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The Golden Age of the Polymath

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Humanities cuts announced by the government. Are we surprised? A reinforcement of a government committed to robbing us of our intellect. The authorities are insistent on narrowing down our abilities through increased specialisation and vocationalisation. It wants to develop incurious producers whose sole purpose is to add revenue to our economy.

It is this contemporary thinking that leads us to compartmentalise our skills as 'doctor' or 'lawyer', 'artist' or 'banker'. What happened to Polymaths?

Definition of a polymath: a person who excels in, or is an expert in a significant number of different subject areas. The concept was coined during a period where numerous great thinkers excelled in multiple fields of arts and sciences. As the accomplished Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) said,

"a man can do all things if he will."

In early Islamic civilization there was no single authority that controlled the education system. Education was, however, considered compulsory and more worthy than any form of superogatory worship. The purpose of education was to equip an individual to be an upstanding citizen, who was aware of his responsibilities to the world, society and his Lord. The Islamic view is that only through knowledge can one understand the benefits that his Lord has given him and so be in a state of obedience.

The Prophet (pbuh) who became a physician, judge, arbitrator, lawyer, healer and counselor, is the archetype. A famously quoted saying of his (pbuh) is

"seek education from birth to death even if it is in China"

(China being an example of a distant place). Education was to be broad and cover astronomy, law, theology, poetry, science, philosophy and particularly encourage the etiquettes of learning. Taking poetry as an example, the famous scholar, Imam Al-Ghazali describes the learning of poetry as fundamental to developing the use of rhetoric, the ability to be eloquent and to speak succinctly, which in itself would develop an individual's character. Greek, Roman and all classical education systems placed emphasis on memorising poetry for this reason. Quintillian highlights this in his educational theories where he says:

'there is no foundation for the complaint that only a small minority of human beings have been given the power to understand what is taught to them, the majority being so slow-witted... the greater number are quick to reason and prompt to learn. This is natural to man: as birds are born for flying... so are we for mental activity and resourcefulness.'

It was this system that led to the flourishing of the rational sciences in the Golden Age, subsequently reflected in the prosperity of the Islamic Empire. Mathematicians, astronomers, physicians, engineers and other kinds of scientists were abundant. The system conformed to the law of supply and demand but this was not the sole purpose of education. Education was an obligation in order to develop individual potential and was sought for itself and not for a particular job, status or position in society, which is distinctly different to today.

Well known Polymaths who had a great impact on civilization include Ibn Sina (Avicenna) (980-1037), al-Razzi (860-940), and Husayn bin Ishak al-Ibadi, who developed the medical sciences. Razi is reported to have written 200 books on medicine, one of them on medical ethics, and the Hawi, a 25 volume practical encyclopedia. Ibn Sina became a famed physician at 18 who wrote 16 books. His corpus also includes writing on philosophy, astronomy, alchemy, geology, psychology, Islamic theology, logic, mathematics, and physics, as well as poetry.

Recent studies and discussions through platforms such as Ted have voiced concerns about our current system of education and what we value as 'intelligence'. There is grave concern that we are killing creativity.

We are being 'dumbed down through a serial form of programming' as Sir Ken Robinson, a recognised leader in the development of education, creativity and innovation, describes it. In other words,

"being educated."

In his Ted presentation, 'Schools Kill Creativity', he says,

"we see extraordinary evidence of human creativity...all kids have tremendous talents and we squander them ruthlessly."

Picasso said,

"all children are born as artists, the problem is to remain artists when we grow up."

What concerns me and should concern all of us is that we are effectively educating children out of creativity and this is being done at an institutional level.

The most alarming statistic Sir Ken provides is from a study on divergent thinking published in Breakpoint and Beyond. Divergent thinking is the ability to think of many answers to a specific problem. This is the first step to problem solving, before we get analytical. 98% of 1500 kindergartners scored at the genius level for divergent thinking. Their scores dropped dramatically as they progressed in the education system. This shows us two things: that we all have this innate potential and that it mostly deteriorates.

The UK Education system is one of the most prescriptive in educating out of creativity. Students are made to select three or four subjects by A-level. Carl Djerassi, a rare polymath of today describes the UK system as a mistake.

"There'll be students here at age 16 or 17 who are much better than many Americans at French or maths or something, but abysmally ignorant in another area," he says. "We really preach intellectual monogamy more and more in this day and age."

So how did we end up where we are? Modern education was coined only in the 19th Century and as a system designed to meet the needs of industrialism. It is only natural then that it will seek to develop a core type of character, one that suits the needs of the market. We are now considered commodities to fill market demands. Schools are a production line. Robinson says,

"our minds have been mined the way we mine the earth for a particular commodity."

Appreciating education as a fundamental virtue, not for a means to an end but as an end in itself, has been lost. This is a distinct shift in thinking from days past.

Thought is dangerous to the power structure of our society. Hence we are consistently distracted from it by entertainment and consumption. The education system itself naturally upholds certain subjects as more important than others. So sciences and maths are given more attention than the humanities, art and music, as subjects which are more likely to lead to economic employment.

Even if you manage to escape and regain some shred of creativity after the attempts to institutionalise you and you decide you want to be a writer and a lawyer and an economist, society just doesn't believe in the idea that any individual can be a polymath. We live in the age of the cult of the monomath. Knowing things makes you weird, not powerful. We have an engrained idea about our purpose and what we should all be like. Monomaths are not just the new standard, but the only realistic possibility, writing off those who wish to specialise in a number of areas as 'dabblers' as described by Edward Carr of The Economist.

We need to understand the richness of human capacity. We are gifted with intellect and we must use that gift wisely. As humans we are the cause of the state of our world and the destruction and suffering we see. As Jonas Salk described:

"if all the insects were to disappear from the earth then within 50 years all life on earth would end. If all human beings disappeared from the earth, within 50 years all forms of life would flourish."

'We were born with wings,

You were born with potential

You were born with goodness and trust

You were born with ideals and dreams

You were born with greatness'