Where have all the renaissance men gone?

I’ve been romantically attracted to the concept of the Renaissance wo/man: People who are well-educated and/or knowledgeable in a wide variety of activities.  It was the ideal of Renaissance Italy and showed the belief that people have limitless capacity to grow and develop and it’s the duty of each person to do so.  Jack of all intellectual pursuits and not necessarily master of any.  

Yet, I found this list of Renaissance Men and it’s curious that the list stops just after WWII:


Where did the Renaissance Man go?

The easy answer is that stems from the accelerating growth of branches of the tree of knowledge.  Even as late as the 1940s, it was possible to develop a proficiency in multiple sciences and humanities as the level of knowledge then matched only a first or second year college course today.  However, as science has continued to grow based upon the previously discovered knowledge, intimate knowledge of the sciences now takes years.  However, at the same time that the tree of knowledge has expanded, our lives have extended, so it seems likely that people could continue to develop in more than one field.

So, what’s the problem then?  What if it’s cultural?  If I look culturally today, when people are asked: “What would you like your kids to be when they grow up?”  People seem to always answer the skilled professionals: doctors, lawyers, professors.  Professions that have very in-depth knowledge of a single field.  Our ‘heroes’ in the media have detailed, in-depth knowledge of a single field as well: career politicians, athletes,  

But that can’t be the entire cause?  Perhaps it’s the institutions of learning themselves?  Universities are almost universally organized around the common tree of knowledge: Phd’s in Chemistry teach organic chemistry.  Physics teaches physics.  Poets teach poetry.  And so on.  People slide into “majors” and dive down the rabbit hole of knowledge there.

I don’t know the answer except to think that some of our greatest advances recently are those done by people comfortable with bridging across multiple areas of thought.  The most popular example these days is Steve Jobs and his unconventional studies at Reed in Oregon.  He attributed much of the Mac’s elegance to a calligraphy course he audited while there.   There are multiple other examples of greatness in people who had knowledge in many different areas.

So, I’m convinced that the world needs more Renaissance men.  It’s starting at the dinner table for me and the kiddos.  Any subject is up for grabs: finance, psychology, math, literature, art, technology, etc.  It should be fun.

Italicized footnote: “Polymath” is another term often used synonymously with Renaissance Man but slightly different as Renaissance Men embodied the Renaissance Ideal and the Renaissance man was expected to have profound knowledge in multiple, potentially unrelated fields.

Michael Girdley