A University for Polymaths By David J. Staley

One of the speculative designs in my book Alternative Universities was titled “Polymath University.”  This would be an institution where, as a condition for graduation, a student must major in three disparate disciplines. So, rather than majoring in History, English and Philosophy or Accounting, Finance and Actuarial Science—each cognate disciplines to the others—a student would triple major in History, Finance and Dance, or Accounting, Philosophy and Theatre.  Polymath University’s purpose would be to push back against the contemporary university’s hyper-specialization demanded and enforced.   

Given the explosion of knowledge, especially over the last century, it would be very difficult to educate a polymath of the Leonardo or Thomas Jefferson type, both of whom might have legitimately been able to claim to know all that was knowable in their respective periods of history.  One person could not be expected to “know everything” in today’s world.  A 21st-century polymath, I would argue, would not need to know everything but rather would possess multiple “habits of mind.”  A discipline is more than a body of knowledge: it is also a way of thinking, a way of approaching problems, a way of understanding the world.  A 21st-century polymath possesses multiple “ways of seeing.”  Like the polyglot who speaks—and thinks—in several languages, the polymath thinks in several different disciplines.  Toggling between these different habits of mind–developing the capacity to combine disciplinary thinking in innovative ways–produces graduates who are creative and intellectually generative.  

The writer David Goodhart has recently published the book Head, Hand, Heart: Why Intelligence is Over-rewarded, Manual Workers Matter, and Caregivers Deserve More Respect.  The book has altered my thinking about defining the modern polymath and how universities might alter their missions to educate for polymathy.

Goodhart observed that “the modern knowledge economy has produced ever-rising returns for Head workers—who have highly qualified academically—and reduced the relative pay and status of much manual (Hand) work.” Even before the advent of the knowledge economy, “Western rationalist philosophy, from Plato to Descartes, reinforced by Christianity, has tended to privilege the mind as the source of immutable truth and understanding and looked down upon the body as the source of irrational appetite and moral inconstancy.”  Further, “many aspects of caring (Heart) work, traditionally done by women in the gift economy of the family, continues to be undervalued even as care work has become an increasingly critical part of the public economy…” Head (cognitive) jobs are accorded respect and prestige that have not been shared by those in craft (Hand) and care (Heart) positions.  

In Goodhart’s estimation, that hierarchy is about to change.  He claims that the modern knowledge economy has produced an overabundance of “Head” graduates chasing a decreasing number of Head-based jobs.  He maintains that “the human capital theory idea of higher returns to individuals and higher productivity for economies flowing from more higher education is no longer working…The demand for Head jobs will still be there, but it will focus on the most able and creative, and the sharpest rise in demand will be for Heart and certain kind of technological jobs that combine Hand and Head.”  

One reason for this shift, not the only one given, is that artificial intelligence is or will soon displace many Head-based jobs.  “It is much easier for an algorithm to replace a mid-level accountant than a garbage collector or a child-caregiver.” Artificial intelligence and the automation economy are a greater threat to Head jobs than Hand or Heart jobs.   In other words, the ratio of Head to Hand and Heart jobs is about the shift; or, more accurately, the value that society places on Head positions—as reflected in salaries, prestige, and the like—is about to be altered.  We are about to discover, according to Goodhart, that Hand and Heart jobs will be valued as much—if not more so—as Head occupations.  As a result, he argues that there needs to be a society-wide “rebalance” between Head, Hand, and Heart.

This coming rebalance “suggests that the rapid expansion of the traditional university over the past thirty years is likely to stop and go into reverse.”  The University, as it has been traditionally defined,  is the place where cognitive ability is cultivated (Head).  If there is a decreasing demand for those with cognitively-based skills, then it would seem that there will simultaneously be a decreasing need for university education.  

That is unless the University changes its orientation, its mission, its purpose.

Goodhart seeks this rebalance at a societal level.  But I find myself asking what if the balance of Head, Hand, and Heart were achieved in a single individual?  That is, what if our universities were devoted to educating polymaths, not in disparate Head subjects, but across each of the three domains identified by Goodhart?  

Imagine a university where each student—as a condition for graduation–majors in a Head subject (like economics or linguistics), a Hand subject (like advanced manufacturing, but also art or design), and a Heart subject (such as nursing or early-childhood education or social work, or just simply in the art of listening)?  

The 21st-century polymath—educated in this new-style university–would be that individual who can simultaneously think, make and care.  

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