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Michael Ferguson

Michael Ferguson
Executive Director


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education and lifestyles


The Polymathic Lifestyle

"Since everything is related, I can start anywhere.
I choose to start in the Bahamas."

         Douglas Adams, 1952-2001

One of our founders, like most polymaths, has a large and eclectic personal library. She and her husband are not the most fastidious librarians, so, at times, books get re-shelved in odd places. One day I was at their house and I noticed that a book about Friedrich Nietzsche was right next to a book about Erwin Schrodinger. I turned to them and asked, 'What am I to surmise from this? That which does not kill me, kills my cat?' If you got that, go directly to the Polymathica web page and join. That's an order. You are a full blown polymath.

I tend to socialize with polymaths. One of the reasons is simply that they 'get' my jokes. They don't always laugh. That, however, is usually because they don't think its funny, not because they don't know the reference. J. D. Hirsch Jr. wrote a book, Cultural Literacy, that considers this issue in great detail. Every social group makes certain assumptions about what its members know. It shapes their world view, their social interactions and their values. Polymaths, because they are committed to lifelong learning and are interested in a broad set of topics, know a whole lot of things that members of the popular culture don't know.

According to Hirsch and his Cultural Literacy, every American should 'get' my Nietzsche-Schrodinger reference. In reality, only a few percent will. In my opinion, Hirsch was being overly idealistic. The American popular culture assumes you know who the characters in "The Simpsons" are and what Madonna's last hit record was. It does not assume you know who composed the Jupiter Symphony. That's a 'Composers for $1,000, Alex' type of question. However, I think his book is a reasonably accurate first approximation of the Cultural Literacy of Polymathica. If you haven't read it, you may want to.

Polymathica is a social group for eclectic, lifelong learners, but in a way we are also a nascent cultural viewpoint. Over time, we will develop our own definition of cultural literacy. Through our discussions and interactions, we will come to a consensus about what all polymaths ought to know. This will facilitate our interactions and solidify our sense of identity. From an intellectual perspective, that's interesting. The Internet is causing quite a few of these nascent cultural viewpoints to form. It's one of the things I study.

However, Polymathica isn't really about that. It's about having a rich, rewarding social life and finding room for our polymathic lifestyle. In late 2000, the American Polymathic Institute was founded to promote polymathic research, careers, education and lifestyles. In order to promote polymathic lifestyles and careers, we started the social organization, Polymathica. Before we can consider how Polymathica can accomplish that, we need to talk about what a polymathic lifestyle is.

The short answer is, "I don't know. But whatever it is, I haven't got it." I'm not living in the conceptual equivalent of the Bahamas. If you are a polymath, that's probably your short answer too. To a very large extent, its not for me or any other founder of Polymathica to dictate the meaning of the polymathic lifestyle. We all have our vision of it, of course. However, that is one of the purposes of Polymathica. It gives us a forum to discuss what we, as polymaths, want out of life. As we find commonalties, we can work together to find ways of achieving those things. Despite this necessary vagueness, there are things we can say about it. After all, polymath is a word with a specific definition and that implies certain things.

The dictionary defines a polymath as someone knowledgeable in many subjects. As I said in my cover letter, we use the term a little bit differently. We consider a polymath someone who is interested in and learning about many subjects. We don't focus on the current state of that knowledge base. If you didn't get my killing the cat reference, it doesn't mean you aren't a polymath. If you don't want to get it because it involves knowing about Philosophy and Quantum Physics, then probably you aren't one. When polymaths are young, their knowledge base is not very extensive. However, since a polymath never stops learning, as they get older, that knowledge base keeps growing.... and growing.... and growing.

At the core of a polymathic personality is an unrestrained curiosity -- about nearly everything. They don't learn in order to procure a degree. They don't learn to get a better job. They don't learn so that they can impress other people with their knowledge. They learn because they are curious. They want to know. No matter how pragmatic the popular culture might be about learning, the polymathic personality cherishes knowledge for its own sake.

When we meet polymaths, we hear the same statements over and over. They say, "I love to learn. But between work, the kids and the house, I just don't have the time." Or they say, "I love having wide ranging and intellectually stimulating conversations, but most of the people I meet are bored by them." They are right. Our culture makes the assumption that a person goes to school, learns a profession and then pretty much stops learning unless their job requires continuing education.

The Internet has been improving matters, but old habits die hard. There are bulletin boards, "ask an expert" forums, discussion groups and chat rooms. However, they are for the most part organized around subjects and attract very few professionals. There are exceptions, but since the whole Internet is subject oriented, they are extremely difficult to find. If you do a web search on "polymath," you will get us, Polymath Society International and a whole lot of links to the Polymath software package. If you do a web search on "generalist," you will mostly get links to medicine and teaching standards.

So being a polymath in today's society is not easy. It is a difficult thing to fit into a busy life and it is difficult to connect with other polymaths. Polymathica solves the latter problem directly. It is a social organization for us. Fitting our wide ranging interests, burning curiosity and desire to learn into our hectic modern lives is a more difficult problem. If we are going to be successful, we have to first have some understanding of what we are shooting for.

For most of us polymaths, the single largest impediment to living a polymathic lifestyle is our jobs. Professionals and managers work 50 hours per week or more at what generally is a very narrowly defined activity. We are forced to spend half our waking hours functioning as a specialist because that's how jobs are structured. This is a bit of a Catch-22. Jobs are structured around specialties because that's how people are trained. If you educate some polymaths, there are no jobs for them. If you create a polymathic job description, you have no qualified candidates.

The American Polymathic Institute was conceived the way it was, in part, to solve this Catch-22. The education of professional polymaths and the creation of polymathic jobs must happen in tandem. One activity can't grow faster than the other. We are starting with polymathic scientists because that's what our founders wish to be. But it is not the only productive activity in which a polymath can engage.

Polymathica will provide career planning forums for its members to discuss career issues. As part of my research, I study the emergence of non-geographically based cultural viewpoints and how the Information Age is going to accommodate them. If that interests you, join the Third Millennium Discussion Group. Part of that research involves the consideration of enterprise structures. So, I will be bringing many, many ideas to this forum. I'm sure as we grow, so will other members.

In my widely varied career, I have held a couple of jobs as a "business executive." It has given me a results-oriented perspective that I bring to my concept of Polymathica. These career planning forums are intended to be something more than simply discussion groups. The idea is that we will discuss polymathic careers, come up with ideas and then do them. The American Polymathic Institute is a non-profit organization, so we will provide the forums. The members will create their own organizations, for-profit or otherwise, as they develop ideas that they want to pursue. My hope is that, over time, these forums will become an incubator for polymathic enterprises and career options.

As a member of Polymathica, you will be able to start a discussion group on just about anything you want to talk about. We have only three restrictions. Your discussion group cannot deal with pornography, promote pyramid schemes, or advocate racism or religious intolerance. Some polymaths do these things, but because most people find them offensive, if you are one of them, you will have to find a different venue. As long as you abide by those rules, we will place a link to your discussion group on Polymathica's pages.

In addition to member-initiated discussion groups, Polymathica will create a few. We want Polymathica to be primarily a member-run organization, however we will provide a little structure.

Polymathica Local Chapters: The Internet is a marvelous place. However, Polymathica is a social organization. Consequently, its members should have a mechanism for socializing off-line. As membership in a given locality reaches sufficient size to warrant it, we will create a Yahoo Local Chapter Group and post a link to it on our Local Chapters page. This function, as well as creating a forum for interaction and a focus for local identity, has a calendar where off-line events can be posted.

Social Connections: Sometimes you are looking for a specific kind of person. Most frequently, but not always, this is for the purpose of romance. Consequently, Polymathica will have a web page with links to places where you can post a personals ad, a link to your personal web page or browse. We are currently working on procuring the software technology needed to allow you to create your own Polymathica member web page. Until that is in place, we have an individual who will create one for you for a small fee.

Educating Kids: We rarely meet a polymathic parent who isn't disturbed by the local school. Most of them have a Hirsch-like concept of cultural literacy and, in their opinion, the schools are doing a poor job of teaching to it. So most polymathic parents think their child is getting undereducated. How to educate a polymath is primarily a question for the American Polymathic Institute to address. However, as consumers of the educational system in America, members of Polymathica should be working on it too.

We believe we have a good structure for Polymathica that will facilitate the polymathic lifestyle for its members. We are new, so it most certainly is a starting point. We are aggressively marketing Polymathica membership, and as our membership grows so will our content and functionalities. Above all else, we will remain responsive to our membership. Our objective is to make Polymathica the kind of organization you want it to be.

We hope you decide to join.

Michael Ferguson
Executive Director
American Polymathic Institute


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