We’ve all heard the old saw: “jack of all trades, master of none”. For the longest time, it has been used as an exhortation to specialize. OK, there is something to be said for mastering a skill, but who says you can only master one? Being a “jack” of all trades means you make no effort to master anything. That says nothing about how many things you can master at once. People that master many things are called polymaths.
I think there are too few genuine polymaths and that we should aspire to be polymaths. For one thing, it’s a more balanced mode of thinking. If you specialize in just one field of enquiry, it’s very easy to become intellectually bigoted and to think that because you know a lot about your field, then your opinion on every other field is golden. Without putting in the work, that cannot be true.
Being a balanced thinker is very important because it lets you look at things from many more points of view with facility. You have a more rounded outlook. You become a more humane technologist, or a more technically aware humanities expert. Why does this matter? For one thing, governments try to establish policy on technical matters, but they draw from people with no technical expertise. This allows special and vested interests to pull the wool over these people’s eyes and to hijack policy for their own ends.
Specialists are, in truth, little smarter about something beyond their field of study than somebody wholly ignorant. When it comes to things outside their expertise, there is no material difference between somebody that majored in history, for example, but proudly proclaims how hopeless they are in maths and somebody that never actually went to school to learn maths at all. From the point of view of understanding why the economy is bound to fail in the long run, the crooked way the financial institutions issue money, the onerous terms and conditions attached to the credit cards in their wallets (which rival early stage venture capital finance in the price of the money they lend), risk (the reason we think terrorism is a bigger threat to human life than cutting public expenditure), population growth (why we are so easily convinced that human kind is worthless and worthy of abuse) and other things that require at least a modicum of mathematical knowledge to comprehend adequately, degreed people who wear their profound lack of mathematical understanding with pride understand precisely as little as the most wayward high school truant.
I’ve seen books written by highly accomplished medical professionals that correctly identify the mechanisms by which fructose damages your liver and overall health, which in the same tome recommend fluoride for tooth protection; a fiction that has long since been comprehensively discredited by hard data. It shows that while this author knew all there was to know about fructose, he was wholly ignorant of the vast body of literature and research proving the toxicity of fluoride. Amazing!
So even though over-specialization is a bad thing, the education system still supports this as the goal. We’re all told that we must choose a field of study and dedicate our lives to it. It is almost in spite of the education system rather than because of it that some people become experts in multiple fields at all. This is a subtle form of population control, albeit not necessarily by conspiracy to do so.
Specialists are easier to control. By making them dependent on the recommendations of “experts” in fields other than their specialization, they can be fed any tosh and they have no way of recognizing that this is so. They are obliged to take their word for it. Those in control actually find it easier to herd specialists that confine their intellectual curiosity to one vertical field of enquiry and arrogantly presume they know as much about everything else, when it is clear they do not, than they find controlling the minds of thinkers that can span broad areas of knowledge, but also to a significant depth. Polymaths smell the rats. Specialists get sold the dummies.
Inventors know that the best new ideas come from cross fertilization of ideas from sometimes seemingly unrelated fields. The innovation method TRIZ makes a virtue of this fact by scanning patents across diverse fields of invention, to find ideas that apply to particular problems under examination. Being a polymath is one of the most reliable ways there is to become genuinely innovative, in the radical innovation rather than incremental innovation sense.
If you are an artist and you think you really do not need to know anything about physics, economics, philosophy, mathematics, neurotoxicology, endocrinology, biochemistry and a million other useful fields of knowledge, I’m afraid you are being arrogant. You are also setting yourself up for being manipulated and lied to. You are susceptible.
Propaganda only works when people are ignorant, but imagine themselves to be informed. This is the greatest peril of specialization.
If you want to be a great artist, try to become a polymath.