Polymaths, Philomaths and Teaching Philosophy: Why we can’t have the first without the second, and the second should be the goal of the third.

You may have heard the term polymath, a person who possesses knowledge across multiple fields, or if you’re particularly unlucky, you’ve been at one of those cocktail parties where someone hands you a business card that says, simply, “Firstname Surname, Polymath” and you have formed a very interesting idea of what a polymath is.  We normally reserve this term for people who excel across multiple fields such as, to drawn examples from this Harvard Business Review blog by Kyle Wiens, Leonard da Vinci (artist and inventor), Benjamin Franklin, Paul Robeson or Steve Jobs. (Let me start to address the article’s gender imbalance with Hypatia of Alexandria, Natalie Portman, Maya Angelou and Mayim Bialik, to name a small group of multidisciplinary women, admittedly focussing on the Erdös-Bacon intersection.) By focusing on those who excel, we do automatically associate a higher degree of assumed depth of knowledge across these multiple fields. The term “Renaissance [person]” is often bandied about as well.

Da Vinci, seen here inventing the cell phone. Sadly, it was to be over 500 years before the cell phone tower was invented so he never received a call. His monthly bill was still enormous.

Now, I have worked as a system administrator and programmer, a winemaker and I’m now an academic in Computer Science, being slowly migrated into some aspects of managerialism, who hopes shortly to start a PhD in Creative Writing. Do I consider myself to be a polymath? No, absolutely not, and I struggle to think of anyone who would think of me that way, either. I have a lot of interests but, while I have had different areas of expertise over the years, I’ve never managed the assumed highly parallel nature of expertise that would be required to be considered a polymath, of any standing. I have academic recognition of some of these interests but this changes neither the value (to me or others) nor has it ever been required to be well-lettered to be in the group mentioned above.

I describe myself, if I have to, as a philomath, someone who is a lover of learning. (For both of the words, the math suffix comes from the Greek and means to learn, but poly means much/many and philo means lovingso a polymath is ‘many learnéd’.) The immediate pejorative for someone who leans lots of things across areas is the infamous “Jack of all trades” and its companion “master of none”. I love to learn new things, I like studying but I also like applying it. I am confident that the time I spent in each discipline was valuable and that I knew my stuff. However, the main point I’d like to state here is that you cannot be a polymath without first having been a philomath – I don’t see how you can develop good depth in many areas unless you have a genuine love of learning. So every polymath was first a philomath.

Now let’s talk about my students. If they are at all interested in anything I’m teaching them, and let’s assume that at least some of them love various parts of a course at some stage, then they are looking to develop more knowledge in one area of learning. However, looking at my students as mono-cultural beings who only exist when they are studying, say, the use of the linked list in programming, is to sell them very, very short indeed. My students love doing a wide range of things. Yes, those who love learning in my higher educational context will probably do better but I guarantee you that every single student you have loves doing something, and most likely that’s more than one thing! So every single one of my students is inherently a philomath – but the problems arise when what they love to learn is not what I want to teach!

This leads me to the philosophy of learning and teaching, how we frame, study and solve the problems of trying to construct knowledge and transform it to allow its successful transfer to other people, as well as how we prepare students to receive, use and develop it. It makes sense that the state that we wish to develop on our students is philomathy. Students are already learning from, interested and loving their lives and the important affairs of the world as they see them, so to get them interested in what we want to teach them requires us to acknowledge that we are only one part of their lives. I rarely meet a student who cannot provide a deep, accurate and informative discourse on something in their lives. If we accept this then, rather than demanding an unnatural automaton who rewrites their entire being to only accept our words on some sort of diabolical Turing Tape of compliance, we now have a much easier path, in some respects, because accepting this means that our students will spend time on something in the depth that we want – it is now a matter of finding out how to tap into this. At this point, the yellow rag of populism is often raised, unfairly in most cases, because it is assumed that students will only study things which are ‘pop’ or ‘easy’. There is nothing ‘easy’ about most of the pastimes at which our students excel and they will expend vast amount of efforts on tasks if they can see a clear reason to do so, it appears to be a fair return on investment, and they feel that they have reasonable autonomy in the process. Most of my students work harder for themselves than they ever will for me: all I do is provide a framework that allows them to achieve something and this, in turn, allows them to develop a love. Once the love has been generated, the philomathic wheel turns and knowledge (most of the time) develops.

Whether you agree on the nature of the tasks or not, I hope that you can see why the love of learning should be a core focus of our philosophy. Our students should engage because they want to and not just because we force them to do so. Only one of these approaches will persist when you remove the rewards and the punishments and, while Skinner may disagree, we appear to be more than rats, especially when we engage our delightfully odd brains to try and solve tasks that are not simply rote learned. Inspiring the love of learning in any one of our disciplines puts a student on the philomathic path but this requires us to accept that their love of learning may have manifested in many other areas, that may be confusedly described as without worth, and that all we are doing is to try and get them to bring their love to something that will be of benefit to them in their studies and, assuming we’ve set the course up correctly, their lives in our profession.

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