March 22nd, 2018

A Call for the Return of the Polymath Professor


Working across disciplines

A polymath is “a person of wide knowledge or learning” (Oxford Dictionary) with expertise spanning across a wide spectrum of subject areas and domains. It is expected that such expertise will help the polymath solve complex problems needing the application of transdisciplinary knowledge. Being a polymath and subscribing to the notion that people should embrace all ideas is the core around which the idea of a “Renaissance man” was constructed.

However, fast forward to 2018 and the world has turned upside down. Now we are at the other extreme: the contemporary world, especially in academia, stresses hyper-specialization. At times, in our hyper-departmentalized academic settings, it is not only that one is hyper-specialized but also that one should desist from the temptation to be interested in any other unrelated areas of inquiry. I know colleagues who were denied opportunities not because they weren’t accomplished in their primary disciplinary domains but because they also had done research in other areas. “You are a professor of particle physics; but I also see that you have published a few papers on mechatronics and even one on existential philosophy. Where is your commitment?” Aspiring to become a well-rounded person with multiple interests will bring a myriad of troubles for someone in the academia. Even merely flirting with different disciplines has become an anathema in the contemporary academia.

Given the vastness of knowledge the humankind has achieved since the times of the Renaissance, becoming a true polymath is now almost impossible. Most of us just don’t have the time, resources, or brain power to become experts in more than a couple of fields. This means, the only way to approximate becoming a polymath is to become a generalist and be ridiculed as a “jack of all trades, master of none.” Finding a place and a platform for such people in our hyper-departmentalized universities is hard, if not impossible. Small colleges and universities that expect faculty to teach a diverse set of courses in closely aligned disciplinary areas are the best bet for them. So, should you sacrifice all the accolades that may come your way as a recognized specialist in your field and instead pursue multiple interests and become a generalist? Yes, I seriously think that can be a worthwhile and rewarding path.

Consider the benefits of being able to do your own research and make discoveries in a wide range of areas. Seeing firsthand the sublime interconnectedness among apparently unrelated knowledge realms is an artistic experience par excellence. Some of us are restlessly driven for constant doses of this experience throughout our lives. An economist might have to sacrifice some of his professional ambitions by taking some time to do research in another area he is passionate about – say, linguistics or computer programming. But, if it brings greater purpose and personal meaning, what else is more important?

Finally, beyond a certain point, specialization is very difficult for some of us: we have minds that just don’t agree to immerse deeply into a single micro-specialization. As a business researcher, I just cannot separate marketing, human resources, and finance and continuously focus on only one of these during my entire lifetime – even if it is what my employer expects. At times, I am also tempted to research issues related to philosophy, economics, psychology, sociology, and cultural studies. I am better at seeing the breadth than the depth. These diversions bring frowns from the higher-ups for reasons like “you are paid to do research on buyer remorse!” I had to leave a previous job, partially for this very reason. Nonetheless, I am just not capable of a fathomless deep dive – even if I try.

A well-lived life should be characterized by dynamism rather than unidimensional depth. Your relentless quest to expand consciousness across the vast breadth of knowledge need not be subjugated to professional ambitions. If you feel constrained and especially if money and fame are no more important than the aforesaid quest, you should consider a new home for yourself – a place of employment that appreciates and rewards the polymath in you. Look for a college or university that is serious about providing whole and holistic education to its students. Or, if you are lucky enough to be at place that would allow it, you should start a center of research that would tap into integrativist projects requiring application of widespread knowledge and skills.

Babu George is the coordinator of international programs in business and an associate professor of management at Fort Hays State University.