As renowned philosopher Raymond Gaita has said so eloquently, "Some essential disciplines of the humanities and the sciences – philosophy and (even) physics, for example – have become mendicants for a respected place in institutions that should honour them, but honour instead the study of hospitality and gaming" ("To Civilise the City?" Meanjin, May 2012).
Since ancient times, the liberal arts – traditionally encompassing grammar, rhetoric and logic, mathematics, geometry, astronomy and music – were seen as the very bastion of learning for learning's sake, providing a good grounding for life. The epitome of such a well-rounded education were "polymaths" or "Renaissance men or women" – those deeply knowledgeable, highly skilled and multi-talented, yet still modest, individuals, as personified by Leonardo da Vinci. As the accomplished Italian Leone Battista Alberti (1404-72) said, "a man can do all things if he will". He was speaking with a certain authority, having been a priest, author, architect, artist, linguist, poet, philosopher, scientist, mathematician, inventor, horseman and archer!
While certainly not in the same league, my grandfather was a kind of Renaissance man. Although he never had a formal secular education, and much to my envy, never even sat an exam, he was blessed with an inquiring and incisive mind, an insatiable desire for knowledge and a photographic memory. A laundryman by trade, he worked hard to become established before devoting the rest of his life to reading, thinking, discussing, writing, appreciating music and art, and travelling.
The patriarch of our family, my grandfather would preside over gatherings, regaling the table with such passions as the problems of justice and of individual freedom within the rule of law. Alternatively, he might have been keen to discuss what he had read that particular day which, given his eclectic interests, could range from a biography of the Italian Renaissance "father of science" Galileo Galilei or the writings of the 20th century philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell to biblical commentaries on Abraham, Moses or Samuel, various newspaper articles, which he would mark for others to read – our house was piled high with them – or even an account of the Shakers, a utopian Christian sect, some of whose former American settlements he visited and whose virtual demise fascinated him. Even while on an otherwise disappointing holiday in Tahiti, he derived enjoyment from reading daily doses from a volume of Albert Einstein's essays, which he had happened to pick up at Sydney airport!
Careers were not as important to my grandfather as the sheer love of learning, although he certainly emphasised the need to work to secure financial independence and be responsible for oneself. Indeed, whenever his children or grandchildren would ask his advice on our future studies, he would steer us in the direction of a great body of thought such as science or philosophy and encourage us to be creative and aim for excellence in all our endeavours. He himself set an example by striving to learn university-level mathematics in his fifties.
When I was choosing my university subjects, I enrolled in a philosophy major as a matter of course. It was just what our family did. Without my grandfather's influence, I may never have even been exposed to Socrates and Plato or wrestled with the ideas of 18th century Scottish moral philosopher David Hume. That is not to say that they were always well taught. But at least I had the opportunity to encounter them.
Today it is certainly harder, albeit impossible, to be a Renaissance man or woman. Bombarded with data from all directions, many of us are suffering from "information overload". Socrates was ostensibly humble enough to admit more than 2000 years ago that he "knew nothing, except just the fact of his ignorance" (Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers 5: 32). How much more true is that today!
As knowledge increases, we tend to sub-specialise even more, with new experts springing up in a range of fields that were unknown just a few years ago, from windfarm or fuel cell engineers, app designers and social media managers to Zumba teachers and carbon credit traders. And yet Gen Y will be expected to retrain for up to five different careers in a lifetime.
One of the aims of the school my children attend is for them to develop the skills to become "life long learners". I hope they come to appreciate the value of a good education, one that encourages them always to keep their mind open, reading widely, constantly being exposed to new ideas and experiences and discovering joy through learning. Obviously to do so successfully, they will need that most precious commodity, time. Hopefully, however, they won't need to wait until retirement before getting to explore what they've always dreamed of doing. I'm encouraging them to discover and pursue their passions now and to keep on chasing them for the rest of their lives.