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Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Experts, Polymaths, and the Liberal Arts – Outdated Concepts for an Outdated Western World

Given the (often tedious) discussion (not dialogue) often found in the very conventional world of academia and other such failing institutions (like the European Commission and its DG CONNECT), and the endless (mostly empty and sometimes almost fraudulent) talk about STEM to STEAM; here are some standard and (not so standard) alternative definitions of three overused words which just illustrate why the above are failing institutions, doing what all failing institutions do – retreating into the past, that place of security where everything seems fine:

Expert: a person who is very knowledgeable about or skilful in a particular area.


Expert: A person who knows a lot about very little.

Polymath: A person of wide knowledge or learning.


Polymath: A person who knows very little about a lot.

Liberal Arts: arts subjects such as literature and history, as distinct from science and technology.


Liberal Arts: subjects still defined according to an archaic division of knowledge.

Liberal arts subjects are those that an educated person should know in order to participate in the life of the community. Hence in the real world the liberal arts include all the subjects that the archaic division of knowledge excludes …

For the most able of people, it takes about two years of full time effort to cross a disciplinary boundary such as they are able to operate in that discipline. Few people, polymath or otherwise, have time for such, and no degree course can provide sufficient knowledge in the limited time available. Yet increasingly it seems that what is needed, are for people to cross disciplinary boundaries and to operate in those second (or third) disciplines!

Is the fad for Liberal Arts (standard definition) just another fruitless debate about liberal arts education versus specialist education? A repeat of debates already held in the past. Debates that most (including polymaths - standard definition) seem not to know took place. Likewise for the so called T-shaped person – this concept dates back to the 1970s at least, possibly earlier. The polymaths seem to have missed that point too! All this somewhat undermines the argument for – liberal arts education and polymaths (standard definitions)!

So Prometheus sits on his rock, wearing his invisible and silent chains that keep him bound there, and everyday he reinvents himself in exactly the same form he was yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that …

The Vainglorious Enlightened Ones are, indeed, in serious trouble. May you live in interesting times! You are living in interesting times …

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