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).
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.
Before 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.