The Renaissance Man

People these days talk about how you need a trade, anything so long as it’s specialized. We live in an age of super-specialists, where people spend entire careers developing their skills. They do an apprenticeship, an undergraduate degree, a graduate course, on-the-job training. We have high level experts within sub-sub-disciplines, like somebody’s not just a physicist any more, not even just a nuclear or theoretical physicist, but a member of a team specializing in a particular application of string theoretic mathematics to some intractable problem. We all use products which are designed to make everyday life easier, like computers, but at the same time the operating systems and user interfaces of these products can be so complicated that tertiary institutions offer certification programs in their proper usage. Many of us drive a car, but gone are the days when most of us could fix them; this isn’t just because we’re too lazy to learn, but because when you look inside the engine you see what looks like a spaceship’s innards; all covered in shiny plastic and neatly encased, with that telltale label “no user serviceable parts.”

This is all echoing through into our educational paradigm, where from an increasingly early stage we start pushing people to develop the skills they need for a specific career path. Louis C.K., the famous comedian, talked about the American concept of the technical high-school, describing it as the place where dreams go to die. A technical high-school is an institution for teenagers where they learn skills related to a series of trades, as opposed to focusing on more general academic skills. C.k. talks about how we tell kids they can do anything, that any one of them could grow up to be the president of the united states, so long as they were born there, but by the time they go to a technical high school that’s been narrowed down to a much shorter list, like, you can be these eight things. Pick one of these and that’s what you’re going to do for the rest of your life.

So we live in a world where many of us define ourselves by what we do for a living, like saying, instead of “I teach,” “I am a teacher”. We also live in a world built by specialists, where their hyper-specialized skills go into producing ubiquitous products that most of us have only the most limited understanding of or ability to modify, improve or repair, let alone conceive and create.

This hasn’t always been true. While there have always been trades, of a sort, and division of labour, the educational system which our own is based on, the old English style, was one based on what were called the classics. The idea was that at one of these schools, everybody was given what some these days call the burden of a classical education. A classical scholar could read, understand and speak some form of Latin, possibly classical Greek as well, and was conversant in a body of canonical literature that included, I suppose, such lights of the western tradition as the King James Bible, probably the works of shakespeare, and then some of the ancients, like Plato, maybe, or virgil, Homer. Boring as anything, really, but everybody learned the same thing, and an educated man had a definable set of  skills and body of knowledge which identified him and informed the way he spoke, the references he made and the company he kept.

This whole idea of a classical education is defined by the historical context within which it emerged. The need for an educated public became apparent when the development of the printing press meant kings and rulers could disseminate mass propaganda to the entire population, communicating directly to individual, private citizens en masse for the first time. This ability was relatively ineffective, however, if the masses couldn’t read, and at the same time it was necessary to educate a class of writers who would produce the material for the kings. This process of educating the populace meant, eventually, that the autocratic style of rule became much more difficult as the people were no longer kept weak and disorganized through their own ignorance, but like any transformational technology the press had to be embraced, for fear that if one ruler failed to do so, somebody else would be doing it instead and thereby gaining an intolerable advantage.

But this whole process, the press, mass education, and mass industrialization and standardization in general, were all products of the changing times. The middle ages had ended with the renaissance, which means rebirth. This period was named as the rebirth of knowledge, of scholarship, as the civilization of Western Europe looked back to the time of the Roman Empire and the other so-called classical civilizations, when the continent had been ruled by one government, the infrastructure was organized and there was a stable economy and an educated class of scholars and clerks. This had all been supposedly lost, although really it just shifted elsewhere*, and the resurgence of new ideas in the 14th to 17th centuries was an attempt to regain the heights achieved by the ancients and, eventually, to surpass them. The press itself originated in China, but its impact was perhaps most fully felt in the Europe of the early industrial era.

The renaissance, with its emphasis on education and striving after ancient ideals, is responsible for the term renaissance man. Its closest synonym is perhaps polymath, and it means somebody who excels in multiple fields. The ideal of a renaissance man was somebody who could fight a duel, speak multiple languages, recite poetry, play musical instruments and win a debate. He should be a student of multiple disciplines and current in as many fields as possible. This was perhaps easier to do, back then, when many noblemen led lives of leisure, without the pressure to earn a living, and when the total body of knowledge available was probably a fraction of what currently is produced in a single day. But this ideal influenced the development of the education system, especially in England, where we and much of the world get our current system from.

This system developed in a time of mass production and industrialization, when these ideas were new and shiny and appealing. The King needed an educated populace and a standardized, one-size-fits-all style of rote learning and harsh discipline was instituted. This ethic, as well as having a generalist focus, was also reminiscent of an assembly line, with the pupils being stamped into a mold established by generations of their fellows going through before them. While this has succeeded in reliably producing large numbers of young men who can recite classical Latin, it has proven less than entirely adequate for the modern world of specialization and diversity, and enjoys significantly less favour now than it once did.

Despite all this, the idea of a generalist education, a fundamental set of skills with which to face the modern world, is still interesting and may be of some merit. While Latin may no longer be the highest priority of modern educators, the hyper-specialization of academic and technical disciplines may in some ways be counter-productive. Inter-disciplinary research and collaboration has yielded fruitful results on numerous occasions, with surprising insights from outsider knowledge workers being able to shake up disciplines which previously had been experiencing stagnation. The specialized jargon of each area of research is supposedly intended to allow the convenient communication of equally specialized concepts, but may in fact do little more than indicate the learned status of the speaker within their own branch of the academic hierarchy. This kind of jargon is especially rampant in the humanities, and can serve as a barrier to collaboration.

This disjoint set of jargons and technicalities can leave many effectively disenfranchised from our highly technical world, and this means a generalist understanding of science would be highly useful. It would be advisable, however, to avoid creating a class of jacks of all trades, masters of none, and finding a way instead to give the students an advanced understanding and high level of fluency in the most general set of skills practical, rather than merely giving them a low-level introduction to a broad yet disconnected array of possible skills. To do this it behooves us to examine the academic sphere for the most general and abstract set of topics and find the best way of communicating these to the student.

A friend of mine teaches guitar, and says that the solo from Michael Jackson’s beat it, played by Eddy Van Halen, features so many techniques executed with such elegance to produce such a catchy and appealing sound in its brief, minute or so execution, that it provides an exemplary learning tool. I always thought it’d be cool to do something like that but in a more general sense. He figured that once a kid learned the Beat It solo, they could use that as a practice exercise, improving one technique or another until they could play the whole thing and make it sound like the CD. Once they had that down, they would have learned a whole set of skills which they could extend to almost any other song. My friend was trying to develop a better solo, something even more feature-rich than Beat It but which would still sound cool and be fun to listen to rather than just flashy. This makes me wonder how you could teach something like that in the academic world.

The solution I came up with was to focus on two main things, English and mathematics. English, if understood and developed correctly, allows you to communicate and understand almost any idea. Mathematics allows you to express more concepts than English can, with greater precision but with less ease. Mathematics is an enormously broad topic, and research indicates that unlike many other disciplines, developing one skill in mathematics won’t necessarily improve any others. Many concepts within mathematics are logically related and they form a giant tree of dependencies, but there are still many distinct branches which need to be individually practiced.

English, on the other hand, is much less systematic, and different elements of the study of the English language mutually reinforce each other. I have, however, a great affection for the form of the essay, and evidence shows that writing free-form essays presenting the individual’s understanding of a scientific topic has an unparalleled effectiveness in the memorization of the material covered. The essay is also a difficult thing to get right, requiring both style and diligence, and brings together multiple skills. The essayist needs to be able to present an argument, be conversant with spelling and grammar, appeal to the audience and maintain readability and interest.

A combination of mathematical practice and free-form essay writing strikes me as a good basis for any child’s education, and can be combined with less rigorous influences such as student-directed learning to create an overall package. The idea behind student-directed learning is that children learn best when pursuing knowledge which interest them directly. To this end I’d propose allowing students to study pretty much whatever they want, so long as they can write an essay about the topic and are willing to submit their written work for assessment in terms of their compositional skill as well as their knowledge of their chosen subject. This way, they can develop not only their understanding of their chosen subjects, but also their skill as a writer and and their general academic ability.

This idea of combining language and mathematics into a complementary whole makes me wonder about what area covers both of these. To get this kind of coverage you need to look at things from the most general and abstract level possible, which is the level of the so-called formal sciences. These include linguistics, computer science, cognitive neuroscience, analytic philosophy and abstract mathematics. They’re all descriptions of informational structures, and the same basic essence defines all of them, whether the information is being processed or communicated by a machine or a human brain, or whether it exists in the abstract world of mathematical objects, as lines of code in a computer program or in the symbolic features of a natural human language. These are all pretty much symbol manipulation regimes, and it strikes me that this maximally abstract level of study provides an opportunity to be both entirely general and highly specialized, simultaneously cutting edge and open to anything. It’s in this area where I can see the possibility for some kind of grand unified theory of knowledge or whatever, some way to describe everything in one common language instead of this almost Biblical babel of competing theoretical and conceptual lenses through which to interpret reality.

So that’s pretty much the stuff that I find the most interesting. It sounds dry and highly abstruse but it covers the most fascinating topics, from the study of the brain’s function and the results which are finally freeing psychology from its Freudian roots and turning it into something resembling an actual science, to the mathematical physics that describes the universe at the largest scale and points to exciting new possibilities for exactly how the world works. Some kind of unified theory of symbol manipulation and information system would allow students to better  understand people, concepts, technology and science. If it’s possible to take these abstract disciplines and break them down into step-by-step progressions and simplified, bite-size chunks, to make them accessible while maintaining an awareness of the advanced, cutting-edge applications which make them exciting, then this could be a great educational tool.

 *We talk about the fall of Rome as if the entire civilization collapsed in the first half of the first millenium AD, but really there was an entire Eastern half that continued for hundreds of years. We refer to these people as the Byzantines, after Byzantium, their capital city, but at the time the Byzantine Empire self-identified as Roman and Byzantium, or Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) was just another Rome. The Empire had been split in two and divided between two emperors when it grew too large and unwieldy to maintain under one banner, and the continuation of the Eastern Empire isn’t some trivial remnant. The classical age flourished and the knowledge and technological development from the times of the ancients continued in the hands of the Eastern Empire, to begin with, and later the Arabs. The strong tradition of scholarship within Islam is clearly evident to any student of history and religion, and the Muslim imperative to study God’s world and the laws of nature so as to better understand God’s creation compelled them to faithfully preserve and diligently extend many of the ancient Greek scientific texts. This process of development generated many innovations in fields as diverse as engineering, astronomy and mathematics. In fact, though the name “Arabic numerals” is a misnomer, it is the Arabs who taught the European civilization its current base-10 number system, which they had in turn originally learned from the Indians. Not only this, but many modern mathematical concepts have arabic names, which many people may not recognise. Terms such as Algebra or algorithm come respectively from the Arabic Al-Jabr and the Latin Algoritmi, a transliteration of the name al-Khwārizmī. The universities of the Islamic world have long been centres of great scholarship, and the oldest continuously operating tertiary institution is the University of Ez-Zitouna in Tunis, which was founded as the Ez-Zitouna madrassa in 737 C.E.