Back in 1991 I took a combined honours in English literature, art history and fine art. At the time my university made all of its students take an additional subject in the first year, with the threat/promise that our marks in this subject would count towards our degree. I chose computer science – because I was young and idealistic and had no idea how weird that looked in combination with my arts specialisms. To his credit, the computer science tutor let me sign up, albeit with a roll of the eyes.

I only managed to scrape by as a Pascal programmer, but I’m still glad I had that experience, which taught me a great deal about myself, as well as about technology. These days I hear people talk about the importance of students gaining a rounded education, but often this is often more of a wish than an initiative. I would never claim to be multi-talented (my programming was clunky at best) but when I thought back to this experience recently, it struck me how uncomfortable people are these days with crossing disciplinary boundaries.

The people who do this well we call polymaths. We love polymaths… when they are consigned to history, such as Leonardo Da Vinci; Marie Curie and Copernicus. But think how these people would be regarded today – possibly as weirdos, but certainly as ‘jacks of all trades and masters of none’.

The odd thing about arguments in favour of providing a rounded education is that polymathic ideals always seem flow in one direction. Scientists or business majors or economists must have the opportunity to experience the arts, but rarely are artists asked to engage with science. This has a lot to do with snobbery but, additionally, the arts are valued less, I think, even than when I studied them in the 1990s, because of society’s obsession with data and the illusion that worth can always be measured.

Clearly, the Renaissance was a fertile period for the multi-disciplined – a time of fluid identities – but by the 18th century, varied interests were tolerated rather than celebrated. Some of this was down to old-fashioned conformist social behaviour, but some was because of the rise of the ‘trade’ or profession.

From left to right: John Hill, Bertrand Russell, Goethe, Marie Curie and Copernicus. All images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Take the example of ‘Sir’ John Hill (c. 1714 to 1775). In mid-18th-century London, Hill occupied a dizzying number of professional guises – as apothecary, seller of quack medicines, actor, scientist, botanist, hack, pornographer, satirist, playwright and a ‘celebrity’ at a time when the idea was not quite fully formed. He was attractive and dapper, but also extravagant, vain, ignorant of social propriety. With a facility for speed-reading and speed-writing, he published pamphlets, plays and books on myriad subjects: an opera about Orpheus and Eurydice (1740); a translation of Theophrastus’s History of Stones (1746); an influential tract on acting (1750); a 26-volume work of botany called The Vegetable System (1759 to 1775) and many other things besides.

With the exception of his Order of the Vasa, bestowed by the King of Sweden, Hill was not lauded and was certainly never accepted by the British establishment (his title, Sir, is usually written with quotation marks to denote it as a foreign honour). In 1750, the Royal Society blocked Hill from a Fellowship, and he took revenge by publishing Lucina sine concubitu: A Letter Humbly Address’d to the Royal Society. This satire, which claimed that women could reproduce asexually, was an act of career suicide clothed in an astonishing display of polymathic brilliance. It drew on multiple sources including research into chicken-breeding ovens and William Wollaston’s theories on ‘seeds’ circulating in the air. It also cast the FRS as gullible, mediocre dunces. The pamphlet – which went viral – was written under a pseudonym, but everybody knew it was Hill (and even if they didn’t, when Hogarth published Beer Street in 1751 he mischievously included Hill on Royal Societies in a basket of books in the foreground). One of the interesting results of Hill’s hilarious pot-shot at the academy is that it triggered a much-needed analysis of academic standards, but it also shows that, even in the enlightened 18th century, polymaths could be outsiders.

Title and back page of Lucina sine concubitu. Wellcome Library, London.

It was another Georgian polymath, Adam Smith (1723-1790), who effectively put the nail in the coffin for multi-disciplinary thinking, albeit unintentionally. Smith (himself an economist, astronomer, philosopher and author) realised that the production of goods could be streamlined by the division of labour: a theory which he famously outlined in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). If a production process was broken down into its component parts and workers given a small task each, he wrote, this would raise productivity overall. However, he also noted that if workers are highly specialised, this could lead to boredom, low morale and mistakes.

Today, in a world geared towards experts and specialisms, we seem to have conveniently remembered the first part of Smith’s economic theory, but forgotten the second. Smith was serious in laying a responsibility on employers to develop workers and protect their mental health. Nowadays, much is talked about innovation within business, but it’s difficult to achieve where there is no cross-fertilisation and where people’s identities are defined by rigid professional silos (the same problem applies to scientific discovery). A look at the jamboree of specialised conferences, awards and professional accreditations available online today, not to mention the advice to job-seekers to tailor their CVs, is proof that polymaths are unwelcome in 21st-century businesses. The point is: erecting boundaries around work is a lucrative business in itself for some.

Our obsession with rationality is, I think, another reason why we have become less tolerant of polymaths. Metrics have narrowed our field of decision-making, not broadened it; nobody bothers to test things that are counter-intuitive (and it’s difficult to test across disciplinary boundaries anyway). Even the way that we consume information has become increasingly segmented and the current digital mantra is one of targeting; of specialism. Where we have gained a malleable workforce, what we have lost in terms of originality – and, crucially, the ability to compete – is massive. It is probably one of the greatest tragedies of our age that, as Robert Twigger has written, the average job is now done by someone “who is tunnel-visioned, a bore, but also a specialist, an expert. Welcome to the monopathic world, a place where only the single-minded can thrive”.