The Great Straddlers as Successors to the Renaissance Man

By Steven B. Sample
[The 15th annual Pullias Lecture, delivered at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, on March 13, 1993. Dr. Sample, tenth president of the University of Southern California, is a nationally respected educator, administrator, engineer, and inventor. -- Ed.]

In his beautiful translation of Dante's Divine Comedy, the contemporary American poet John Ciardi includes at the end of each canto a number of intriguing footnotes that explain Dante's myriad technical and literary allusions. Ciardi's footnotes and the text itself make it clear that Dante was not only a gifted poet and man of letters, well versed in theology, history, politics, and classical literature, but that he was equally conversant with such scientific fields as astronomy, geography, trigonometry, and spherical geometry.

Dante was an early example of that extraordinarily broad and creative intellect which we have come to call the Renaissance Man. Could such a man or world exist today? Can we even conceive of a major poet in our own time whose understanding of contemporary science and mathematics would be the equal of Dante's in the 14th century?

The answer of course is no. Many factors have contributed to the demise of the Renaissance Man over the past century and a half, not the least of which have been the spectacular success of the Ph.D. degree and the professionalization of scholarship and research within the modern university. These innovations signaled the start of a trend that is even more pronounced today -- the increasing compartmentalization of faculty and the concomitant specialization of knowledge. For the essential concept behind the Ph.D. degree, and behind the faculty member who holds it, is that no person can know everything, and therefore it is better to know one thing extremely well than to attempt to know many things superficially.

This increasing shift toward specialization led inevitably to the abandonment of the classical curriculum throughout American higher education. But there were more subtle changes brought about by the encouragement within the academy of research, scholarship, and the scientific method. Knowledge was no longer associated with virtue, nor with religion or gentlemanly ways. Instead, knowledge became associated with power, wealth, prosperity, and political dominance. Indeed, during World War II academic knowledge in the sciences and engineering became one of the principal instruments of war and one of the primary factors in the determination of military superiority.

All of these developments aided and abetted the widening division between things literary and things scientific. Those who valued the old curriculum and literary ways became increasingly divorced from those who valued science and the search for technological knowledge. This growing rift was identified in our own time most succinctly by C. P. Snow in his well-known 1950s essay on "The Two Cultures": "Literary intellectuals at one pole, and at the other, scientists . . . and between the two, a gulf of mutual incomprehension."

Of course Snow is right. We all know of literary graduates who are essentially ignorant of quantitative science in any form. And most of us have heard the joke about the engineer who thought The Iliad was some sort of lower back pain. We do in fact live in an age of increasing estrangement between the disciplines in the arts and the disciplines in the sciences.

But what is even more apparent is that we live in an age of increasing specialization. We no longer think of an accountant per se as a specialist; we no longer think even of a tax accountant as a specialist; instead, it is the real estate tax accountant who today rates the accolade of specialist. In my own discipline it sometimes takes three or four adjectives to define the precise area of electrical engineering that one inhabits. And the same phenomenon obtains in the literary disciplines. Is there such a thing anymore as a scholar of English literature? Perhaps; but specialization in literary studies has been so compounded by theory and method that few any longer can argue confidently outside a small subset of their peers.

Society in the latter half of the 20th century has come to worship the narrow, the focused, the specialized. And no wonder. Knowledge is being generated more rapidly today than in the past. The speed with which data can be processed and manipulated is increasing at an incredible rate, our capacity to store information is growing apace; new specializations are of necessity being formed every day. Most of the major academic research libraries in the United States subscribe to more than 20,000 periodicals and specialized journals, each of which supports a particular narrow area of research or scholarship.

In the past 150 years we have lost not only the possibility of broad and integrated knowledge, we have lost even the myth of it. Few if any of us claim to be broadly educated across the arts and sciences, much less across the professions. Indeed, the various disciplines within the arts and sciences appear to go their own ways with relatively little concern for, or connection with, their fellows.

In fact, many of the disciplines in the arts and sciences seem determined to imitate the professions, cloaking themselves in their own special languages and methodologies as pretenses to self-sufficiency. In an intellectual world in which knowledge is not viewed as interconnected, it is understandable that the liberal arts and sciences should increasingly follow what seems to be the most viable alternative model -- that of the professional schools. But in so doing they forsake their catholic origins and perspective for the relative security of introspection and self-validation.

Most universities still recognize the centrality of the arts and sciences in some ways, most crucially in the way in which they define and organize undergraduate education. But we as faculty do not in our own intellectual lives submit to the discipline of truly liberal learning, and we certainly impose no general education requirement upon ourselves. Practically none of us are driven by the hope of being scholars of the arts and sciences as such. Of course one might argue, in the manner of Leibniz, that the disintegration of knowledge in the 20th century, and especially in the past four decades, has been both beneficial and inevitable. But I would disagree. The present times cry out for a reintegration of knowledge and for a reestablishment of the intellectual leadership of liberal learning within the academy. Moreover, I believe that a reintegration of knowledge within American higher education is well within the realm of possibility.

Indeed, there has probably not been anyone since Goethe who could plausibly lay claim to knowing everything there was to know at a particular time. And yet, in accepting the impossibility of universal knowledge in our own day, we must be careful not to dismiss those who attempt to be genuinely broad and versatile thinkers -- the decathlon athletes of contemporary thought. Is it possible to conceive of such people as our intellectual heroes, and not simply as freaks and dilettantes? I think it is important that we try. We must reaffirm the unity of the university in relation to its intellectual core, and encourage the reunification of the parts of that core, even within the reality of an explosive expansion in knowledge.

In his oration "The American Scholar" delivered in 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson offered a vision of human wholeness in which he repeated the fable of the One Man:

the gods, in the beginning, divided Man into men, that he might be more helpful to himself; just as the hand was divided into fingers, the better to answer its end.
. . . In the divided or social state these functions are parcelled out to individuals, each of whom aims to do his stint of the joint work, whilst each other performs his. The fable implies that the individual, to possess himself, must sometimes return from his own labor to embrace all the other laborers. . . . The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters, -- a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man.

The One Man was, in the Emersonian vision, in need of being gathered back into his single transcendent identity. That fable suited an era in which, as Emerson believed, the division of labor in society was the chief threat to the completeness and unity of the human spirit.

In our time, the threat comes not so much from our specialized labors as from the nature and extent of human knowledge itself. Thus our ideal might be, not the Emersonian One Man who individually incorporates all human capacity and all human knowing, but instead the person who works deeply and productively in two or three disciplines which are not contiguous in the current geography of thought -- in English literature and physics, for example, or in pure mathematics and anthropology, or in political science and music. Perhaps such people should share some of the honors and attention that are now reserved almost exclusively for the single-minded specialists among us.

Why only two or three fields? First, because learning that many disciplines deeply and well is about all that is humanly possible today. But more importantly, because the object should not be just breadth in the old sense -- not just coverage, or well-roundedness. Rather, our principal object should be the unpredictable release of intellectual energy which occurs by connecting within one mind two widely separated fields of thought.

To find the more recent heroes of this process of intellectual integration, we must look to the Great Straddlers: to Thomas Jefferson in the 18th century, who made significant contributions in political theory, architecture, agronomy, and higher education; to Charles Darwin in the 19th century, who brought Malthusian economic theory to bear on the puzzle of evolutionary change in the biological world; and to Ilya Prigogine in our own century, whose Nobel Prize-winning work in chemistry led him to explore even larger questions in philosophy and literature.

At the boundaries and bridgings between separated fields of knowledge, dramatic things can happen. And even where there is not the reward of major discovery, there is at least the promise of a daring and exciting encounter as we seek in our minds to overcome the distance and sustain the tension between disparate ideas and modes of thinking.

Several years ago I was privileged to see a special exhibit of some of the original works of Leonardo da Vinci, who lived and worked during the Italian Renaissance when Western culture was in the midst of an explosion of art, science, and technology. During various parts of his life Leonardo was a military engineer. He became familiar with mechanics, studied optics, and wrote treatises on descriptive geometry. He also studied physiology and anatomy, along with color, form, and balance.

The genius of Leonardo was that he was able to integrate these disciplines in a marvelously sensitive and insightful way. As a consequence he is remembered today as one of the world's most important artists -- not just as one who created beautiful things, but as an artistic pioneer who had a major influence on subsequent generations of artists for hundreds of years.

I spent many enjoyable hours looking at the works of Leonardo in this exhibit. Again and again I was impressed by the breadth of his mind. His was not a superficial breadth; he was neither a superficial engineer nor a superficial anatomist, nor did he possess only a superficial knowledge of color and composition. On the contrary, he was able to comprehend a wide range of ideas in great depth, and bring them together in a way that serves as a paradigm for liberal learning to this day.

We in our time would do well to take as our model the Renaissance Man and his latter day successors, the Great Straddlers. We should of course continue to value academic specialization and the important intellectual contributions of the professional schools. But all of us in the academy, irrespective of profession or discipline, must work assiduously for the reintegration of knowledge and the reestablishment of truly liberal learning as the coherent intellectual core of the university. Encouraging more students and faculty to straddle two or three widely separated fields of knowledge is a good place to start.

  • (From Sunrise magazine, October/November 1996. Copyright © 1996 by Theosophical University Press.)

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