S2E4: Polymathy and Autodidactics

The Autodidactic Podcast
S2E4: Polymathy and Autodidactics

Hello and welcome to the Autodidactic podcast, season 2 episode 4. I had an email in my mailbox this week from a listener named Kenyatta (forgive me if I have mispronounced your name). She was wondering about my definitions of Autodidactic, Polymath, and self-learner. So I thought I would expand a little on these terms this week, and how I tend to use them.

She also asked why I ask for donations. Well that one is easy to answer, I don’t have any corporate sponsor, and I pay for all the podcast hosting and things myself. So the donation is just if someone liked the show, and wanted to show their appreciation by buying me a coffee.

Back to Kenyatta’s musings. I’ll give you the dictionary definitions then talk a little more about each one.

  1. Self-Learner – Learning done by oneself, without a teacher or instructor.
  2. Polymath – a person of great learning in several fields of study.
  3. Autodidactic – a person who has learned a subject without the benefit of a teacher or formal education; a self-taught person.

So you can see that a self-learner and an autodidactic are actually the same. It is someone who learns by themselves. While this might mean they are learning one thing only, they could be learning in multiple fields. Autodidactics then may or may not be a polymath, and a polymath, may or may not be an autodidactic.

In this podcast I try to explore techniques and methods for self-learning and hopefully this is of some use to either type of autodidactic, polymath or non-polymath. But one assumption that I have a tendency to make is that many people who are listening to the podcast are more likely to be polymaths and trying to learn skills in multiple fields.

Using myself as an example; I self-learn mathematics, electronics, programming, metal working, knife-making, cooking, and languages. While I’m certainly no expert in all of these, I enjoy working in these disparate fields. As a writer I find it helps to have a broad knowledge of a lot of topics in order to write characters convincingly.

Autodidacticism and self-learning we’ve covered, but let me explore polymathism with you.

A polymath is from the Greek and means “much learned”. So this is a person who has knowledge in multiple fields of study, but might not be self-taught. In the renaissance, a period in Europe covering the 14th through the 17t centuries, started in Italy in the late middle ages. The idea of a “Uomo Universale” or universal man was someone who could play musical instruments, speak many languages, write poetry, paint and so on.

Normally these ideal persons were nobility or sons of nobility and required a rounded universal education. Interestingly, the idea of a universal education was essential to achieving polymath ability, hence the word university was used to describe a seat of learning. The idea behind a university was not to specialise but to give a general well-rounded education to these young courtiers so they cound then go forward and specialise in a specific field.

Marching forward to the 21st century we find a renewed interest in polymathy in the scientific community. Robert Root-Bernstein worked in the area of polymathy and two other types of categories which were the specialists and the dilettante. He regards a specialist as someone who has great depth in a subject with without a breadth of knowledge, and a dilettante is someone who has superficial knowledge of many subjects. However, the dilettante unlike the polymath has acquired these skills without any regard to understanding broader applications or implications and without integrating knowledge across these fields.

So for Robert Root-Bernstein a polymath is someone who has knowledge in multiple fields, but can “put a significant amount of time and effort into their avocations and find ways to use their multiple interests to inform their vocations”.

Robert Root-Bernstein argues in favour of polymathy. The argument that universality of domain favours the creative processes. Which means other interests outside of the primary domain can feed the mental tools required to generate creative ideas. A prime example often cited is Albert Einstein and his love of the violin. Einstein once said that if he hadn’t been a scientist, he would certainly have been a musician.

In “Life Stages of Creativity”, Robert and Michèle Root-Bernstein suggest six typologies of creative life stages.

  • Type 1 represents people who specialize in developing one major talent early in life (e.g., prodigies) and successfully exploit that talent exclusively for the rest of their lives.
  • Type 2 individuals explore a range of different creative activities (e.g., through worldplay or a variety of hobbies) and then settle on exploiting one of these for the rest of their lives.
  • Type 3 people are polymathic from the outset and manage to juggle multiple careers simultaneously so that their creativity pattern is constantly varied.
  • Type 4 creators are recognized early for one major talent (e.g., math or music) but go on to explore additional creative outlets, diversifying their productivity with age.
  • Type 5 creators devote themselves serially to one creative field after another.
  • Type 6 people develop diversified creative skills early and then, like Type 5 individuals, explore these serially, one at a time.

So why is there a decline in polymathy since the middle ages? Well Peter Burke, Professor Emeritus of Cultural History and Fellow of Emmanuel College at Cambridge believed that due to the rapid increase in knowledge from the 17th century onwards with was increasingly difficult from an individual to master as many disciplines as before. Professor Burke warns that in the age of specialization, polymathic people are more necessary than ever.

Michael Araki is a professor at Universidade Federal Fluminense in Brazil, who sought to formalise the polymathic development. Professor Araki’s work shows although there are many different perspectives and definitions of a polymath, they generally assert three elements which are; Breadth, Depth, and Integration.

Breadth means a comprehensive knowledge of the subjects, rather than a narrow specialisation. This is the primary indicator of a polymath. Depth refers to the accumulation of knowledge, as opposed to the dilettantes superficial knowledge. Finally there is integration which requires connecting, articulating and synthesising knowledge from different frameworks.

How do I use these terms? Well I’m assuming that you wouldn’t listen to this podcast unless you are a self-learner, or my mother. I also make the assumption that my listeners are studying in multiple fields of study. But even if you aren’t a polymath, I need to try to make my podcasts relevant to the person studying biology as it is to the person studying avionics just because of a diversity of listeners.

Also I think that a lot of people who are willing to put in the effort to self-learn, to be an autodidactic will naturally want to study and understand more than one topic.

Autodidacticism is simply education without the guidance of subject matter experts such as teachers or professors. In general an autodidactic has chosen the topic themselves and might be trying self-learning for the first time. When you need to select your own study material, create your own study plans and find the time yourself, it is useful to know that you’re not alone and that many people have trodden this path before. There is a well worn path, you just need someone to point it out to you.

It might be as an autodidactic you’re studying independently as a complement or an alternative to formal education. For example, learning how to program a computer could be a skill which is a complement to work you’re already doing.

In this pandemic lots of people are using their newly acquired spare time to learn other topics they have an interest in. A 2016 Stack Overflow poll reported 69.1% of software developers appear to be self-taught and I suspect in the current climate these numbers will only increase.

Well that is all for this week. It was a bit shorter than normal, but hopefully enjoyable. Next week I plan to return to the investigation of an autodidactic and try to ascertain their methods and adopt them for us to use.

If you enjoy the show, please give a rating on the platform you’re using to listen, and please share the podcast with friends and family who might be interested. Also, please feel free to email me like Kenyatta did to rick@autodidactic.info, or leave feedback on the website autodidactic.info.

Thank you very much for listening.

PolymathWikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.

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