A polymath (Greek : πολυμαθής, polymathēs, "having learned much"; Latin: homo universalis, "universal man") is an individual whose knowledge spans a significant number of subjects, known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems. The earliest recorded use of the term in English is from 1624, in the second edition of The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton; the form polymathist is slightly older, first appearing in the Diatribae upon the first part of the late History of Tithes of Richard Montagu in 1621. Use in English of the similar term polyhistor dates from the late sixteenth century.
In Western Europe, the first work to use polymathy in its title (De Polymathia tractatio: integri operis de studiis veterum) was published in 1603 by Johann von Wowern, a Hamburg philosopher.Von Wowern defined polymathy as "knowledge of various matters, drawn from all kinds of studies [...] ranging freely through all the fields of the disciplines, as far as the human mind, with unwearied industry, is able to pursue them". Von Wowern lists erudition, literature, philology, philomathy and polyhistory as synonyms.
Polymaths include the great scholars and thinkers of the Islamic Golden Age, the period of Renaissance and the Enlightenment, who excelled at several fields in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and the arts. In the Italian Renaissance, the idea of the polymath was expressed by Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472) in the statement that "a man can do all things if he will".
Embodying a basic tenet of Renaissance humanism that humans are limitless in their capacity for development, the concept led to the notion that people should embrace all knowledge and develop their capacities as fully as possible. This is expressed in the term Renaissance man, often applied to the gifted people of that age who sought to develop their abilities in all areas of accomplishment: intellectual, artistic, social, physical, and spiritual.
"Renaissance man" was first recorded in written English in the early 20th century.It is now used to refer to great thinkers living before, during, or after the Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci has often been described as the archetype of the Renaissance man, a man of "unquenchable curiosity" and "feverishly inventive imagination". Many notable polymaths lived during the Renaissance period, a cultural movement that spanned roughly the 14th through to the 17th century that began in Italy in the Late Middle Ages and later spread to the rest of Europe. These polymaths had a rounded approach to education that reflected the ideals of the humanists of the time. A gentleman or courtier of that era was expected to speak several languages, play a musical instrument, write poetry and so on, thus fulfilling the Renaissance ideal.
The idea of a universal education was essential to achieving polymath ability, hence the word university was used to describe a seat of learning. At this time, universities did not specialize in specific areas, but rather trained students in a broad array of science, philosophy and theology. This universal education gave them a grounding from which they could continue into apprenticeship toward becoming a master of a specific field.
When someone is called a "Renaissance man" today, it is meant that rather than simply having broad interests or superficial knowledge in several fields, the individual possesses a more profound knowledge and a proficiency, or even an expertise, in at least some of those fields.
Some dictionaries use the term "Renaissance man" to describe someone with many interests or talents,while others give a meaning restricted to the Renaissance and more closely related to Renaissance ideals.
Robert Root-Bernstein is considered the principal responsible for rekindling the interest on polymathy in the scientific community.He is a professor of physiology at Michigan State University and has been awarded the MacArthur Fellowship. He and colleagues, especially Michèle Root-Bernstein, authored many important works spearheading the modern field of polymathy studies.
Root-Bernstein's works emphasize the contrast between the polymath and two other types: the specialist and the dilettante. The specialist demonstrates depth but lacks breadth of knowledge. The dilettante demonstrates superficial breadth but tend to acquire skills merely "for their own sake without regard to understanding the broader applications or implications and without integrating it" (R. Root-Bernstein, 2009, p. 857). Conversely, the polymath is a person with a level of expertise that is able to "put a significant amount of time and effort into their avocations and find ways to use their multiple interests to inform their vocations" (R. Root-Bernstein, 2009, p. 857).
A key point in the work of Root-Bernstein and colleagues is the argument in favor of the universality of the creative process. That is, although creative products, such as a painting, a mathematical model or a poem, can be domain-specific, at the level of the creative process, the mental tools that lead to the generation of creative ideas are the same, be it in the arts or science.These mental tools are sometimes called intuitive tools of thinking. It is therefore not surprising that many of the most innovative scientists have serious hobbies or interests in artistic activities, and that some of the most innovative artists have an interest or hobbies in the sciences.
Root-Bernstein and colleagues' research is an important counterpoint to the claim by some psychologists that creativity is a domain-specific phenomenon. Through their research, Root-Bernstein and colleagues conclude that there are certain comprehensive thinking skills and tools that cross the barrier of different domains and can foster creative thinking: "[creativity researchers] who discuss integrating ideas from diverse fields as the basis of creative giftedness ask not 'who is creative?' but 'what is the basis of creative thinking?' From the polymathy perspective, giftedness is the ability to combine disparate (or even apparently contradictory) ideas, sets of problems, skills, talents, and knowledge in novel and useful ways. Polymathy is therefore the main source of any individual's creative potential" (R. Root-Bernstein, 2009, p. 854). In "Life Stages of Creativity", Robert and Michèle Root-Bernstein suggest six typologies of creative life stages. These typologies based on real creative production records first published by Root-Bernstein, Bernstein, and Garnier (1993).
Finally, his studies suggest that understanding polymathy and learning from polymathic exemplars can help structure a new model of education that better promotes creativity and innovation: "we must focus education on principles, methods, and skills that will serve them [students] in learning and creating across many disciplines, multiple careers, and succeeding life stages" (R. Root-Bernstein & M. Root-Bernstein, 2017, p. 161).
Peter Burke, Professor Emeritus of Cultural History and Fellow of Emmanuel College at Cambridge, discussed the theme of polymathy in some of his works. He has presented a comprehensive historical overview of the ascension and decline of the polymath as, what he calls, an "intellectual species" (see Burke, 2012; 2010).
He observes that in ancient and medieval times, scholars did not have to specialize. However, from the 17th century on, the rapid rise of new knowledge in the Western world—both from the systematic investigation of the natural world and from the flow of information coming from other parts of the world—was making it increasingly difficult for individual scholars to master as many disciplines as before. Thus, an intellectual retreat of the polymath species occurred: "from knowledge in every [academic] field to knowledge in several fields, and from making original contributions in many fields to a more passive consumption of what has been contributed by others" (Burke, 2010, p. 72).
Given this change in the intellectual climate, it has since then been more common to find "passive polymaths", who consume knowledge in various domains but make their reputation in one single discipline, than "proper polymaths", who—through a feat of "intellectual heroism"—manage to make serious contributions to several disciplines.
However, Burke warns that in the age of specialization, polymathic people are more necessary than ever, both for synthesis—to paint the big picture—and for analysis. He says: "It takes a polymath to 'mind the gap' and draw attention to the knowledges that may otherwise disappear into the spaces between disciplines, as they are currently defined and organized" (Burke, 2012, p. 183).
Finally, he suggests that governments and universities should nurture a habitat in which this "endangered species" can survive, offering students and scholars the possibility of interdisciplinary work.
James C. Kaufman, from the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut, and Ronald A. Beghetto, from the same university, investigated the possibility that everyone could have the potential for polymathy as well as the issue of the domain-generality or domain-specificity of creativity.
Based on their earlier four-c model of creativity, Beghetto and Kaufmanproposed a typology of polymathy, ranging from the ubiquitous mini-c polymathy to the eminent but rare Big-C polymathy, as well as a model with some requirements for a person (polymath or not) to be able to reach the highest levels of creative accomplishment. They account for three general requirements—intelligence, motivation to be creative and an environment that allows creative expression—that are needed for any attempt at creativity to succeed. Then, depending on the domain of choice, more specific abilities will be required. The more that one's abilities and interests match the requirements of a domain, the better. While some will develop their specific skills and motivations for specific domains, polymathic people will display intrinsic motivation (and the ability) to pursue a variety of subject matters across different domains.
Regarding the interplay of polymathy and education, they suggest that rather than asking whether every student has multicreative potential, educators might more actively nurture the multicreative potential of their students. As an example, the authors cite that teachers should encourage students to make connections across disciplines, use different forms of media to express their reasoning/understanding (e.g., drawings, movies, and other forms of visual media).
Bharath Sriraman, of the University of Montana, also investigated the role of polymathy in education. He poses that an ideal education should nurture talent in the classroom and enable individuals to pursue multiple fields of research and appreciate both the aesthetic and structural/scientific connections between mathematics, arts and the sciences.
In 2009, Sriraman published a paper reporting a 3-year study with 120 pre-service mathematics teachers and derived several implications for mathematics pre-service education as well as interdisciplinary education.He utilized a hermeneutic-phenomenological approach to recreate the emotions, voices and struggles of students as they tried to unravel Russell's paradox presented in its linguistic form. They found that those more engaged in solving the paradox also displayed more polymathic thinking traits. He concludes by suggesting that fostering polymathy in the classroom may help students change beliefs, discover structures and open new avenues for interdisciplinary pedagogy.
Michael Araki is a professor at Universidade Federal Fluminense in Brazil. He sought to formalize in a general model how the development of polymathy takes place. His Developmental Model of Polymathy (DMP) is presented in a 2018 article with two main objectives: (i) organize the elements involved in the process of polymathy development into a structure of relationships that is wed to the approach of polymathy as a life project, and (ii) provide an articulation with other well-developed constructs, theories and models, especially from the fields of giftedness and education.The model, which was designed to reflect a structural model, has five major components: (1) polymathic antecedents, (2) polymathic mediators, (3) polymathic achievements, (4) intrapersonal moderators, and (5) environmental moderators.
Regarding the definition of the term polymathy, the researcher, through an analysis of the extant literature, concluded that although there are a multitude of perspectives on polymathy, most of them ascertain that polymathy entails three core elements: breadth, depth and integration.
Breadth refers to comprehensiveness, extension and diversity of knowledge. It is contrasted with the idea of narrowness, specialization, and the restriction of one's expertise to a limited domain. The possession of comprehensive knowledge at very disparate areas is a hallmark of the greatest polymaths.
Depth refers to the vertical accumulation of knowledge and the degree of elaboration or sophistication of one's sets of one's conceptual network. Like Robert Root-Bernstein, Araki uses the concept of dilettancy as a contrast to the idea of profound learning that polymathy entails.
Integration, although not explicit in most definitions of polymathy, is also a core component of polymathy according to the author. Integration involves the capacity of connecting, articulating, concatenating or synthesizing different conceptual networks, which in non-polymathic persons might be segregated. In addition, integration can happen at the personality level, when the person is able to integrate his or her diverse activities in a synergic whole, which can also mean a psychic (motivational, emotional and cognitive) integration.
Finally, the author also suggests that, via a psychoeconomic approach, polymathy can be seen as a "life project". That is, depending on a person's temperament, endowments, personality, social situation and opportunities (or lack thereof), the project of a polymathic self-formation may present itself to the person as more or less alluring and more or less feasible to be pursued.
Aside from "Renaissance man" as mentioned above, similar terms in use are homo universalis (Latin) and uomo universale (Italian), which translate to "universal man".The related term "generalist"—contrasted with a "specialist"—is used to describe a person with a general approach to knowledge.
The term "universal genius" or "versatile genius" is also used, with Leonardo da Vinci as the prime example again. The term is used especially for people who made lasting contributions in at least one of the fields in which they were actively involved and when they took a universality of approach.
When a person is described as having encyclopedic knowledge, they exhibit a vast scope of knowledge. However, this designation may be anachronistic in the case of persons such as Eratosthenes, whose reputation for having encyclopedic knowledge predates the existence of any encyclopedic object.
A genius is a person who displays exceptional intellectual ability, creative productivity, universality in genres or originality, typically to a degree that is associated with the achievement of new advances in a domain of knowledge. Despite the presence of scholars in many subjects throughout history, many geniuses have shown high achievements in only a single kind of activity.
Interdisciplinarity or interdisciplinary studies involves the combining of two or more academic disciplines into one activity. It draws knowledge from several other fields like sociology, anthropology, psychology, economics etc. It is about creating something by thinking across boundaries. It is related to an interdiscipline or an interdisciplinary field, which is an organizational unit that crosses traditional boundaries between academic disciplines or schools of thought, as new needs and professions emerge. Large engineering teams are usually interdisciplinary, as a power station or mobile phone or other project requires the melding of several specialties. However, the term "interdisciplinary" is sometimes confined to academic settings.
Creativity is a phenomenon whereby something new and somehow valuable is formed. The created item may be intangible or a physical object.
A child prodigy is defined in psychology research literature as a person under the age of ten who produces meaningful output in some domain to the level of an adult expert.
Intellectual giftedness is an intellectual ability significantly higher than average. It is a characteristic of children, variously defined, that motivates differences in school programming. It is thought to persist as a trait into adult life, with various consequences studied in longitudinal studies of giftedness over the last century. There is no generally agreed definition of giftedness for either children or adults, but most school placement decisions and most longitudinal studies over the course of individual lives have followed people with IQs in the top 2.5 percent of the population—that is, IQs above 130. Definitions of giftedness also vary across cultures.
A paracosm is a detailed imaginary world. Paracosms are thought generally to originate in childhood and to have one or numerous creators. The creator of a paracosm has a complex and deeply felt relationship with this subjective universe, which may incorporate real-world or imaginary characters and conventions. Commonly having its own geography, history, and language, it is an experience that is often developed during childhood and continues over a long period of time, months or even years, as a sophisticated reality that can last into adulthood.
Robert J. Sternberg is an American psychologist and psychometrician. He is Professor of Human Development at Cornell University. Prior to joining Cornell, Sternberg was president of the University of Wyoming for 5 months. He has been Provost and Professor at Oklahoma State University, Dean of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University, IBM Professor of Psychology and Education at Yale University. He is a member of the editorial boards of numerous journals, including American Psychologist. He was the past President for the American Psychological Association.
The word erudition came into Middle English from Latin. A scholar is erudite when instruction and reading followed by digestion and contemplation have effaced all rudeness, that is to say smoothed away all raw, untrained incivility. Common usage has blurred the distinction from "learned" but the two terms are quite different.
This is an index of education articles.
James C. Kaufman is an American psychologist known for his research on creativity. He is a Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. Previously, he taught at the California State University, San Bernardino, where he directed the Learning Research Institute. He received his Ph.D. from Yale University in Cognitive Psychology, where he worked with Robert J. Sternberg.
This glossary of education-related terms is based on how they commonly are used in Wikipedia articles. This page contains terms starting with G – L. Select a letter from the table of contents to find terms on other pages.
This glossary of education-related terms is based on how they commonly are used in Wikipedia articles. This page contains terms starting with P – R. Select a letter from the table of contents to find terms on other pages.
Evolutionary educational psychology is the study of the relation between inherent folk knowledge and abilities and accompanying inferential and attributional biases as these influence academic learning in evolutionarily novel cultural contexts, such as schools and the industrial workplace. The fundamental premises and principles of this discipline are presented below.
Multipotentiality is an educational and psychological term referring to the ability and preference of a person, particularly one of strong intellectual or artistic curiosity, to excel in two or more different fields.
Gifted Education in public schools is mandated by Georgia law and is governed by the Georgia Board of Education (GBOE) Rule 160-4-2-.38 and GBOE-approved regulations. The GBOE Gifted Education Rule was initiated November 13, 1997, reinitiated January 8, 1998 and then adopted on February 12, 1998 in the final form.
Mary Nacol Meeker, Ed.D. (1921–2003), was an American educational psychologist and entrepreneur. She is best known for her applying J. P. Guilford's Structure of Intellect theory of human intelligence to the field of education.
Bharath Sriraman is an Indian-born Professor of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Montana – Missoula and an academic editor, known for his interdisciplinary contributions at the nexus of math-science-arts, theory development in mathematics education, creativity research, and alternative education.
Williams' taxonomy is a hierarchical arrangement of eight creative thinking skills conceived, developed, and researched by Frank E. Williams, a researcher in educational psychology. The taxonomy forms the basis of a differentiated instruction curriculum model used particularly with gifted students and in gifted education settings.
The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to human intelligence:
John Baer is a Professor of Educational Psychology at Rider University in New Jersey. He earned his B.A. from Yale University and his Ph.D. in cognitive and developmental psychology from Rutgers University.