Against Narrowness and Specialization!

We need more polymaths in all kinds of fields, including the ministry.

Waqas Ahmed’s The Polymath: Unlocking the Power of Human Versatility is an important book, which challenges current thinking about specialization in education, careers, human development, and social and cultural transformation.

It is also tedious, repetitive, at times boring, and at other times not quite relevant.

Ahmed’s burden is to encourage greater diversity in education and personal development, in the belief – which I share – that more perspectives on problems, challenges, and issues are better than the narrow solutions typically suggested by specialists.

Throughout history, polymaths – men and women of wide learning and achievement – have contributed great good to the world; however, today’s emphasis on specialization threatens to make the polymath a thing of the past.Polymaths are characterized by distinct traits: individualism; curiosity about many things; intelligence, so as to understand ideas from many disciplines and relate them to one another; versatility, or the ability to do many things often at the same time; creativity; unity or skill in integrating disparate disciplines and ideas into a coherent whole; and revolution, or the tendency to foment change. They are able to “see more unity in diversity than we can readily discern. They are better at seeing relationships, analogies, commonalities, affinities, relevancies, underlying causalities, structural unities…True polymath involves a unique and improbable blend of incorrigible ambition, undeterability, imagination, openness, and humility.”

Polymaths have existed in all times, cultures, and vocations. The author cites numerous examples of polymaths from the past whose contributions in their day were significant. These stories, inserted throughout the book and repeated in a kind of polymaths hall of fame at the end, sound like the next verse of the same song which you didn’t want to hear again. Some examples of polymathic behavior are offered from primitive cultures, as if returning to the bush might be one of the benefits of this lifestyle. The repetition of these stories and examples feels like filler in a book that could have made its important argument in 1/3 the space.

But his point is a good one, especially for Christian leaders. Anyone can adopt a polymathic lifestyle, and more of us should. Those who aspire to such a mindset should chart their own course, rather than look to existing educational structures for help. We should pursue broad learning and try our hand at many different efforts, rather than just slip into the groove of ministry as we’ve always understood it. We need more generalists who can apply the Gospel creatively to all kinds of situations, and fewer specialists whose claim to fame is the ability readily to distinguish between a daghes lene and a daghes forte. “Philosophically, the polymathic mindset allows for a bigger, rounded, interconnected picture of the world, serving as an antidote to the disjointed way in which most people (both laymen and so-called intellectuals) currently view it.”

The Church could use more leaders with such vision and skills.


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