One of the most frustrating things about going on to a higher education is to find yourself forced into narrower and narrower channels of specialisation. At fifteen a wonderful world of sciences, arts and humanities lies at your feet. At twenty they’ve cut you down to a biologist. Your doctorate will be in some tiny enzyme system in one obscure organism, and if you’re doing your job properly you will only know as much about art, history,other sciences or the racing results as the bloke next to you on the train. The brain works, but the heart and soul have long since shrivelled.
The last person to defy this tyranny was the German thinker Johan Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832). Owner of a life so long he encompassed most of the Enlightenment and Romantic periods, he was a successful playwright, novelist, politician, theatre director and lawyer. In science he made important contributions in geology, botany and optics. If everything else he did was burned, Faust alone would stand as a literary milestone for the ages. Either he was the most intelligent and hard working man who ever lived, or he was great at delegating. We’ll leave you to find out. *
But ultimately, he it was who answered the specialisation problem. “Only everybody can know the truth” he said. He recognised that the specialist, beavering away in their laboratory, has a vital, but limited role. There is just too much to learn for anyone to be good except at a tiny part of it. And even the specialist’s knowledge, be it of poker moves or forensic DNA analysis will be partial and subjective. Because they are human, too. But by creating a collective science mobilising everybodies’ experience and work, then the best of everything is available to everyone. You only have to go to the journals or on the internet to ask. Good criminal justice is an example of this, where a court will use enough of the learning of lawyers, scientists, witnesses and ordinary people on the jury to arrive at a satisfactory outcome. We can never have another polymath as awesome as Goethe. But if we educate enough people, we won’t need them.
Here’s your jumping off point, but be warned-you could spend a lifetime with this guy
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – Wikipedia
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