In Which I Apply for a Scholarship…
Those of us who have worked our way into the arts, either intentionally or through a series of questionable life decisions, are familiar with the expected confusion of our peers/family/friends. Increasingly, pursuing an artistic lifestyle is seen as selfish (at worst) and reckless (at best). And, while both of these may be true (what lifestyle ISN’T selfish or reckless these days?), it becomes particularly frustrating to defend one’s chosen vocation when applying for scholarship programs. With that in mind, here is my recent application essay for a high-level public policy scholarship, in which I attempt to defend multimodal thinking, polymathic lifestyles and a general artistic worldview. I’ll let you know how it goes.
The recent past belonged to the specialist, but the foreseeable future belongs to the polymath. This simple thought has become a bit of a guiding principle for me. As an author with university degrees in religion, philosophy, psychology and creative writing, I’ve noticed that the bullseye of modern progress appears to be located at the intersection of multiple fields, and I strive to place myself at precisely those loci. As the world begins to merge previously disparate data into actionable holistic theories, it is the artist who has both unique opportunities and clear responsibilities.
It’s clear why this shift is occurring. As the twentieth century developed, the world’s knowledge base grew exponentially, pushing experts into increasingly extreme specialization. Communication, not only between fields (such as psychology and sociology), but even within fields (say quantum and nuclear physics), began to be stymied by the necessary formation of hyper-specialized terminology and the incredible base of knowledge maintained in every sub-sub-sub-discipline. Academics, scientists and public policy experts, in efforts to make substantial contributions to their chosen vocations, scoured the corners of the room and staked out smaller and smaller patches of expertise. Enlightenment era ideals were pushed to their extremes, and the human race pursued the acquisition of knowledge with relentless zealotry.
Few, if any, would argue that this was a bad thing. However, in the last decade or so, we have seen the high social cost of such extreme specialization. Obvious examples are the decline of scientific literacy in many first world countries (as general science is neglected), the increasingly partisan rhetoric in the public sphere (as experts are marginalized and mistrusted), and the growing gap between the general understanding of our discovered truths and the professional opinion on such matters. As we plunge more fully into the twenty-first century, polymaths will become extraordinarily necessary, not only for purposes of communication, but to serve as the connective tissue between largely disparate fields. While past advances came from greater specialization, future advances in the public sector will likely come from increased generalization.
As an author and artist, I spend my time attempting to acquire a working grasp of professional level discourse amongst multiple disciplines, and crave the opportunity to put those ideas into practice with other like-minded individuals. My recent work with the New Leaders Council threw me into intensive training with progressives who claimed expertise across a wide range of fields. Initially hesitant (and feeling more than a little outmatched), I found that my experience in the arts placed me at a unique locus in the group, and it quickly became apparent that what was missing from high-level policy discussions was the ability to quickly generalize across multiple modalities and fields. Neuroscientists are learning from magicians, economists are learning from evolutionary biologists, politicians and policy makers are learning from social psychologists and marketers. This is a relatively new phenomenon, and it must be nurtured if we hope to parse the growing information glut in helpful and meaningful ways.
Broad, multimodal conversations concerning society, science, and life will grow in importance and will require a generation of cross-platform thinkers. Writers, actors, musicians, dancers, magicians, and visual artists, marginalized a bit in the previous decades of scientific specialization, have a responsibility to the current social discourse. We need to speak up, we need to interact, and we need to contribute. It isn’t just entertainment that we provide, it’s an alternate, and necessary, worldview. The trees are important, but the forest is beautiful.