The Golden Age of the Polymath, An Islamic Perspective
Humanities cuts announced by the Government. Are we surprised? A reinforcement of a Government committed to robbing us of our ‘intellect’. The government is insistent on narrowing down our abilities through increased specialization and vocationalisation. It wants to develop incurious producers whose sole purpose is to add direct foreseeable revenue to our economy.
It is this contemporary thinking that leads us to compartmentalise our skills, ‘doctor’ or ‘lawyer’, ‘artist’ or ‘banker’. What happened to Polymaths who were standard in the Golden Age?
Definition; A person who excels in or is an expert a significant number of different subject areas. The concept was coined during a period where numerous great thinkers excelled in multiple fields of the arts and science, As an accomplished Leon Battista Alberti said(1404–1472) “a man can do all things if he will.”
In early Islamic civilization there was no single authority that controlled the educational system. Education was, however, considered compulsory and more worthy than any form of superogatory worship. The purpose of education was to equip an individual to be an upstanding citizen in every facet of daily life and to create an individual consciously aware of his responsibilities to the world, to society and to his Lord. The Islamic view is that only through knowledge can one understand the benefits that his Lord has given him and so be in a state of obedience. This importance on knowledge is so great that scholars remark it is an obligation ‘fard’ to seek knowledge and scholarly opinion stretches to describe the lack of many Muslims knowledge of the Arabic language as akin to them being in a state of intoxication when reading the Quran or making their ritual prayers. This would invalidate the prayer.
The Prophet ﷺ is the archetype, who through intimate knowledge became a physician, judge, arbitrator, lawyer, healer and counselor. A famously quoted saying of hisﷺ was ‘and seek education from birth to death even if it is in China’ (China being deemed to be a distant place). That education was to be broad and cover astronomy, law, theology, poetry, science, philosophy and particularly encourage the etiquettes of learning. This in itself brings about mastery in an individual. Taking poetry as an example, a famous scholar Imam Al-Ghazali describes the learning of poetry as fundamental to developing the use of rhetoric, the ability to be eloquent and to speak succinctly, which, in itself would develop an individual’s character. Greek, Roman & all classical education systems placed emphasis on memorizing poetry for this reason. Quintillian highlights this in his Educational theories where he says ‘There is no foundation for the complaint that only a small minority of human beings have been given the power to understand what is taught to them, the majority being so slow-witted that they waste time and labor. On the contrary, you will find that the greater number quick to reason and prompt to learn. This is natural to man: as birds are born for flying, horses for speed, beasts of prey for ferocity, so are we for mental activity and resourcefulness.’
It was this system that led to the rise of scientists and the flourishing of the rational sciences in the Golden Age and subsequently was reflected in the prosperity of the Islamic Empire (the longest running empire in history, lasting over 600 years). Mathematicians, astronomers, physicians, engineers and other kinds of scientists were abundant. The system conformed to the law of supply and demand but this wasn’t the sole purpose of education. Education was one of our fundamental obligations as individuals in order to develop our potential and was sought for itself and not for a particular job, status or position in society, which we have seen has become a distinct difference in purpose today.
We know three things about intelligence, we know it is diverse, that it is dynamic and interactive. The brain isn’t divided into compartments. Creativity more often than not comes through the interaction of different disciplinary ways of doing something. The 3rd thing about intelligence is that it is distinct. Time and again, innovations come from a fresh eye or from another discipline. Most scientists devote their careers to solving the everyday problems in their specialism. Everyone knows what they are and it takes ingenuity and perseverance to crack them. But breakthroughs more often come from other fields. The studies in the early 20th century indicating how nerves work and, later, how DNA is structured originally came from a marriage of physics and biology.
Well known Polymaths who had great impact on our civilization today include Ibn Sina (Avicenna), al-Razzi, and Husayn bin Ishak al-Ibadi, who developed the medical sciences. Razi (860-940) is reported to have written 200 books on medicine, one of them on medical ethics, and the Hawi, a 25 volume practical encyclopedia. Ibn Sina (980-1037) became a famed physician at 18 who wrote 16 books. His corpus also includes writing on philosophy, astronomy, alchemy, geology, psychology, Islamic theology, logic, mathematics, physics, as well as poetry. He is regarded as the most famous and influential polymath of the Islamic Golden Age.
Recent studies and discussions through platforms such as Ted have started to voice grave concerns about our current system of education and what we value as ‘intelligence’. There is deep concern that we are genuinely killing creativity.
We are being institutionalised and having our intelligence ‘dumbed down ‘through a serial form of programming’ or as Sir Ken Robinson (recognized leader in the development of education, creativity and innovation) describes it as ‘education’.
In his Ted presentation ‘Schools kill creativity he says, ‘We see extraordinary evidence of human creativity’ and ‘All kids have tremendous talents and we squander them ruthlessly’. Picasso said ‘all children are born as Artists, the problem is to remain artists when we grow up’. What concerns me and should concern all of us is that we are effectively educating children out of creativity and this is being done at an institutional level.
The most alarming statistic Sir Ken provides is from a study on divergent thinking published in Breakpoint and Beyond. It doesn’t surprise me in the slightest and is something I’ve been advocating for years. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0962660523?ie=UTF8&tag=dradowthevis-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0962660523
Divergent thinking is the ability to think of many answers to a specific problem, this is the first step to problem solving before we get analytical and make the best decision. 98% of 1500 kindergartners scored at the genius level for divergent thinking. Their scores dropped dramatically as they progressed in the education system i.e. as they were ‘educated’. This shows us two things, that we all have this innate potential and that it mostly deteriorates. We are therefore becoming ‘dumber’ and I definitely speak from personal experience. As a child I was on track to be a great polymath scoring 99% in virtually all subjects, winning every Mathematics, science, English and Spelling award there was. However, as I progressed through the system I genuinely found myself losing the desire and ability to maintain this standard. I got ‘bored’ of the education I was being taught.
The UK Education system is one of the most prescriptive in educating out of creativity. Students are made to select 3 or 4 subjects by A-level. I still fought this – starting with 5 A-levels (the old pre 2001 Al-levels) and to date I’m sure if the teaching and methods had been different I may have been able to excel at all 5. They were diverse from Physics to Mathematics to Psychology to Electronics and so really would have offered me a great foundation for a polymath career!
Carl Djerassi, possibly one of the few polymaths existing today describes the UK system as a mistake, “There’ll be students here at age 16 or 17 who are much better than many Americans at French or maths or something, but abysmally ignorant in another area,” he says. “We really preach intellectual monogamy more and more in this day and age.’ Children in schools are repeatedly told there is one answer, and it’s at the back of the book, and you’re not to copy or look because this would be cheating. This systematic programming isn’t the fault of the teachers but it is destroying the fabric of a productive society, which is based on ‘looking’ and working together, otherwise known as collaboration outside schools.
So how did we end up where we are? Modern education as we know it now was coined only in the 19th Century and as a system designed to meet the needs of industrialism. It is only natural then that it will seek to develop a core type of character, one that suits the needs of the market. We as humans are now considered as just a commodity to fill market demands. Schools are a production line. Robinson says ‘Our minds have been mined the way we mine the earth for a particular commodity’ The broader concept and appreciation of Education as a fundamental virtue not for a means to an end but as an end in itself has been lost. This is a distinct shift in thinking from days past.
Our system is designed to create an individual to do a job and go home and indulge in enjoyment and usurpation of the world solely for his pleasure in the rest of his time. Thought is dangerous to the power structure of our society. Hence we are consistently distracted from it by entertainment and consumption. The education system itself naturally stigmatizes certain subjects as more important than others. So sciences and maths are given more attention than the humanities and then Arts and Music as subjects which, are more likely to lead to direct economic employment.
Even if you somehow manage to escape or regain some shred of creativity after the attempts to institutionalize and educate you out of creativity and you decide you want to be writer and a lawyer and an economist, you end up in the same dilemma. The society we live in today just doesn’t believe in the idea that any individual can be a polymath. We live in the age of the cult of the monomath. According to today’s theory of knowledge it simply isn’t possible to be a specialist in numerous areas. Knowing things makes you weird not powerful. We have an engrained idea about our purpose and what we should all be like. Monomaths are not just the new standard, but the only realistic possibility, writing off those who wish to specialize in a number of areas ‘dabblers’. As described by Edward Carr of (The Economist) (http://moreintelligentlife.com/content/edward-carr/last-days-polymath)
These monomaths are also unwilling to let new polymaths enter their industry. The monomaths have developed cults erecting barricades to fend off the generalists and convince themselves that what they are doing is really difficult and challenging. They do this through creation of specialized vocabularies and develop what they regard as rigorous methodologies, often mathematical. For someone who hasn’t spent as many years in this area to come in and criticize them, this would be simply too hard to swallow.
As a Muslim I find this unfamiliar territory. I appreciate the high virtue that is seeking knowledge in every corner of the Earth and am striving to constantly ‘reducate’ myself. We need to understand the richness of human capacity. We are gifted with intellect and we have to be careful to use that gift wisely, that’s our responsibility. As humans we are the cause of the state of our world today and the destruction and suffering we are seeing. Whilst we are alive we still have an opportunity to effect change, so let’s pin our hopes on our children and help to educate them to retain their creativity and multifaceted skills. As Jonah sulk described so accurately of our state today; ‘if all the insects were to disappear from the earth then within 50 years all life on earth would end If all human beings disappeared from the earth within 50 years all forms of life would flourish.’
‘We were born with wings,
You were born with potential
You were born with goodness and trust
You were born with ideals and dreams
You were born with greatness