Justin Li


Homo Universalis

2008-12-01

What do Aristotle, Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, and Richard Feynman have in common? Aristotle, Franklin, and Feynman all made contributions to science (the development of logic, lightning rods, and quantum mechanics), da Vinci and Feynman are both artists (Mona Lisa, etc.; Feynman played bongo drums), all of them were writers, Aristotle and Franklin were both politicians.

They were all, in other words, polymaths and Renaissance men. I personally like the term "homo universalis" better, if only because it sounds cooler. According to Wikipedia, there is a difference between the two. Polymaths are people who have achievements in several fields, whereas Renaissance men are closer to an ideal, someone who "develop[s] his capacities as fully as possible" both mentally physically. Despite this meaning, I will use the term "homo universalis" to symbolize what these men present, as "polymath" sometimes has the negative connotation of a jack of all trades.

Aristotle, da Vinci, Franklin are all historical figures (Feynman died in 1988). I would now like to risk ridicule by naming a few people I know who are close to the ideal, although of course a lot less famous:

These people may not be experts in many different fields, but I feel they truly appreciate a wide span of academic fields. There are a number of other people who are interested in separate subjects in different fields, but are not as enthused as these four. I'm certain some of you reading this will question my judgment; I would love to have a conversation with you about people we know and whether and how they homo universalis.

It is not surprising for me to say, after this long an introduction, that I want to be a Renaissance man. This thought came up very strongly as I was writing my statement of purpose, and had to choose a field to elaborate on why it's important and why I want to study it. I've already mentioned my difficulty choosing between complex systems and symbolic learning, but in truth it's much more than that. Four years ago when I was applying to colleges for undergrad I already knew I was majoring in computer science, but I thought about getting a minor or a second major. I've seriously considered philosophy, mathematics, physics, psychology, and cognitive science, and although I didn't end up doing any of them, I've taken extra classes in all but physics. What I am getting is a certificate in engineering design, which is what my portfoliois for. I have done some art, although it's clearly inferior to a lot of other people's. Of course I need more work in the physical sciences as well as maths, but I definitely need the most work in politics and history, as well as classic literature.

Now that I'm done selling myself to you, I want to point out that from the large number of historical figures, I've only listed four. Similarly, from the many people I've gotten to know, I've also only listed four people. The truth is that homo universalis is few and far between, especially in the modern age when even single fields branch into numerous subfields. In Ancient Greece being a Renaissance man was a lot easier (apart from traveling into the future to be named a Renaissance man). Pythagoras believed that numbers were key to understanding God, and since mathematics was invariably linked to engineering and architecture, mastering mathematics already combines a large number of fields. Of course, during the Enlightenment, people like da Vinci were much more impressive; there was enough branching in human knowledge to so people have to work hard to be experts, but not so much branching that it's impossible to know everything.

Nowadays though, it's much harder to be a homo universalis. There are simply too many fields, and they require too much preparation, to excel at several at the same time. Just within computer science you can do research in knowledge bases, in human computer interaction, in machine learning, in information retrieval. The last can be further broken down in by method, say, linguistics or statistics. In the case of a linguistics approach to information retrieval, what you're studying is arguably an intersection between computer science, linguistics, sociology, and some statistics. This means to master IR, you need to study all four subjects, although only the aspects pertaining to IR. This in turn means, however, that what linguistics you know will not apply to, say, human language acquisition. Even within linguistics, as within all other fields, we specialize for depth while sacrificing breadth.

This is all summarized in the saying, "[in academics research] one learns more and more about less and less until one knows everything about nothing."

There is a problem with this kind of dissection of a topic. While it's true that IR is at the intersection of four or more fields, topics worth studying are not all like this. I think there are more interesting things when they are not so much inter-disciplinary (between displines) as multi-disciplinary (including several disciplines. Here are two questions which I think fit this nature:

There's a lot of philosophy in these questions, such as whether animals are intelligent or whether life is restricted to physical constructs. The first emcompases a large portion of cognitive science, neurology, artificial intelligence, as well as a smaller portion of fields like biology and chemistry. It would be much more interesting if the education system focused not on a discipline, but a question, and the goal of your school is to understand what the question is really asking, and learn subjects which aid in finding the answer.

Here is something I want to address: education. While I admit that today's fields are too diverse and too technical to be an expert at even several of them, I think something can be done at the education level to encourage the development of homo universalis qualities. The Chinese education system, as far as I understand, requires massive memorization of facts, which without the ability to use them is pointless. The British education system, on the other hand, asks students to pick broadly between sciences and literature in secondary chool. At the university level, they declare their majors when they apply, and have one curriculum with relatively few electives. In the US, there is more freedom in choosing what classes in high school, and are generally not required to pick a major until the second year of college. There are also the "liberal arts" colleges, where education aims for "imparting general knowledge and developing intellectual capabilities".

But I don't think any of these are the answer. None of these systems encourage the integration of different subjects, nor the development of interests within each field. The first is not within the definition of a universal man, but it is certainly an important part of excelling in any field. The second, however, is I think the greater sin. Required as one might be to take courses in different subjects, the prevalent attitude is to do the course for requirement's sake. Instead, I think education should focus on the student's curiosity. There has to be something that they want to know: if not how life started on earth, then how to more accurately predict baseball results.

It would be interesting, therefore, to see a curriculum like this. The first day of class, students write down what things they want to know, questions about the world. It can be related to anything, but they must write something down. The actual teaching material will then be determined from this list. I know this is infeasible, as it requires too much individual attention, and much more work on the teachers part. There's also the problem of some students writing things down which are really narrow. However, I think this will help develop students to be much more interested in the world, and for the kid who asks the right questions, really give them the chance to master the different fields.

That last part was really incoherent. In reality, questions like those I listed are almost impossible for any single person to answer, and so the homo universalis in the current age becomes labora universalis. In pursuit of being a better educated individual though, I suggest the following:

"Never let your schooling interfere with your education." - Mark Twain

Extra Reading:
How to Do What You Love - Paul Graham

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