Katie's Voice

Renaissance Person

The world is too much with us; late and soon, 
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers…
            —William Wordsworth

 

I was listening to a podcast on the way home from the pet supplies store today, a pack of puppy pee pads for my elderly dog tucked into the back seat, and the presenters came to a discussion of Coleridge accusing other learned men of leisure of not being “true philosophers.” The focus of the episode was the origin of the term “scientist” and the birth of the scientific method. I love this podcast, which is generally about science and its relationships with culture, despite being a writer and poet who needs her phone calculator to divide 6 by 4 in order to have the proper proportions of water to sugar for hummingbird food.

But what struck me today was a digression from the main point: the fact that, in the 18th and 19th centuries, someone we now know as a poet was also taken seriously in other fields. Coleridge read—and wrote—broadly, on a variety of subjects. Some of the things he learned would not be recorded for us, for posterity, because he knew them simply to know them, and perhaps to discuss them with other people. In other words, he spent time learning things that were not directly connected to his career.

Now I know, before I get all excited about this idea, what some of the counterarguments and observations of realists might be:

1) Coleridge and men like him didn’t have to make a living, at least not like we do now. He had access to “learned society” through his family. He and other men like him were the beneficiaries, we would say now, of privilege.

2) There was, some would say, less to read and learn back then. Or at least, less that was considered “worthy” of knowing. Books and knowledge had to be written by white men. Some types of knowledge were scandalous or blasphemous or both.

3) The “Rennaissance Man” was made possible by a class system that we no longer believe in (though it could be argued we have a rather rigid one now anyway).

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Oxford University, England

Still. Still. I think there’s something here that we need to revisit. I think we need to value, again, the Renaissance humanist idea that “people should embrace all knowledge and develop their capacities as fully as possible.”

To us, now, raised on the assembly line theory of knowledge—the idea that, to be successful, you must specialize, specialize, specialize—that seems like a fairy tale. “Embrace all knowledge”? Study a broad array of fields—the arts, languages, science, philosophy, and more? Who has time for that, when college has become the means to getting a job and choosing the “right” major has become a key to “success”?

I’m not arguing merely that we have misplaced the values of education and of personhood, though I do believe that. Education is about more than jobs, and our goals as people should be about more than material success. And I do recognize that reality dictates specialization—an engineering major, after working with airplanes for five years, is going to have a difficult time switching to building bridges.

What I’m really arguing is that we are living in a time when the “realities” of work can and should be changed. We are living in a time when a lot of the paradigms we have taken for granted over the past hundred and more years can and should be changed.

Yeah. I said it. We need to change the world. The vast majority of people, liberal or conservative or something else entirely, agree. We don’t agree on how to change the world, or sometimes even why. But change is necessary.

And one change I want to see is the return of the Renaissance Man. Well, of course, I want it to be the Renaissance Person. We do have a few examples of “academic rockstars” these days—Neil deGrasse Tyson, Noam Chomsky, Jane Goodall—and some of those thinkers have been taken seriously when they talk about things other than their initial specialties. What I want is for all of us to be allowed—no, encouraged—to learn widely, to read widely. I want us to claim our multitude of identities, forged from experience and self-motivated learning.

book-570102_1920Before I went to college, I got my hands on a copy of the course catalog for my university. I spent hours—days—going through it, marking the classes that looked interesting to me. I looked at college as a smorgasbord of topics and ideas, and I wanted to taste so much of it. When my father picked up the catalog and thumbed through it, he said, “At this rate, you’ll be in college for 10 years!”

I wasn’t in college for 10 years, though I wanted to be. I eventually chose to major in writing because it seemed to me the closest thing to being a generalist, both in its study and in its practice. I was interested in a lot of different topics. I still am. Reading and writing didn’t seem to be limited by topic—they were tools for the investigation of both the self and the world.

There is so much potential right now—right now, in 2016—for the return to the “tenet of Renaissance humanism that humans are limitless in their capacity for development.” But we need to push back against the forces backing us into small, specialized corners, the walls of which are made by the economic status quo.

Sister Siren Lisa Lanser Rose and I were talking recently about how much money people are willing to spend at spas—on treatments and routines intended to make them look better physically, maybe even feel better physically. What about the mind? Maybe we need a return to the old-style salons. Maybe we need to start Mind Spas across the country, places where you can make an appointment to tune up your mind—to meditate, to learn something new, to talk to someone about an idea or a movie you just watched, to have a piece of writing or art you’ve done looked at/critiqued/appreciated, to have a person and not a computer algorithm recommend a book that might just change your life.

I don’t know. I’m just brainstorming. I do know that I’m still a generalist—writer, poet, teacher, mentor, blogger, meditator, editor, publisher, vlogger, reader, animal lover, Midwesterner, Anglophile, human. And that’s not even the half of it.

 

21 replies »

  1. Reblogged this on Lisa Lanser Rose and commented:

    Love the idea! Katie Riegel writes, look “how much money people are willing to spend at spas—on treatments and routines intended to make them look better physically, maybe even feel better physically. What about the mind? Maybe we need a return to the old-style salons. Maybe we need to start Mind Spas across the country.”

  2. Your beautiful thoughts have me crying. I am nothing that I would have liked to have been, I am 73 and I have been a teacher (taught one year at UVA, one year at HS and several years at my own academy in Spain (please excuse me for bragging), I have been a truck driver, an X-Ray tech, a cashier, a carpenter, a plumber, a gardener, and have read loads and loads of books about every subject I could get my hands on. But have never been what I really would have loved being, a writer. I even did not get my doctorate in Spanish Literature because I could not write a thesis. I love how and what you write and it is a pleasure to follow you. You are, in my opinion 100% correct in what you say. Thank you very much for the enjoyment you enabled me to have today

    • You have been doing the great work–you have been creating yourself, and creating your life. Also–it’s not to late to be a writer! Just write, and put it out there.

      • Thank you very much for your nice words and encouragement. I actually may just do that, accept you counsel and try my hand at it. If I do, I will let you know. Thank you Katie

  3. You wrote a whole fricken post but my favourite part is the idea in the second to last paragraph about a ‘mind salon.’ I think that’d be pretty neat. Just think of the boundaries, or lack of, then. Science would cease to exist as we know it, the future would become the past, or it could be visa versa even just by reversing space-time, etc.

  4. A mind spa is a fantastic idea. I would surely sign up for that. Too many people ignore the mind and the emotions that we carry every day. To me a healthy mind is the catalyst for everything else falling into place.

  5. Do spas do any good to the users is a case for research. But my spa is nature in which I dive deep every morning around 3 a.m. and return home quite fresh physically as well as mentally. So, though the idea of MIND-SPA is mind-blowing still I doubt about its efficacy. Ms Katie being a writer is imaginative and her imagination is worth testing for the one who takes the risk of establishing Mind-spas. Wish Ms Katie and the would be entrepreneur of Mind-spas………

  6. Hello Katie, I’m Tricia. Very interesting concept indeed, Mind-Spa… The thought of sharing ideas in a relaxing environment without the image of group therapy or a cult, is refreshing. Life seems so distracting and mundane when your day dreams are always interrupted. We need to take back our lives, dream again, and this time with the mindset of a warrior! I strongly believe that if you “Will it”, it is yours.

  7. Well, the article is spoken words of the author. it reads well. I like it. Yes the Mind Spas sounds great. But what may be a mind spa to you may be something else to me. Cultures separate and shape our thoughts. Cultures shape our environments. Yes we need to stimulate the mind too. Scribe Habitats will help if like minded people, say some who like a cottage on the beach to stimulate their thoughts, should become a community and stay true to the tradition of writing. I myself have been a window washer, a waiter, a cook in a 5 star hotel, a potter, an event manager, a Disc Jockey, a photographer for vogue, a writer film maker, a teacher, a professor now and a film maker, a social activist, a political activist, an environmental activist, a media trainer, a student counsellor, a news community news paper editor, the founder of a charitable trust, a martial arts instructor, now currently planning to do my PhD in environmental science and medicine soon. Learning never stops 🙂

  8. And i am just 41 indigenous to Bombay island, India. People used to tell me Luke you are a jack of all master of none. This they used to tell me when i was in my 20’s and then i coined a term “Be like a Diamond, Multifaceted and valuable with each side of the diamond totally polished”. So do everything you love and do all of them well. Im glad more are thinking on the same lines, even if they didn’t, the naysayers did never matter 🙂

  9. I whole-heartedly agree. I love learning about everything. At the moment I’m working on my Masters in creative writing, writing a travel narrative, but I also want to study biomedical science (having been a nurse in a previous life) just because I want that knowledge. I love talking to people who have knowledge about lots of different things. I don’t know if you’ve heard of The Idler (www.idler.co.uk) but Tom Hodgkinson, who started it, is all about improving oneself by learning, not just learning with the aim of getting a job.

  10. “Humans are limitless in their capacity for development.” How powerful that statement is to me. I have just begun exploring my own re-development of writing. I am in a transitory period in my life. Kids one foot out of the house. Fed up with my job that only pays the bills. I am craving substance. I am pushing myself to foster the things I love – learning, exploring, reading, writing, thinking about new things in new ways. This was such a thought provoking post.