Polymath or Specialist?


I was ruminating a couple of days ago about how learning, and teaching, have changed in so many ways since I was a scruffy kid at a small rural grammar (high) school in the UK over 40 years ago.  Even subjects such as chemistry and biology were taught largely by “chalk and talk” and “read your textbook”. The occasional inclusion of “a film” was just that with a projector and a large reel of film. Even more rarely we migh have the opportunity to watch a BBC Schools programme on a grainy black and white screen as it was being broadcast.

Polymaths and specialists

Anyway enough of the reminiscence! What was really in my mind was how all of my teachers when I was young were definitely “specialists” they taught in their own (usually quite narrow) field, and were never asked questions or expected to know anything about anything else. I think I have had a “bee in my bonnet” about specialisation since those days. Even then I saw connections between subjects that others seemed unaware of and I found it intensely annoying that everything was compartmentalised.


It seems to me (and this is purely my own opinion) that for most of my life (until about the last 12 years) there has been a huge emphasis on specialisation. People have been encouraged for a long time to “know more and more about less and less” whether it be the works of a particular author who wrote two books or the lifestyle and physiology of a minute insect. I have always found this type of very narrow focus almost impossible for me as this degree of specialisation often seems to exclude the broader context in which the subject is set. It also (from my perspective) tends to diminish the opportunities for cross disciplinary input.

As one of those people with polymathic tendencies – and I am using polymath in its sense of varied (cross disciplinary) knowledge rather than in the sense of knowing a vast amount – I have often felt that I am labelled in a number of ways. Some of those labels that have been applied to me over the years are: “having a magpie mind” in the sense of remembering a lot of unimportant “glittery stuff”; “butterfly minded” ie flitting from subject to subject; “academic lightweight” with its implication that just because I have not chosen to “pile it higher and deeper” about one topic I therefore lack the capacity to do so!


My perception is that it is now more acceptable to be a polymath than it has been for many years. The ruminations that gave rise to this have also led me to wonder on the validity of this perception and consequently why this might be so. The first instant thought was that this is a result of the exponential growth of easily available information through Internet publishing and increased access. In my opinion the skills of a generalist and synthesist (often held by polymaths) are better suited to a burgeoning information situation than are those of a specialist. There is also the additional point that, with increased access to information, specialists are no longer the exclusive curators of detailed knowledge and information. Perhaps this is why (in my opinion) polymathy (and respect for it) is on the rise. However it may just be the usual cyclic nature of change – there have been other times when polymathy was common. Both the Renaissance period and the late 19th Century stand out in the number of polymaths who were high achievers in more than one field.

To Conclude

Finally, all I have written here is just “my take” I have no supporting evidence for any of these thoughts and opinions – just my own feeling from what I see around me and in my PLN. So my perception of a rise in polymathy is just that. As always, I would be most interested to hear your point of view.

5 thoughts on “Polymath or Specialist?

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  2. Hi Jo.
    I certainly share your “take” on polymaths and specialists. I spent 30 years in business before I came to teaching. Although there were specialized departments in the company, there were no specialists. Now there may have been a few positions that were titled, “Specialist,” but the truth was every employee had to understand the scope and breadth of every position. To do your job meant knowing how everyone else had to do theirs.

    It seems to me that education is the only area where there are departmental specializations. I believe that the only reason for that is for professors to gain tenure and extend the model ad nauseam. I agree that the internet has made generalists of us all. It gives us the ability to explore an endless tangle of relatedness in any subject.

    In my fourth grade class, I must teach an hour and a half of reading, I must teach an hour of writing, and I must teach an hour of maths. Somehow, I am told, I must teach everything else in the time remaining. Few understand that the deparmentalization of the classroom is the greatest hinderance to learning.

    Let me teach reading with math and writing with science and help my students discovers the connections of both. Then let me take that package and show my students how to connect it all with the world around them. With technology, they can do that. With our global learning partners, they can do that. In a learning-centered classroom, we can do that.

    Rick Glass

    • Thank you Rick for your comment

      I think you are so right that in education we have a self perpetuating issue, and that once people have gained a position through becoming speicialists in one small area it is in their own interests to keep that process happening

      However I do see the specialisation issue in other areas too. I think it is often a self protection mechanism similar to that in education. The mindset seems to be along the lines of “If I maintain need for a high degree of specialisation in my role, that keeps the mystery alive and ensures that I cannot easily be usurped”.

      I so agree with your last paragraph. I always feel that I am very lucky compared to all the school teachers in my network because (although there are many other issues) my teaching (in Vocational Education and Training) is not quite as highly constrained. At least I have the freedom to integrate units although the ensuing mapping and paperchase nightmare has to be seen to be believed!

      Thank you again for the comment


  3. I have read extensively about polymathy, and disagree with your opinion. The fact is that we live in an age of hyperspecialisation. The educational system starts off well, teaching pupils a wide variety of subjects, but, as it progresses right up to university level, the emphasis is very much on focussing on one discipline. There are websites and books devoted to trying to change the current stigma attached to polymaths. I have created my own portfolio showcasing myself as a modern day Renaissance man:


  4. Hi Timothy

    As I said this was very much my personal take on this and is inevitably skewed by my own professional context. I was considering this very much from a teaching perspective. However I still feel that, despite the fact that there is continuing hyperspecialisation, there is less perception of this as the “ultimate” in terms of being “educated”.

    I think there will always be some need for extreme specialisation in some aspects of some fields. This is particularly likely to be so in those areas that require the application of detailed knowledge in an activity requiring fine motor skills or rapid response. However the ease with which anyone who has basic IT literacy can now access almost any information means that narrow areas of specialisation are of less value to teachers than the ability to work effectively with information and adapt rapidly to change.

    Effectively the specialist is no longer king (or queen) as they are no longer the custondians of information exclusive to a select group. I just feel that we have perhaps reached something of a turning point as a result of this increasing availability of information and that those of us who teach are perhaps (because knowledge/information is our “bread and butter”) becoming aware of this earlier than some other professions.

    Hope this clarifies where I am coming from on polymathy!

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