected and no educational reform can change that. The problem is not bad schools, or bad teachers or bad teaching methods–it’s bad students.

  2. alfin2101 says:

    “True polymaths?” I wonder.

    There is a distinct difference between a polymath and a genius. A genius may be a polymath or a monomath. And a polymath may be a genius . . . or not.

    polymath – a person of great and varied learning
    learned person, pundit, savant, initiate – someone who has been admitted to membership in a scholarly field . . .

    And so on. Definitions vary — even contradict each other! It is the nature of language to evolve, to be slippery, and in constant conflict with itself.

    The author of the linked article above used the term “polymath” in the sense of someone with a wide range of learning and practical skills combined. Most dictionaries focus on the scholarly aspects rather than the practical.

    The Wikipedia article on Polymath gives some historical background, properly emphasizing the problem-solving aspect of polymaths: [Renaissance] polymaths had a rounded approach to education that reflected the ideals of the humanists of the time. A gentleman or courtier of that era was expected to speak several languages, play a musical instrument, write poetry, and so on, thus fulfilling the Renaissance ideal. ___

    In other words, while not everyone can become a renowned polymath in the historical sense, it certainly helps if one receives the educational advantages that polymaths were given.

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