As anyone who has visited the London Science Museum’s current exhibition will know, Leonardo da Vinci is famed as an artist, mathematician, inventor, writer … the list goes on. He was a figure who did not see disciplines as a chequerboard of independent black and white tiles, but a vibrant palette of colour ready to be combined harmoniously and gracefully. Today, the polymath may seem like a relic of the past. But with an emerging drive towards interdisciplinarity in research and across the tech and creative sectors, the Renaissance man – and woman – is making a comeback.
Often cited as the archetypal “Renaissance man”, Leonardo came from an era in which the well-rounded individual, prolific and curious of mind, was highly valued. A comprehensive education was the marker of a gentleman. Universities were seats of broad learning, tasked with preparing future apprentices by encouraging them to interrogate and question many aspects of science, philosophy, theology and the arts.
The typical contemporary university is rather different. Targeted learning dominates today, particularly in the UK. Students are forced to specialise earlier and earlier – to be a doctor before you’re 30, you’ll need to know that you want to practice medicine by the time you’re 16. Undergraduate students are trying desperately to align themselves with what seems like a universal drive towards hyper-specialism. A 2015 report by Universities UK, revealed a boom in higher education entrants pursuing specialised subject areas such as business and administration studies, engineering and the biological sciences. In the same year, combined award degree enrolment saw a sharp decline of 54%.
This is perhaps to be expected. Incoming students are simply responding to a professional world that is extremely competitive, and so see hyperspecialism as a way of distinguishing themselves from the crowd. But monomath ubiquity has its pitfalls.
Within the sciences, experts quickly get out of touch with content beyond their immediate area and become siloed. Within the arts, those who gravitate towards a single practice such as creative writing, acting or photography often sidestep the benefits that multidisciplinarity lends to creativity. Super focused, one-track graduates run the risk of slipping off the career ladder should they wish or need to transition between fields in years to come.
The contemporary polymath
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