Academic ‘X-Factor’ names intellectual rising stars

Ten of Britain's most promising intellectuals have been named winners of a competition to identify academic talent. They are brilliant thinkers, but where are the polymaths?

Corin Throsby, who has just been named as one of Britain's most promising academics, studies the history of fanmail. Rachel Hewitt is an expert on a single decade of history – the 1790s. The special subject of Alexandra Harris is the way being chilly affects English art.

Along with seven others, they have been named by an X-factor style competition as the next generation of public intellectuals – the successors to the professors and academics who dominate the airwaves today. It is hoped that these young thinkers can use their passion for their subjects and their excellent communication skills to inspire TV and radio audiences for decades to come.

But, looking through the list, one thing is striking. The specialist subjects of all these academics are remarkably narrow, covering often only one tiny aspect of literature or the arts, or a historical period counted in years rather than decades or centuries.

This is a big contrast with the great thinkers of the past. Ancient Greek philosophers were often experts in science, maths, politics, history, geography and literature. Leonardo da Vinci was an inventor and engineer as well as a great artist. In the 19th Century, Thomas Young made groundbreaking discoveries in physics, biology, engineering and linguistics – his biographer calls him 'the last man who knew everything'.

Of course, we knew much less about arts and science in the 19th Century than we do today.

Committed students in Victorian England could hope to read every book that had ever been written on a subject in just a few years of hard work. These days, it would probably take the same amount of time to read even a single month's worth of published scientific papers.

Meanwhile, the number of academic experts in the world has grown a thousand fold. To make new discoveries and find fresh territory for study is harder than ever.

This is bad news for polymaths – people who are expert in many different disciplines. Instead, it encourages people to become super-specialists, whose knowledge is not broad, but very deep.

Deep or shallow

Is that a cause for sadness or celebration? There's certainly something attractive about the ideal of the polymath – someone who can effortlessly stride from one subject to another. Polymaths are masters of the big picture.

On the other hand: is it better to be deep than broad? Polymaths might have the glamour, with their sweeping range of vision. But it's super-specialists who do the hard, painstaking work of pushing the boundaries of human knowledge deeper into the unknown.

You Decide

  1. Is there any value to learning for its own sake? Or is it only useful when it brings practical advantages?
  2. In most English schools, pupils are asked to specialise early, by choosing to concentrate on only a few subjects for A-levels. Is that a good system, or should pupils be allowed to study more subjects in less depth?

Activities

  1. What would your specialist subject be? Identify what it is – however unusual – and then make a short presentation about it to your class.
  2. Read more about Leonardo da Vinci – the ultimate polymath – and the intellectual climate of the renaissance. Write a short article to report your findings.

Some People Say...

“Some knowledge is just pointless.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why would anyone study fanmail?
Partly because it's new, but also because it's probably very interesting. And although these academics have narrow specialist subjects, they'll know a lot about the bigger picture too.
Why is that relevant?
It's generally true that the more you know about a broad area, the more interesting small questions within that area become. Fanmail might not mean much to an ordinary person, but to someone who's studied the wider context (for example, the evolution of letter-writing) it might be a fascinating part in a larger jigsaw puzzle of knowledge.
And is there any point to all this?
Depends what you mean. It won't make money or cure diseases, but curiosity is part of human nature. All these academic questions, however small, help us understand a little bit more about ourselves.

Word Watch

Academics
Academics are people who make a profession out of teaching and studying. The word comes from the name of a place where the Greek philosopher Plato used to meet his students: the Grove of Academus, outside Athens, Greece.
Public intellectuals
People who are famous as thinkers, and communicate complicated ideas to the public.
Leonardo da Vinci
A great scientist and artist of the Italian Renaissance. He painted the Mona Lisa and his inventions include self propelled automobiles and a concept sketch for an early helicopter.
Victorian England
England during the reign of Queen Victoria, which lasted from 1837-1901. It was a great period for British science and learning.

Subjects

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