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Whither the Renaissance Man?

We need to save the diversity of the individual.

Our current age of information has rightly been called a second renaissance. But what ignites a renaissance? It has to do with bringing together ideas and cultures in fresh ways and with unprecedented intensity. That’s the reason Gutenberg was so important to the first renaissance: the printing press, the new technologies that enabled its invention, and a burgeoning shipping trade were the Internet of their day. Ideas began to move en masse and with a momentum that was unimaginable before. Thanks to the facility of Western European character sets, printing with movable type took off in Europe, helping spark an economic boom that left much of the rest of the world struggling to catch up.

The digital-media revolution enabled our current renaissance. From Ethernet to Internet to World Wide Web to Google, from silicon biology to nanoscience, worlds of ideas have collided. Just as a 16th-century Renaissance man felt empowered by a bundle of books in his saddle­bag, a 21st-century renaissance woman with a laptop feels she has the entire store of human knowledge at her fingertips.

The irony of our renaissance, though, is that renaissance men and women are in short supply. Such an intense global mix of cultures, ideas, and innovations, all apparently a mouse click away, would seem to demand broad educational perspectives. Yet most schools persist in turning out laser-focused young professionals. To make a dent in a particular field, a person has to devote a good chunk of his or her lifetime just to getting to the starting line. This doesn’t favor the jack-of-all-trades.

The four years of an undergradu­ate ­education (for the minority of the population that gets that far) have become less of an exploration and more of a routine. Even the path to college has become a pipeline of preparatory crash courses, tests, in­terviews, and campus visits. Graduate schools are even more constricting. In an age that is fomenting the greatest expansion of knowledge – and of its means of ­distribution – in history, our educational system is churning out ever more narrowly focused scholars. One wonders if, along with biodiversity and cultural diversity, the diversity of the individual mind might be another casualty of modern life.

I’m a big fan of Ben Franklin. The son of a poor soap maker, Franklin loved to read and apprenticed in a print shop when he was 12. By the ripe age of 24, he had ­settled in Philadelphia and bootstrapped his own printing business. He taught himself French, Italian, and Spanish. He bought a newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, and turned it into one of the most successful papers in the colonies. He organized Junto (a working man’s group devoted to individual and community betterment). He founded a fire company, an insurance company, and a hospital. He founded the Library Company of Philadelphia, the nation’s first subscription library, and the American Philosophical Society.

In his 40s, Franklin retired from his prosperous franchises and got into technology. By then he had already invented the heat-efficient Franklin stove, and swim fins. He also invented the glass armonica. His most celebrated scientific work, of course, was his study of lightning and electricity. Later in life, as his eyesight worsened, he invented bifocals. In the political and diplomatic arena, Franklin worked for independence with Jefferson, helping to draft the Declaration of Independence.

He died at age 84, having just published an antislavery treatise. His was an awe-inspiring life, but I am especially fond of one of the young Franklin’s self-­improvement exercises. He had identified 13 moral virtues – waste nothing; avoid trifling conversation; practice moderation; aspire to justice, cleanliness, and tranquility; and so on – and kept a scorecard on which he graded himself on how well he realized them. Benjamin Franklin simply wanted to be a better person and to lead a better life.

Nobody said getting your face on money was easy. In today’s complex world, perhaps it’s simply not possible for someone to lead a creative life that contributes so seminally and so powerfully across so many areas.

Yet we need to be concerned with our intellectual ecology. Global computer-­mediated communication presents a new kind of leveling force. But will the enriched pool of online knowledge promote more specialization, or will it promote more sharing among fields? The answer is up for grabs. In that case, how should we prepare ourselves for constructive, inventive lives? My best answer had always been, continually invest in knowledge that won’t wear out. But then I found an even better tip for lifelong learning, thanks to Ben Franklin: when you’re finished changing, you’re finished.

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