Polymath

MASA_PolymathsI despair at the raging stupidity that dominates so much of civic conversation these days. We are 40+ years into the “sound bite” era, where everything has been reduced to 10-second cliches. But it has turned for the worse, if that is possible, for last, perhaps 15 years, and this political season seems intent on driving us to a collective bottom.

So I have been tuning the public sphere out. I shouldn’t, of course, but I need my sanity. So I am listening to cultural and sports podcasts, binge-watching good television, trying to read and write more (with modest success), and tending more to family and home. These are not bad things. Where I do intersect with public debate, I choose my spots carefully. I never watch television “news” and I have even stopped listening to NPR news. So I read, very selectively, and keep it to really just a few minutes a day.

What especially galls me is that today’s media celebrate ignorance and anger. Science is “debated” by non-scientists. Foreign countries are discussed, angrily of course, by people who couldn’t even find them on a map. Comments on news sites and blogs are overwhelmed with anger, name-calling, racism, and worse. Reasonable voices are overrun or have disappeared.

This got me thinking of a colleague I had years ago who was truly a polymath, which Webster’s concisely defines as “someone who knows a lot about many things.” My colleague Neal was exactly this. A brilliant engineer, he was given relatively free reign in a department of engineers to craft his own projects, propose them to management, and build them. This was a point in my career where I was working for a military contractor, and our work was secret, so you have to trust me that his ideas were outside-the-box, creative, and still incredibly useful. He had a knack to be able to look at something very big and incredibly expensive (in our case, radar systems) and come up with something low-cost and incredibly useful. He would design it, supervise the manufacturing and fabrication, work with me to write the documentation, and make great drawings and charts that would explain highly complex things in really useful ways.

And that was just his day job.

This was the early 1980s, when PCs were just emerging and teams of secretaries were giving way, so of course Neal was one of the first people to own a PC, program on it, do his own word processing, and do his own graphics. He playfully shamed me into learning touch typing when I was still hunt-and-peck. He bought new toys like scanners and plotters, and helped us move from mechanical drawings to computer-based drawings. (Look up “Rapidograph” pens and “vellum paper” sometimes.) He knew my business better than I knew my business, and he was seeing years into the future at a time when I was still making sure my pants matched my shirt.

One day I learned Neal did his own eye exams and made his own eye glasses. If I hadn’t known him well already, I wouldn’t have believed it, but I did, and it somehow made perfect sense. Ben Franklin did it, so why not Neal? He sculpted in wood–well enough that he sold his work. But my favorite story was when he traveled to West Germany and asked for–and received–permission to go to East Germany because there were certain paintings in museums there that he really wanted to see. He returned from the trip with a stack of photos (this was in the film days, of course), and he showed me picture after picture of painting after painting. His command of the topic and depth of understanding matched any great conversation I had had with professors back in college, and his enthusiasm was so genuine that I couldn’t help but join him in his obvious delight. He had overcome the Cold War to get to some paintings he really wanted to see, and he had preserved them in a way he could share them and enjoy them whenever he wanted.

We need some Neals in public life. We need highly educated, reasonable, thoughtful people. We need people who appreciate a broad range of things–who think deeply about their own field and widely about many other things. People who take a pleasure in their work and in their interests. People who genuinely enjoy things and who want to share what they enjoy with others.

Let’s have some of that, shall we?

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