July 14, 2016

The Plight of the Polymath: The Duality of Western Academia.

 "Torsten, math teacher," Blondinrikard Fröberg, Flickr

I remember being told in grade school that I was good at math but I would probably struggle with reading and writing.

I remember being asked which hand I wrote with, as though being left-handed irrefutably concluded the prognosis—that I was destined for a life of numbers and logical algorithms; that art and creativity would forever elude me.

At a very young age, academia is dichotomized. We’re taught that our talents and proclivities will fall into one end or the other of a dualistic spectrum—that we might have a penchant for creativity but struggle with math, or we might make a great accountant but a pastel painter is not our calling. We are left handed or right handed, left brained or right brained; we are artists or engineers. This idea seems so counter-intuitive because those categories are not and should not be mutually exclusive.

You might recall your own experience, learning whether you were considered more of a math or arts student, being taught that your talents invariably fell into one category or the other—you were more of a this or that. We were told things like, “some people are artistically inclined but struggle with math,” or vice versa. There are myriad theories on left-brained vs. right-brained people, what their attributes and proclivities are or should be, and whether being left-handed or right-handed is any indication of a student’s academic prowess in a given subject. The line is usually drawn between the sciences and the humanities.

Subjects like science, technology, engineering, and math, the so-called STEM subjects, are grouped and said to be more amenable to one type of student. The humanities, liberal arts, anything creative is usually lumped together in the opposing category, suggesting that students will exhibit a preference for one or the other. This polarization is so ingrained in our culture that it even carries implications of gender roles. The humanities and the arts are often more popular among women, for whom being emotional, creative and idealistic are celebrated attributes. The STEM fields are more common for men, who are expected to value logic, rationality and practice over emotional openness or the kind of introspection and self-reflection necessary for creativity in the arts.

Sure, many people do demonstrate a natural proficiency in one category over the other. For some of us, numbers and mathematical theory clicks effortlessly while garnering creativity is akin to pulling teeth. Others can paint like the muses but can not substitute the given values for mass and force to solve F=ma. We are not here to comment on whether some people do exhibit this left-brain/right-brain dichotomy. Rather, the intention here is to acknowledge and discuss the inherent limitations in perpetuating the idea that academia is polarized into two categories. This idea is fundamentally misguided and potentially damaging. If we grow up learning that STEM subjects are categorically different than the liberal arts, we hurt our children in a number of ways. If a child is told that he or she is proficient in one area and struggles in the other, that child could grow up believing he or she will never succeed in that area of academics.

Children are impressionable. Hell, adults are impressionable.

As a child in grade school if an authority figure tells you you’re good in one subject but innately dull in another, it sticks with you. Not only can this discourage children in the subjects they believe they should struggle with, it also provides them with an excuse to not try as hard.

If children expect they are inherently less capable in STEM subjects, they are liable to value those subjects less and focus instead on what is perceived as the opposite end of the spectrum. Alternatively, the student who believes he is hopeless in math will dismiss the subject as unimportant, inevitably putting less effort into those classes. This exposes another danger in dichotomizing academia. One of the most valuable skills we learn by taking many different subjects is how to think differently.

We love to complain about calculus or trigonometry, claiming it will never be of practical use after the class is over. Though that might be true, we are underestimating the most valuable skill acquired in the process of having learned calculus. The very process of learning how calculus or trigonometry works can teach a student to think differently. To understand calculus, a student must think differently than he might for philosophy. In learning about meter in poetry or key in music theory, the student has to think differently than he does in a physics class, conceptualizing the notion of inertia in a moving car. Versatility in thinking, the ability to consider various view-points and alternative perspectives, is a highly undervalued skill. But by dividing learning into two categories, by making it black and white, we are encouraging kids to align with one or the other, thereby devaluing the opposing category in the process.

I believe, in their finest form, the practice of any subject should combine the technical with the creative.

I believe it is important to impart our children with an understanding of the synergy that can exist in combining these two scopes. I want our children to understand that the mathematics they study is the product of thousands of years of human ingenuity and creativity combined—the fruit of some of the most brilliant and creative minds ever, building on the insights of those before them, like Newton and his revolutionary inquiry into the laws of physics and their mathematical properties.

Then there was Einstein who, through creative thought experiments, tweaked Newton’s formulas until once again the world of physics was revolutionized—discrepancies between theory and observation disappeared, predictions and data matched so precisely that Einstein’s formulas, derived through passion and dedication, creative genius and unparalleled intelligence working together in harmony, became a window of Truth, one that showcased the beauty of the universe, balanced, consistent and knowable. Tell me Einstein’s mathematical formulas are not a work of creative art and I’ll say you’re about one step away from cutting your ear off because you’re either mad or the greatest artist since Van Gogh.

To the precision engineer who designs an engine so finely tuned that it can perform beyond the limits previously imposed on it, is that engine not a work of art? There is mathematics in jazz, just look at music theory. There is science in the elegant pallet of a DaVinci oil painting, whose soft colors yet bold contrasts have mystified eyes around the world for centuries and transcended the qualities that once defined Eastern and Western art. It is the beauty of these feats that fascinates us.

Beauty: it is the harmony between mathematics and creativity, science and art, the reconciliation of the rational and the emotional. Beauty is the poetry a mathematician sees in his numbers; it is the infinite creativity of a piano player limited to 88 keys and a number of scales. There is beauty in a technological invention that alleviates poverty. If there is one concept that I would like to see preached in our schools, it is this celebration of beauty.

This is the methodology I want instilled in our children.

I want our children to regard a break-through in solar-power design that brings light, water, and better quality food to a village long impoverished as a work of art, one that affects the people to the core—rattles the soul the same way that viewing a Van Gogh makes me quiver with consolation knowing that somewhere in another time and place lived a man so mad, so passionate, so broken by the throes of love and self-loathing that for one fleeting moment I feel like I’m not alone—the same way that a mother, crippled by anguish over her starving child, nauseous with dysentery and rage at a world devoid of justice, might buckle at the knees and burst in her spirit, rejoicing to see that same child saved and fed by a technological break-through.

I want our musical prodigies to be so inspired by their own creative genius that they endeavor to learn every single aspect of music, from its math to its melodies, its theory to its practice without being afraid to fail because they were told they struggle with numbers.

Maybe that is what the world needs—more crossover, new perspective, new methodology. Maybe the sciences need those artists who dare to dream in color, who see that chlorophyll and dollar bills are both green but only one of those can create energy out of light. Maybe art needs more engineers to realize that graffiti doesn’t need to come from an aerosol can; with the right creative vision, murals made from food plants and photovoltaic energy cells can look just as pretty painted on a city scape.

Maybe that is what we are missing in this world. The dreamers, cross-overs, the mathematical poets and the literary quantum geeks. What happened to the polymaths, the renaissance men and women who, instead of viewing talent and direction as two opposite poles, regarded them as one in the same thing? We live in an era that endorses specialization and expertise. It is the plight of the polymath.

The days of the Renaissance men and women are bygone. Welcome to the industrial age, the technology boom, where we are encouraged to pursue one end of the spectrum or the other until we are indebted to student loans for an unending list of degrees—a bachelor’s, a master’s, a doctorate, a double-doctorate. We are told that specialization and expertise will make us more hirable, boost our salary potential. Maybe it is true, but at what cost? An expert is someone who knows more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing. But the human brain evolved to be curious, to be multifaceted, ever-inquiring and always learning about anything and everything.

As a consequence, we have raised a generation of artists who have forsaken even simple math or logical exertion; we have squelched the creativity of the technically inclined.

To the chagrin of my grade school teacher, who insisted I was a math person, I became a writer. Not just any writer, I became a creative writer, a poet, an artist with words. But I am also a mathematician, an engineer. And to me, whether it is words or numbers, whether it’s an oil painting or a car engine, brewing beer or developing pharmaceuticals, it’s all the same beautiful process if viewed through the proper perspective. It is all a synthesis of art and truth, of passion and vocation, of creativity and rationality. It is all beauty: two previously opposing schools of academia working in symbiotic harmony.


Relephant read:

How to Live the Confident Life You Never Imagined.


Author: Devin Mudcat Kelly

Image: PixtoWikimedia Commons

Apprentice Editor: Justine O’Connell  Editor: Catherine Monkman


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