Column | Jan. 7

The decline of the Renaissance man

In 1829, Thomas Young, hailed “the last man who knew everything,” died, taking with him an era in which the polymath reigned supreme. During his lifetime, Young established the existence of light waves through his famous double-slit interference experiment, wrote several works in linguistics, helped develop the concept of Young’s modulus in materials science, contributed to the decoding of the Rosetta Stone and even entered the life insurance business. During Young’s time, the world population was less than an eighth of what it is today, with a smaller proportion literate and educated, collaborations were more difficult, and it was easier to make discoveries and significant contributions to several different fields.

Today, the growing population, the Internet and more widespread education have accelerated the rate of advancement in any field exponentially. This in turn makes merely having a workable basis of knowledge in any field much harder. For example, any research chemist nowadays must have extensive training in lab techniques and technology that didn’t exist a hundred years ago, not just theoretical knowledge. A historian has access to more and more documents through electronic means, increasing the detail of his knowledge and thus narrowing his field of study. There is no such thing as a polymath in the modern age; the closest cousin would be a dilettante or a dabbler — a “jack of all trades, but a master of none.”

The specialization of knowledge explains several fields branching into subcategories — for instance, biology into biochemistry, physical biology, neurobiology, etc. In our increasingly specialized world, it is hard for people with a humanities focus to jump into the technical sector, and vice versa. The vice versa is less talked about simply because the state of our current job economy, and the projected economy in the future is increasingly reliant upon technical jobs.

Looking at our current trajectory, the majority of top jobs in 2022 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics will be specialized, technical roles. In these roles, it’s much harder for humanities majors to adapt their skills — these types of jobs require specific, fundamental knowledge, such as higher-level math and programming. According to the New York Times article “A Decline That Makes Economical Sense,” this explains the decrease in humanities majors. Harvard, another New York Times article states, experienced a 20 percent decline in undergraduate humanities majors over just the past decade.

A recent Business Insider article repeats some of the common defenses for the preservation of humanities majors: they actually better prepare you for a technical job, because “you actually learn how to think and write … there are enough poorly written emails in the world already” or “degree and GPA matters less, emotional intelligence, data and skills matter more.” This is an untenable defense because technical jobs have concrete requirements, just as becoming an English professor has concrete requirements. It is an insult to say that a humanities major’s skills are limited to writing better emails in a technical or managerial job. An extensive education in the humanities is meant for so much more than as a marginal side-advantage in an unrelated field.

Even though most humanities majors can’t feasibly jump into technical jobs, research and academic positions that are meant for humanities majors are vitally important in a social context. The humanities are about questioning social tenets, about making people think about what they value, which is equally as important as any other major. The decline in the number of humanities majors does not reflect a decline in their social importance, but simply reflects the current job economy.

Continuing with the trend of the decline of the Renaissance man, jobs will only become more and more specialized, and a basic working knowledge of any field may approach encyclopedic proportions. In turn, majors will become more and more indicative of the type of job you can qualify for after graduation. That’s not to say we shouldn’t continue to try to diversify our knowledge. In spite of specialization, it’s important to remember that preparing for a job is not the only reason we learn things. Even though perhaps there will never be another true polymath to the extent of Thomas Young, it should not stop engineering majors from taking a humanities class, or a humanities major from taking an engineering class. In our increasingly specialized world, that is the only thing keeping us from becoming singular encyclopedia articles.

Barbara Zhan is an Operations Research and Financial Engineering major from Plainsboro, N.J. She can be reached at barbaraz@princeton.edu.

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