The endangered polymath


An article bemoaning the impending extinction of the polymath. I love Djerassi’s distinction between intellectual promiscuity and intellectual polygamy, which he describes as a distinction between dabbling and multiple mastery.

This is an issue I’ve been considering for many years. Since childhood, I always knew what I wanted to be when I grew up: I wanted to be COMPETENT. I recall taking a class trip to the city center with my preschool. I must have been 4 or 5 years old. My teacher was leading our group of children around the city, and he lost his way. He stopped to ask for directions on the street. The woman who gave him directions was wearing black leather boots, and was able to confidently explain where we should go. I don’t remember her face (I was probably too small to see it) but I distinctly remember her brisk and competent voice, and those daring black boots. THAT’S what I wanted to be: the kind of woman who gets asked for directions on the street, who wears black boots, who knows the city, and who can tell people what to do if they’re lost.

If success could be measured by adherence to childhood ideals, I would now be considered a fairly successful woman. (I also had a vague idea that I wanted to be an ‘artist,’ which seemed to involve lounging around on piles of opulent pillows in a room with no windows, smoking a long pipe, and drawing pictures of naked ladies. Apparently I suffered early exposure to the Baudelaire version of Romanticism.)

As I got older, my vision of competence expanded beyond the mere ability to give directions. I wanted to be a polymath, to master many skills: to be an excellent cook, a writer, a scholar, a streetfighter, to learn the essential post-apocalyptic survival skills such as gardening, firearms, vehicle maintenance, soapmaking….I wanted to read everything, to taste everything, to go everywhere. My vision of a well-rounded character often drove me into conflict with my schoolteachers, some of whom resisted the idea that a child could be drawing and listening to a maths lesson simultaneously. I eventually dropped out altogether, and only graduated high school through miraculous chance and the charity of Alternative Ed classes for adults. But when I skipped school, it was often so that I could go to the library, and accelerate the pace of my reading in an environment free from pesky, interfering teacher-types.

Hence, while I’ve aspired to be a polymath, I’ve also chosen the path of the autodidact. And the autodidact is in constant jeopardy of becoming a dilettante, a dabbler, jack-of-many-master-of-none. I definitely exhibit those traits: my knowledge of certain basic subjects, like US geography, is spotty at best, while I’ve indulged myself in deep pursuit of oddities, like alchemical history. I didn’t finish a bachelor’s degree until I was 31 years old, and was only a full-time student for one year, when I worked on my MA. Curiosity and energy have come naturally; discipline was harder to come by. And, of course, that battle is far from won. (As I write this, I’m extending the internal deadline I’d set for starting final preparations for my thesis defense. Should have started at 10, now it’s 11, maybe I can make it by noon…)

But while the battle is not won, it’s not lost, either. I’m not a master of anything, but in my first 32 years, I’ve built a solid foundation for becoming competent in a variety of disciplines. I was honored and moved to be described as “author, researcher, social worker, historian, lecturer, curator” in the tagline of my alumna profile:…

And, although I can laugh ruefully at the ambitious goal I described in my college entry essay (“…to fully consider the upheavals and transformations of thought and order that have been occurring since World War I….”) I nonetheless feel a twinge of pride in the choice to set high standards for myself and my work.

As I make bumbling steps toward becoming a well-developed polymath (or intellectual polygamist!) I become more and more optimistic about the life of the generalist versus the specialist. I value ambidexterity, analysis, and inquisitiveness. And if I meet a bright young student, possessed of intellectual virtues but frustrated by the mindless routines of high school, I might just advise her to drop out, to take the path of greatest resistance and learn discipline rather than obedience. And, from time to time, I’ll let her borrow my black boots.


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