Are you a digital polymath?


Screen Shot 2017-08-25 at 10.02.57I think it might have been an bit of a radio interview early one morning a couple of weeks ago that got me thinking about polymaths. It was one of those just waking up moments so I didn’t get a lot of context, but I now have figured out that it probably was a bit of BBC trailer disguised as in interview thing, for a programme aired early this week on Radio 4 –  Monkman and Seagull’s Polymathic Adventure.

The hosts, Monkman and Seagull led teams on last year’s university challenge and both were memorable for their quizzing prowess and become almost instant social media celebs (well in the UK anyway).

The half hour programme is a good overview of the history, rise and fall(?) of the polymath. Well certainly from a Western European perspective and is well worth a listen.

Through conversations with a range of academics, and ubiquitous polymath, Stephen Fry our hosts tried to get answers from questions such as, is it possible to be a useful know it all in the 21st century?  is the notion of the polymath an outdated concept harking back to the renaissance?  Even by the 18th century there was a developing discourse around the need for specialists as opposed to polymaths. At that point it was felt that the world was too complex for anyone to have in-depth cross disciplinary knowledge.

So in the 21st century when knowledge and information is being created and shared at an ever increasing rate is there a role for the polymath? Is it even possible to be an expert across multiple domains just now?

There was a really interesting thread running through the programme about the differences between specialists and polymaths. In terms of education are we forcing specialisms at too early an age?  There was a striking comment that actually that any paradigm shifts in any discipline might actually need the input from those with a broader perspective.

When talking about the characteristics of the polymath, Stephen Fry described himself as someone who has “learnt a lot not someone who knows a lot”.  His greed for knowledge he likened to putting on epistemological weight (sic).

Of course underlying the whole programme and concept was education. The conclusions, were around the challenges of contributing to new knowledge and making connections/communicating knowledge between specialists and new audiences. That sounds quite a lot like a large part of a learning technologists/educational developer role to me.

I can’t remember if it was Seagull or Monkman who concluded that for it it was ultimately about  “what you do with what you know and make a positive difference in other people’s lives”.  Sounds a lot like teaching to me.

The whole programme got me think about digital capabilities too. Perhaps that is where the future of the polymath may lie.  The focus an developing digital capabilities could help us develop a new 21st notion of a digital polymath, someone who has a broad knowledge and in-depth understanding of using digital tools, which in turn should help many, not just the few make a positive difference in their own and others lives.

I often feel that my role is a bit like being a jack of all trades, so the notion of being a digital polymath does help make sense of that a bit. I still won’t ever make it onto University Challenge . . . but I can live with that.

5 thoughts on “Are you a digital polymath?”

  1. I feel that the definition of polymath has changed – Fry, Monkman and Seagull all have fantastic general knowledge, but as yet (as far as I know) have not demonstrated an ability to do significant new work in multiple fields. Unfortunately there is a tendency for the media to confuse knowledge (of a certain corpus of facts) and intelligence. I agree with you about digital capabilities being at the core of the future polymath – in the digital world knowing is less important than knowing how to find out, and then using that skill well.

  2. Hi Sheila – interesting post. It put me in mind of a book that I’ve long had on my wish list (well, since it came out in Sept last year anyway), the Neo-Generalist.
    Turns out a neo-generalist is something of a blend of a polymath and a hyperspecialist. They defy simple definition or classification, spot patterns before others and they “live on the edge of the future and detect signals early on by accessing a wide variety of people, ideas and information.” Sounds like a certain educational technologist I know 🙂

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