Futures Salon: “A Polymath University”

We start our discussion on university structure, flexibility, and capability here on July 7th with opening words from Dr. David Staley. If you would like to hear additional background for the following meeting notes, please check out his recent video through the Office of Research at The Ohio State University: The Future of the Research University: Creating the Infrastructure of Polymathy.

David shares with the group the book “The Ghost of the Executed Engineer” which reflects, in 1939, on the collapse of the Soviet Union and how the training and education of engineers. The author recounts the story of interacting with a ball-bearing engineer, where specialization developed to that specific focus. This sort of hyper-specialization still appears to be present in the modern university, where degrees are designed to bury into a pinpoint outcome or career goal.

Students in the 19th century at locations such as The Ohio State Unviersity all took the same courses, which then evolved into an early version of electives, which then again refined into the degrees and specialities developed in this elective system. General education programs stand as the current interpretation of that initial course layout of the 19th century. Harvard course catalog from the middle 1800s reflect this with the entire cohort taking Latin and Greek alongside a more modern language.

“The Polymath”, the book referenced in David’s video, helps to define the polymath away from those who are hyper-specialized. The polymath, argued there, is the norm, not the focused discipline outcome that modern education revolves around now. The polymath then is needed more than ever to solve the problems of a fast-moving, high-process, and ever-adapting world.

“The Neo-Generalist” provides another book reference to define the “portfolio person”, who has that large repertoire of abilities. This must fundamentally be different, in the university setting, than the liberal education curriculum’s often taught. These may attempt to provide a broad background of courses, but the courses themselves are built to progress the discipline. Degrees, tenure, and promotions are all rewarded on your disciplinary work, where it is exceptionally difficult for a polymath who works in and between disciplines to be recognized and fulfilled within the epistemological structure of the modern university.

The requirements of the polymath must be to work in, around, and between disciplines. The mindset, not the specialized skill-set, must be encouraged. How do we end up building a university that can promote the success of these students?

What are we actually education students for? Where are they going to go? What are they going to do? If an expert learns more and more about less and less, such that they end up knowing everything about nothing, what was the point?

Is it the role of universities to train and nurture polymaths? Or does this come earlier? Later? When is individual aptitude ready for broad and expansive thinking? General education currently seems to focus on acquiring large amounts of information, not translatable thoughts and strategies to solve problems through and between specialized disciplines. Specialized disciplines will always be necessary, but more focus must be placed on a polymath approach.

Is this the right time for this discussion, though? Social pressures and the ongoing pandemic have universities focused on the fall, keeping the lights on, teaching the courses already on the books. We also need to make sure that the push for the polymath does not lead to the dilettante. It must be critical to build the skillets for the sake of answering questions and solving problems and not for the superficial dilution of qualified skills.

Has anyone asked curriculum committees to develop majors and minors in polymathing? What does one do with this degree? Is the purpose of higher education to get a job? Then how would students be able to enter into diverse avocations without specialized skills?

With the technology and market advancement pushing away from these specialized majors, rapidly shifting economic climates will continue to require creative, problem-solving, and flexible individuals.

Thank you all for participating in this excellent conversation and we look forward to speaking again next month!

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