During the Renaissance, the idea arose that a person could study and become learned in all the knowledge of mankind. Leonardo da Vinci is often listed as a quintessential “Renaissance man” though there have been many other examples, even before the Renaissance era. The current term for someone who is greatly knowledgeable in many fields is “polymath” from the Greek polys for much and the root of manthanein, a verb relating to the process of learning.
The term Renaissance woman was never coined. Women had little time to devote to the study required to master different fields of learning. Even in my younger years, it was not uncommon to hear comments claiming that women didn’t need much education because their life’s work would be in the house. In a lifetime that has seen all types of advancements, perhaps the one I appreciate most is that society has come to understand the importance of education for women. Numerous studies have shown the connection between the education level of a mother and the well-being and success of her children. There has also been found a correlation between the education level of women in a society and the socio-economic level of that society or country.
I love learning – new ideas, new subjects, different takes on things I already know, new skills, new connections of ideas, and new words (polymath is my latest one). It is always a pleasant surprise when I find myself using a skill or idea that I learned decades ago and had almost forgotten I knew.
A valuable concept is “The 5-Hour Rule of Weekly Learning” whose proponents advocate the practice of devoting five hours a week to reading, studying, learning, and reflecting. To be effective, this weekly learning time has to be a priority in our time schedules. The idea goes back to Benjamin Franklin. The benefits claimed for this practice include increased productivity and creativity, career development, personal progress, and silent down time for recharging. Adding these five hours into an already busy schedule may not seem possible, but it is an achievable goal with long-term benefits. If five hours a week are difficult to find, even a couple hours would be a good start.
Following my college graduation, I needed summer work until it was time to begin my new career as a school teacher. My sister and I decided to get jobs in a resort town. While working at a café, I became acquainted with the cook Paul and his wife. They hoped to be accepted into the Peace Corps and were taking flying lessons because they felt being able to fly a small plane might be a useful skill in future Peace Corps assignments. Paul was an intelligent man who was mostly self-taught because he had not completed high school. I soon discovered that Paul’s knowledge, though extensive, was also limited. He had a fairly specific view of life. Therefore, the books and magazines he chose to read were reflective of and reinforced his world view. Having just completed a university experience during which I had been able to explore a variety of subjects, philosophies, and opinions, I felt sorry for Paul. He seemed to be at a smorgasbord banquet but was choosing to eat only one dish.
It is easy to fall into Paul’s situation in today’s social media world, but we need not allow algorithms to dictate what we feed into the marvelous brains we possess. We live in what is termed the Knowledge or Information Age. Today our challenge may not be limited to obtaining knowledge, but rather evaluating it and determining what is useful, worthwhile, true, or applicable. Futurist Alvin Toffler stated, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” I find intriguing the idea of the unlearning and relearning – of ideas as well as habits – as a way of personal improvement.
In the past year, more than at any time in my life, I have heard people question how we can recognize truth in the information we may learn. Propaganda and biased statements seem to surround us, although they are not new strategies. Some of the false information is passed along unknowingly; some is deliberately intended to mislead us. One of the things we can learn is how to recognize false information. Several books have been written recently on the subject, and an Internet search will yield strategies for recognizing misleading, incomplete, or inaccurate information we may encounter. Applying these strategies will help us avoid the situation in which my friend Paul found himself which limited what he was allowing himself to learn.
A great gift we can give ourselves and pass on to our children is intellectual curiosity. What have you learned this week?