Polymaths Everywhere

“I had a terrible vision: I saw an encyclopedia walk up to a polymath and open him up.”
Karl Kraus

Diploma_in_Acting by Fahadseo [CC BY-SA 4.0] A student shakes hands while receiving his diploma.
Diploma_in_Acting by Fahadseo [CC BY-SA 4.0] A student shakes hands while receiving his diploma.

It seems like people have been talking about reforming college degrees “forever.” Obviously, this is not true, or maybe it is, academics are always trying to design something new. The redesigning of degree programs usually fall into one of two categories; time to degree, and employability after graduation. Concerns over cost is driving discussions about time to degree and employability. The argument is if it takes less time to earn a degree, it will cost less, therefore, make it more accessible and affordable. The case for employability is that degrees should focus on skills that employers want so that degrees are a better investment.

Just recently, I read about another degree idea, the polymath degree. Project polymath run by The Polymath Foundation offers such a degree. The idea behind the project is to create a school that trains polymaths, individuals that “think” like da Vinci. According to Merriam-Webster, a polymath is “a person of encyclopedic learning,” according to Wikipedia a polymath is “a person whose expertise spans a significant number of subject areas, known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems.”

In the polymath project, projects are the center of the educational experience. It seems to me that a lot of these projects are focused on industry partners and creating startups; in fact, the school lists professional applications as the most critical metric in their educational system. The degree will be the standard four years in length but student, with the help of mentors, follow education units rather than courses.

In addition to Project Polymath, there is also the London Interdisciplinary School (LIS) which offers a similar program to Project Polymath. Both programs talk about needing a new approach to solve today’s complex problems. They argue that issues stretch across disciplinary boundaries, so education needs to as well. LIS describes their coursework as,

“We believe that real-world problems require an interdisciplinary approach. This is why we offer one course that cuts across disciplinary boundaries. Our course takes the most fundamental theories and knowledge areas from across the arts, sciences, and humanities and applies them to real-world problems.”

In addition to employability, polymath degrees are an obvious counter to the increasing number of specialized college degrees. I am a little concerned with over specialization. When I graduated with my BS in Biology in ’97, the only biology degree you could get at my school was Biology. In 2019 that same school offers five specialized, or as they call it areas of emphasis, Biology degrees.

However, the fact that I earned BS degrees in both Biology and Biochemistry also shows that I do have a strong belief in cross-disciplinary training. However, unlike these polymath programs, I graduated with the additional credits for the two degrees 240 instead of 180. However, the real question is what is the balance needed between breadth and depth in a Bachelors degree.

The question of depth versus breadth is not a simple one. In addition to what you need for a successful degree, there is the fact that information is continually growing. Buckminster Fuller proposed the knowledge doubling curve in his book Critical Path. The knowledge doubling corve shows the rate at which knowledge doubles from year 1 to about 1945. If we took all the information created by the human race until year one as one unit it took till the year 1500 to double it, the next doubling occurred in 1750. By the end of World War II knowledge was doubling every 25 years. According to IBM’s Toxic Terabyte by the mid-2010s knowledge doubling time will decrease to hours.

The increasing amount of knowledge is one of the driving reasons for the growing number of specialized degrees. As the amount of knowledge increases the information an individual has to learn in their “field” increases. Eventually, it starts getting difficult to fit everything into four years. When this point is reached rather than change the structure of the degree like adding a year (after all life expectancy increased by 34 years from 1900-2000) schools created degrees with a narrower focus. It is indeed legitimate to ask; when do degrees get to narrow to be useful?

One of the counters to specialized degrees is a Polymath Degree. However, do polymath degrees even work from an educational point? Only time and hopefully, research will tell. Additionally, even if a Polymath degree works are they the correct solution to specialized degrees? A Polymath degree covers the fundamental theories and analytical methods across multiple disciplines. However, can students learn the information Polymath programs teach without learning the foundational information?

Alternatively, can you learn to properly use higher order thinking skills without first learning the lower order thinking skills? I don’t think so. We often forget a large part of first and second-year courses is learning the language of the field. As I have written about previously (The Language of the Field), the same words have a different meaning in different fields. If students don’t understand the meaning of the words, they can’t understand the nuances of theories and methodologies in a field.

The Polymath degree is designed to deal with what some see as problems in higher education. While I think the growth of highly specialized degrees, especially at the undergraduate level, are concerning I don’t think the solution is to create degrees without depth. I would like to see time added to undergraduate degrees to take into account the growth in knowledge. However, until we get a grip on the rising cost of education, lengthening the time of a bachelors degree will not happen.

Polymath degrees are an idea to reform higher education. One way or another, I look forward to seeing real research about student learning in these polymath programs. Maybe I will be wrong, and Polymath degrees will work, I’m not holding my breath. Even if polymath degrees work, there will still be a need for degrees with greater depth, traditional Bachelors degrees.

Thanks for Listing to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

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