So Why Can’t We Be Polymaths?

In this age of specialisms and niching, we’re all told to be good at something (see last issue). But by that many people usually mean for us to be rubbish at everything else. We’re streamed and channelled in our education system to hammer home the messages that we can study science OR the humanities, be an artist OR technician, languages OR mathematics etc.

Like many others who came through the state school system in the UK, I was frustrated that I couldn’t do German because I was doing Physics. The system wasn’t flexible enough for that combination of subjects so they had separated the sciences and languages out. The school was obviously unaware that German was the language of physics (until the aftermath of the second world war), just as French had been the language of Chemistry a century earlier. So I chose the science route and amazed my fellow students and teachers by my magical ability to draw. It was almost as though their brains were shortcircuiting, ‘You can draw and yet you study science? That does not compute!’

This pigeon-holing is dangerous to our creativity. Creativity is a whole-brain activity. A truly creative person is both artist and scientist. The greatest scientific discoveries were made by individuals who thought visually, as an artist thinks and had the imagination necessary to push out the boundaries of what was possible. Harry Kroto who was awarded the Nobel prize in chemistry in 1996 loved graphic design. That helped him create two dimensional data into a 3D model of carbon-60. (Interestingly enough my degree dissertation was involved in analyzing a tiny, tiny bit of this work). Scientists who understand aesthetics, beauty and form have a creative edge. The greatest artists knew how the physical world worked for them to be able to create form from chaos.

So why can’t we be polymaths (person of wide ranging knowledge or learning)? If we want to be creative individuals with something to offer the world then I’d say that it is imperative that we become whole, both artist and scientist.

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4 comments on “So Why Can’t We Be Polymaths?

  1. Thank you so much for that impactful piece.

    I agree with you 101%. I have found over the years that words and opposite are not antagonists but coplements. A day is made of both day & night.

    I studied pharmacy but today i practise advertising. one of the best artists i know is my late dad who is a medical doctor.

    Kaplan and Kaiser i know have recently written on VERSATILITY.

    You need versatility to get to the peak and stay there.

    Charles Omoregha (Lagos, Nigeria)


  2. I’ve heard it suggested that science and art have similar discovery processes, but that science has testable hypotheses, whereas art doesn’t tend to be interested in proof per se.

    You might find the work here of interest:

    I studied the EASy MSc at Sussex, which involved some of the people who set up the Creative System course, and my MSc was about modelling Artificial Creativity in order to generate rhythms and melodies.


  3. I had a college friend who was studying history because, he said, ‘All human life is there.’ As his course developed, he appeared to narrow his interests – from Great Empires to The British Empire, to British Naval History, to 19th Century Naval History, to 1805, to 21st October, 1805. This may seem an exaggeration but the UK exam system has always encouraged and rewarded specialism. We could do much more to discourage test-takers. We may never produce Renaissance Man again but with, for example, an International Baccalaureate format in place, we could salvage more of the areas of knowledge that our pupils today are still forced to abandon from their formal studies.


  4. I too was asked to choose between my twin desires of art and science at school – and science won (because of its job prospects)… Now I have a doctorate in engineering, but gave up engineering because it failed to fulfil my creative/ artistic needs. Now I write, speak, run workshops, and draw my own cartoons/ slides, whilst having a whole host of creative hobbies as well.

    Art needs science (or the Angel of the North would fall down) as much as science needs art (in visualising how compounds could stop disease in its tracks) – so I think more people should be encourage to have a breadth of education, as well as a depth.


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