In defence of the polymath

When Dr Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, berated the English recently for having a too unbalanced educational system I could see his point. But my own very English education looking back was actually very broad and probably accounted for my being more poly than math to be honest as all I remember was doing just about anything I wanted over a seven year period from arts to the sciences and everything in between with no thought of broadening my mind.

Us polymaths, if that is what we are, often get attacked for being jacks of all trades and masters of nothing at all. And actually that is true in many cases. But the classical definition of a polymath includes such dilettantes as Leonardo da Vinci, Aristotle, Goethe and Isaac Newton so we are not all a bunch of dabblers. I generally support the idea of having a broad education and embracing as many skills, arts, crafts, sciences and languages as possible, stopping to specialise only for the  purposes of earning a crust.

This is where my usual plug for Andalusia comes in as if there was ever a bunch of polymaths it was in the glory days of the caliphate around the 10th-12th century, something that Wikipedia conveniently glosses over. Many of the famous names of that time had a multiplicity of unlikely skills compared to the super specialists of this age. Importantly they considered religious scholarship as a key science to have under your belt. These days men are more famous for their advocacy of atheism than knowledge of God what with the Hawkins and the Dawkins of this world. Maybe it was because religious knowledge was the fulcrum of all the knowledges that were emerging at that time. Some have likened the expansion of, and thirst for, knowledge in this period of history and the migration of many to Cordoba, to the assembly of talents on the Californian west coast (including Google of course) in our time, where technical genius, entrepreneurship and design have produced an alchemy which has changed the world culture in a very short space of time. Where geek meets freak in other words. Mind you California has always had this pioneering aspect to it. It’s where the UN was founded and where cultural and economic models (not always good) have set the trend worldwide as if the prevailing winds have blown them across to Europe and Asia.

Take, for example, Abbas Ibn Firnas (810–887 A.D.), also known as Abbas Qasim Ibn Firnas for example. He was an Andalusian polymath: an inventor, engineer, aviator, physician, Arabic poet, and Andalusian musician. Of Berber descent, he was born in Ronda, Spain, and lived in the Emirate of Córdoba. He is best known for an early attempt at aviation. Then there was Ibn Rushd (Averroes) (1126-1198), an Andalusian Arab philosopher, doctor, physician,jurist, lawyer, astronomer, mathematician and theologian. And of course Ziryab, the famous poet, musician, singer, cosmetologist, fashion designer, trendsetter, gourmet, strategist, astronomer, botanist and geographer. I could go on. This kind of agglomeration of talents was the norm in that society. Eric Schmidt hit an uncomfortable nerve. Good for him. The next time you think only a specialist or an expert is qualified to do something then think again.

A full transcript of Dr Schmidt’s speech can be seen here:

About Ian Whiteman

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2 Responses to In defence of the polymath

  1. shadee says:

    This is one of themes of the picture Seven Days in Tibet. How tradl society understood the whole, while modern man (represented by Brad Pitt) seeks to climb one mountain only.

    The funny thing is that the most successful of thinkers these days are the ones who have been able to link their field to other fields and show how they interact. It’s all about “inter-disciplinary” work now.

    Businesses too: Google and these people constantly bring in experts from all walks of life to see how they can bring them a service and thus win them over as customers.

  2. nerd says:

    Good blog you have here.. It’s hard to find quality writing like yours these days. I really appreciate people like you! Take care!!

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