We are not sure why, but we were not aware of the term “Polymath” until recently. Even the term is a little confusing because of the “math” portion of the word. Polymath comes from the Greek “polymathes” meaning “having learned much.” A polymath is a person who is blessed with a wide range of interests, and who develops expertise in several different disciplines. Many of these individuals are also in the category of autodidacts, self-educated people who find a specific area of interest that appeals to them and to which they can concentrate their learning efforts.
If you ask most people who they consider to be the smartest person in history many if not most would say Leonardo DaVinci. He was widely known for his expertise in painting, sculpture, development of military machines, interest in anatomy, and his natural curiosity in just about everything of interest. When we get to modern day polymaths, say the past 250 years, the list of polymaths narrows considerably in our opinion.
Our younger citizens might list Bill Gates or Steve Jobs in the group of polymaths, but we place them in the category of autodidact and not polymaths because of their single focus on computing and technology. They dig deeply into their area of expertise, but not widely like many polymaths.
Who have we seen as polymaths since the founding of the United States? The answer is many and they have had a disproportionate influence on our lives. We are a nation of immigrants, so we include in this list immigrants that embraced the spirit of America and understood the unique advantages we have living in a free society. Many came here specifically to pursue interests that in their native country would not have been possible. Here is our list, and it is a brief list as it should be, and why we selected them.
Benjamin Franklin – Self-educated, with a wide range of knowledge, interests, and accomplishments from politics to science, to anatomy. He created fields of science that did not exist before his experiments. He was in many ways the epitome of the American of his era.
Franklin was also selfless and worked to create inventions that improved mankind without regard to profit. Had he only patented the lightning rod he would have died much wealthier.
Thomas Jefferson – Self-educated, wide range of expertise from agriculture to politics, to science, to religion. Largely credited with the Declaration of Independence and the creation of our republic as the resurrection of a lasting form of government.
Jefferson is one of the giants of history that many critics stand on to offer criticism of our government and the Founding Fathers. He was a giant of thought and creativity and without him the world would have little to no vision of what a democratic republic would look like nor how it should function.
Albert Einstein – Formally educated, but self-taught in the areas of science he ultimately pursued and mastered. He created a new branch of physics that later spawned even more branches of science. Every branch of science he spawned went on to transform the world as it was known.
We have a great deal of admiration for individuals who can create something from nothing, or new branches of science where none existed before. Without Einstein our world would be very different, and not different for the better.
His courage to flee Nazi Germany to come to America changed the world.
Nikola Tesla – A Serbian immigrant who came to the United States for opportunity and to pursue interest in electricity specifically. Invented the use of alternating current, wireless transmission, and a host of other technologies with almost 300 patents worldwide. His genius was so broad that we are still debating his declarations of possible inventions. We suspect his understanding of the future was a bit better than ours.
Tesla also gets our vote because he stood against the tides of criticism and had the confidence in his own abilities to pursue new invention. Repeatedly people took advantage of his genius for their gain, but his motivation was science and not profit.
Elon Musk – A South African immigrant who came here because of opportunity. He is the only person we would separate from modern geniuses because of his broad areas of interest and demonstrated competence. He has shown proficiency in financial payment systems, electrical/battery technology, automobile production, space technology, satellite technology, and visualization of life on Mars.
Few of us can operate on his intellectual level, and we know of no one else who is functioning with his level of competence and success in changing the lives of people worldwide.
What is interesting to us is that the list is so short. We live in an era where almost all the knowledge in the world is available to everyone, all the time. Given this unprecedented access to knowledge, why are there not more emerging polymaths and autodidacts? Well maybe there are a few out there percolating and processing information in ways we cannot fathom.
But for sure with all the access to knowledge and information, we are not taking advantage of the opportunities. Our schools are focused on social issues, and parents must seek additional learning opportunities to keep children from falling behind. Teachers are focused on many things that have nothing to do with teaching.
Too much of our computing power is being wasted on gaming and social media. With unprecedented computing power in the hands of our youth, they are preoccupied with nonsense like TikTok and making videos of themselves in a never-ending cycle of narcissism. If we want to produce more polymaths, then we need a dramatic shift in education, led by parents and not government aligned educators.
And before everyone goes WOKE on us, if we were making a list of geniuses the list would be much longer, include many people of other races, and many women. But we are distinguishing between geniuses and polymaths, and this is our short list. Your list may be different, and that is fine with us. You will notice that since Jefferson and Franklin we can think of no political polymaths, and we need some.