Nurturing the polymaths…

My Power of Language post last week, Precision Tools, referred to the recent James MacTaggart Lecture given in Edinburgh by Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google. The lecture is, I understand, a keynote of the television industry’s year and Schmidt is the first non-TV professional to deliver it. His most uncomfortable message, though, came not from Schmidt the outsider to TV, but from Schmidt the foreigner to the UK.

“Over the past century,” he said, “the UK has stopped nurturing its polymaths.”


First a definition or two. The OED defines polymath as “A person of great or varied learning; a person acquainted with many fields of study; an accomplished scholar” and polymathy as “Great or varied learning; acquaintance with many branches of knowledge”.

Next a word of explanation. I’m writing this post to contribute to an online discussion amongst RSA Fellows, in response to the question “What can the RSA do about it?”; but I’m interested in any and all answers to the wider question, “What can we do about it?”.

Schmidt’s first concern is over the polarity and mutual exclusion of arts and science. He says: “First you need to bring art and science back together. Think back to the glory days of the Victorian era. It was a time when the same people wrote poetry and built bridges.”

“Second,” he says, “you need to get better at growing big companies. …If you don’t address this, then the UK will continue to be where inventions are born – but not bred for long-term success.”

Most of his lecture is specific to the media industry, though he does make some useful points about innovation and copyright law which have a wider relevance. More on that later. For now I want to focus on his comment about polymaths and what is says about UK society – and most importantly, what we can do about it.

It seems to me that we need to consider three aspects – education; public policy; and the media themselves. I’d like to offer some initial thoughts about all three, and ask for comments from those who are more closely involved in each field than I.


Looking closely at what Schmidt says, his point is not actually that we produce too few polymaths, but that we produce too few scientists and engineers. His concern is that IT teaching in schools is about “user” skills, not computer programming or coding skills. (I touched on this point in Precision Tools, and on the effect it has had on the way society works.) Niall Ferguson has said that the most widespread language in the world is not English but mathematics – and our schoolchildren lag far behind those of the Far East in their mathematical skills.

I know far less than I would like to about the RSA Academy, but there would seem to be an opportunity here for any school that chose to take it up.

I don’t know whether Schmidt checked the OED before giving his speech, but there is also a question inherent in the definition of polymath: the question of ‘great or varied learning’. Is innovation better served by breadth or depth in education? I remember the transition to sixth form as a fantastic moment, as the point at which I started to learn how to think and work and research in depth–all the skills I needed at university and subsequently. I don’t believe we would be well served by increasing the number of subjects people study at A-level. But should our schools be encouraging A-level students to mix arts, humanities and sciences more freely? What effect would this have on the calibre of science applicants to university? And what effect would it have on the non-scientist’s appreciation of science in later life?

Schmidt does not mention the other trend in education in recent decades–the compulsion to help everyone to succeed. Universal success is an admirable goal, but it has an awkward side-effect: if everyone must succeed, the greatest achievements risk being devalued.

A question, therefore: how can we make sure we are placing a proper valuation on the very highest achievers? – whilst still celebrating the significant achievements of those who have perhaps overcome great obstacles in order to accomplish anything at all (which says as much about character as the other says about attainment)?

Public policy

For Schmidt this is about three things–promoting innovation and helping small businesses grow into big businesses; copyright law; and regulation. He also says, “You need to get smarter about how to bridge the divide between public and commercial sectors”.

Several of his points strike a chord. When I started up LaMIS I was faced with any number of sources of advice, from banks to Business Link to a plethora of government schemes. Schmidt acknowledges that “the UK does a great job at backing small firms and cottage industries”. But do we support the next stage of growth? Schmidt says not. He says we sell out to foreign owners.

Equally, LaMIS gave me experience of the divide between public and commercial sectors, and of issues around copyright law. There is certainly room for a much less hidebound, more innovative attitude in both these areas. Schmidt wants our government to “put innovation front and centre of their regulatory strategy” and he is quite right.

As for regulation, we need to think very carefully about our attitude to risk. As a society I submit that we are becoming more and more risk-averse, particularly in the public sector and our other large institutions such as banks. There is no question but that this stifles innovation.

We also seem to apply a blunt instrument to risk. We have developed a whole vast industry to manage the risks of everyday life–everything from crossing the road to building a skyscraper. Regulation is a major part of that industry. Risk management is all about doing the same things repeatedly, as safely as possible.  It is about avoiding careless mistakes (crossing the road without looking; dropping a girder on your mate’s head) and deliberate wrongdoing (skimping on the foundations; fraud).

Yet too often the same tool is applied to the risks of innovation–risks that are by definition about doing something new and untried; not the risk of careless mistakes or deliberate wrongdoing, but the risk that a good new idea, executed with competence, flair and vision, might fail. There is no real innovation without risk.

So how can we support and encourage the taking of intelligent, visionary risk? Is this an area where the Glory of Failure project could perhaps offer some insight?

The media

We cannot make much progress on this issue without asking some tough questions of the media–and of ourselves, about the influence and control we have chosen to give them over our society. There are those who say that the media are symptomatic of many of the problems of society, not causative: I beg to differ. At the very least, they magnify and exacerbate those problems.

In his speech, Schmidt congratulated the UK television industry on the calibre of its programming. But his view of the media is entirely market-driven, a matter of supply and demand: the industry will provide what its consumers want. This view is simplistic at best–and, frankly, irresponsible and destructive at worst.

Consider the example of reality TV. Big Brother is the case in point of this ‘supply-and-demand’ kind of programming, and has become popular out of all proportion to the quality or value of its content. Its influence and effect have spread from TV to the mainstream publishing industry, which focuses on celebrity content to the exclusion of higher-quality writing.

So what? people say. It’s only entertainment.

Er, no, it isn’t. It is contributing directly to the shallowing of thought and the lowering of aspiration. On Radio 4 last week Polly Toynbee said that, if you ask many working-class families about achieving their aspirations, the answer will often involve winning the lottery or appearing on a reality TV show–that education and hard work are not seen as a route to success.

(By Toynbee’s own evidence, it is not that education doesn’t provide that route to success; she cited the outstanding work of BSix 6th Form College in Hackney and Cockermouth School in Cumbria as examples. It is that education and hard work aren’t seen by many as providing that route, nor valued accordingly. Gordon Ramsay once spent a weekend coaching and mentoring a young chef whose ‘aspiration’ was to have his own TV show–yet when he paid a surprise visit six weeks later, the young man had reverted to all his old, lazy habits.)

Or consider the question of literacy and articulacy which I discuss in Precision Tools. Social media have given many people a voice, but they have lowered the bar in respect of what many other people are saying, or are capable of saying, with that voice. I’ve written elsewhere about “the culture of soundbites and instant gratification“; it is sad to see the extent to which the media slope their collective shoulders and deny any “duty of linguistic care” (as Lindsay Johns puts it).

Consider, too, another unpleasant trend in some quarters of the media–the default description of anyone who does their utmost to support and encourage their children to aspire and achieve, who does whatever it takes to give their children opportunities and to ensure that they make the most of them, as “pushy middle-class parents”. It’s hardly a label that will reward the hard work and dedication of either the parents or the children.

Which brings us back to the question: What can we do to nurture our polymaths, and to allow them to achieve the great things that we require of them?

Answers, please, on the postcard below.

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6 Responses to Nurturing the polymaths…

  1. David Farrar says:

    You have researched this well and it is a real problem, which is covered in my recent Sydney lecture and current professional initiatives with four British professional institutions.
    They concern four polymath areas: management of risk (see NASA), systems engineering (see Wikipedia), cognition errors, and design for economic manufacture.
    All of these are seriously misunderstood by nearly all company managers (fault in their education) and neglected in higher education and most professional institutions. As a direct result much money is wasted in the British economy which can ill afford it.
    Those who perceive the problems should collaborate in minimising them.

  2. Guest says:

    I read your post with great interest, and thought it was spot on. Bang on the money.

    Not being a scientist, but well aware of C.P. Snow’s famous Two Cultures debate, it was very thought-provoking, and I for one am sadly guilty of being a philistine when it comes to both science and technology.

    From a personal perspective (and I’m not for one minute claiming to be a polymath, just someone who is interested in many things), the British media does not like Renaissance men. It relentlessly seeks to pigeon-hole people into wearing one hat.

    Society too seemingly frowns on polymaths. Just look at the opprobrium Hugh Laurie got when he recorded a blues album recently.

  3. Esmee Wilcox says:

    I’ve written a bit about the constraints in government in my chapter in “The Failure Files” (shameless plug :-))
    But your particular question comes into my thinking about how we create mechanisms for innovation in large institutions where trust and adaptive capability are low. As a practitioner (trying to develop new ways of getting to better health and well-being for older people) I’m trying to persuade others of the need to keep testing new approaches, building on the context. Need to recognise what works in one place won’t work in another (Tim Harford articulates this well; it’s based on complexity theory). I also like Julian Baggini’s ideas in ‘Making Mistakes and the Rightness of Wrongness’: it’s all about distinguishing between the natural failure in innovation practice, and the bad decisions people make, for (I think) self-interested reasons.

    So my short answer is that we need to have a language that distinguishes the risks of failure from trying the new (and defines where it is appropriate to take these risks) and the risks of external events or mistakes.


    • Ben Bennetts says:

      Esmee, thank you for this. I’m waiting impatiently for my copy of The Failure Files, and will look forward to reading your ideas in greater depth – particularly the point about “large institutions where trust and adaptive capability are low”. In terms of government, I wonder whether part of this (at least) is to do with transparency and constant media scrutiny. Do – or should – the media have a role as champions of public service innovation?

      I do think there’s a straightforward cultural element to it as well, though. I remember Karan Bilimoria making a point (in Q&A after Sir Paul Judge’s inaugural RSA lecture in Oct ’05) that UK investors see past failure as a black mark on an entrepreneur’s record, whereas US investors would see the same past failure as a strength. Is this just something in the national psyche, or is it to do with different approaches to risk assessment in the US and UK?

  4. Janie Bill says:

    Hi Ben:

    Excellent post. I noticed for Education, the point regarding user skills versus knowledge of the programming was mentioned and I agree. Basically, algebraic problems can program a computer and with the clicks and buttons, not much thought is necessary in order to perform tasks assigned by an employer for most jobs. The job market is changing and with the use of language being compressed into abbreviations and symbols, personable skills aren’t as necessary and English is slowly becoming butchered or at the least modified into new slang. Which I find interesting since with the boom in worldwide communications, epublications and even registering to see a doctor online, it seems language arts would be more critical. I personally believe the decline in education is following the core of intellect, which develops communities and personable skills – philosophy, or a list of virtues, the ten commandments, Aesop’s fables, Greek myths. First, we deemphasized the teachings for moral behavior and then the arts began declining, followed by education. Literature, arts, education stem from teachings about man and virtues or awareness of his neighbor, interest in his planet and how to make the right decisions.



  5. Bhira says:

    Interesting reading and an interesting problem.

    Narrowness is easily digestible in the media, easy on the bureaucracy of education and convenient for public policy. I don’t think it produces anything of worth.

    To my mind, all of the wonderful things I’ve come across have been the result of unexpected combinations and interactions. There is a myth that creativity and inspiration can be found via imitation and ignorance. It’s very easy for programmes such as Big Brother or X-Factor to exist because of this; imitation is easily interpretable, easily comprehensible and helps form a pleasant narrative for viewers. It also produces nothing but more of more, a kind of hollow bloom of dazzle and sound.

    I’m probably not making much sense (it is late!) but I think that generally our society is shaped by this dazzle and sound – it is so overpowering and so invasive it takes over dreams and ideas. It’s bizarre that fame is the measurement of success when it’s mostly poisonous, turning people into horrible self-gratifying dribblers desperate to turn their lives into fiction. I’m ranting, aren’t I? I’ll get back to the topic.

    I’d say that most truly successful people are polymaths. I’d say that being a polymath is natural just as being curious is natural. I think what is unnatural is to try and narrow anyone down (whether child or adult) into being just ‘one thing’ and it seems that our education system is geared towards doing precisely that – it’s easily comprehensible and easy for schools to manage. It’s also not what education should be. I think if you start there the rest should (hopefully) follow. We all need to encourage curiosity, not ignorance.

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