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Rene Daalder
Los Angeles, US
Immortal since Jan 18, 2007
Uplinks: 0, Generation 1

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    SC: Return of the Renaissance Man
    If there is one thing I have enjoyed about Space Collective since its inception, it is the polymath nature of most of this site’s forward thinkers. Almost everyone here has a mixture of creative and intellectual ambitions, which more often than not covers philosophical and literary ground and a strong focus on art and design. In a way one could say that this a community of Generalists, similar to Wikipedia’s description of the Renaissance Man, aka as Homo Universalis:

    The term "universal man" or "man of the world" is used to describe a person who is well educated or who excels in a wide variety of subjects or fields, based on the notion of Renaissance Humanism that “a man can do all things if he will.”

    A person of that era was expected to speak several languages, play a musical instrument, write poetry, and so on, thus fulfilling the Renaissance ideal. The idea of a universal education was pivotal to achieving polymath ability, hence the concept of the University, which at the time did not specialise in specific areas, but rather trained their students in a broad array of science, philosophy, theology and the arts. This universal education contributed hugely to their being able to comprehend the universe as it was understood at the time.

    This could have been the description of any of us here on SpaceCollective trying to comprehend the universe as it is understood in our time and beyond. A good representative of such a new-style Homo Universalis is NotThisBody, whose joint practice with his partner/girlfriend, covers: “film, video, photography, grapic design and media platform development.” They create multi-media works in English, French and Macedonian, not to mention computer code. NotThisBody does not “recognize borders between mediums” and they are “open to any and all who’d like to cooperate and co-create” with them. Since they spend most of their time as digital nomads, these collaborations could take place on the multiple online platforms where today’s Digital Renaissance is shaping up, or wherever their physical bodies may find themselves on this battle-worn planet as they are passing through, breaking down boundaries between people and cultural expressions wherever they go.

    During the Industrial Revolution the idea of the Homo Universalis was discredited because it was considered extremely difficult to genuinely acquire an encyclopedic knowledge of everything, and even more so to be proficient in several fields at the level of an expert. Not to mention to achieve excellence or recognition in multiple fields. As specialization became the norm at the world’s Universities, the word polymath began to take on a negative connotation, but the internet is rapidly bringing the era of the expert to a close by providing everyone universal access to all knowledge.

    Most of today’s educational institutions are still adhering to centuries old teaching models, bolstered by tenure and obligatory publications, wrought under the academic mandate to Publish or Perish. But as the dissemination of information is increasingly taking place online, knowledge creation is no longer the exclusive privilege of lecturing professors drawing from a canon that is frozen in time and often out of date. Instead, universal access to information allows for community-driven curricula which are forever updated by students interacting with an ever growing online repository of educational materials. None of this takes away from the necessity of brilliant teachers or the essential knowledge exchange between professionals and those who have signed on to learn from them. But it does mean a radically different dynamic between the institution and an increasingly participating student body whose contributions are transcending hierarchical, disciplinary and institutional boundaries.

    The mandate that may define tomorrow’s technologically integrated education might as well be, Participate or Perish, bringing the University in closer alignment again with the ideals of the original Renaissance Humanists. And these visionary minds are not the only ones from the distant past who established a precedent that is surprisingly relevant today.

    Recently I came across another historical inspiration that foreshadowed the potential of today’s internet revolution. Working on a concept for an online educational platform it came to my attention that at least three pillars of the current internet were informed by a century-old educational system conceived by Maria Montessori who hoped that her anti-authoritarian learning principles might ultimately bring about world peace. Born in 1870 in Italy, Maria would have been considered a true revolutionary in any time, leave alone hers. When she was 13 years old she attended an all-boy technical school in preparation for her dreams of becoming an engineer, and she was the first woman to graduate from the University of Rome’s Medical School, becoming the first female doctor in Italy. She ultimately became famous for her theory that education is not something that teachers do, but that learning comes naturally to humans.

    Being a product of the visionary lady’s ideas myself, it piqued my interest to find out that both Larry Page and Sergei Brin attributed Google’s success story to Maria Montessori. According to them their Montessori education taught them to be self directed and self starters, adding that their schooling taught them to think for themselves, giving them the freedom to pursue their own path, which would lead to the snowballing success of Google, which aims to provide the world with near universal access to all information known to man.

    A similar background informed the career of Jeff Bezos who created the groundbreaking online retail organization, and another online celebrity on the list is no less than Jimmy Wales, whose Wikipedia has become the online fount of encyclopedic knowledge. Interactive game designer Will Wright also mentions Maria Montessori as his main inspiration for his seminal hit The Sims, while crediting like-minded Dutch educator Kees Boeke for the Powers of Ten metaphor that helped him create his new game Spore. These are the founding fathers of the interactive paradigm, the new Renaissance Men courtesy of Maria Montessori.

    This completely unexpected tribute to an often marginalized educational system struck me with the realization that the internet might indeed be looked at as a giant Montessori System with its respect for people’s individuality, innate curiosity and natural inclination to share which would become the underlying principle of Google’s PageRank, Amazon’s recommendation algorithm, and Wikipedia’s collaborative knowledge creation. In a Montessori school as well as on the web, students are given the appropriate tools to search the educational landscape without peer pressure or the need to compete. As a result of their firmly established autonomy they are much more inclined to contribute to the group, which in turn rewards them by sharing the outcome of everybody else’s inquiries, jointly increasing the community’s collective intelligence.

    Thus, on the eve of the First World War which would so violently expose humankind’s destructive tendencies, one woman’s prescience may have launched an educational model that helped set into motion one of the biggest mental revolutions to date. Who knows, one day her vision might help us realize the resolution she hoped for, as an exponentially growing number of unwitting digital disciples will finally foster peace on earth. Certainly, had she been around to see the fruits of her labor, she would have considered Google’s motto “Don’t Be Evil” a good start! Now it’s up to today’s educationalists to take notice and follow suit, or perish like every other institution harking back to the industrial revolution.

    So here, courtesy of Google and Wikipedia, is an invaluable message from the visionary pedagogue herself:

    “Scientific observation has established that education is not what the teacher gives; education is a natural process spontaneously carried out by the human individual, and is acquired not by listening to words but by experiences upon the environment. The task of the teacher becomes that of preparing a series of motives of cultural activity, spread over a specially prepared environment, and then refraining from obtrusive interference. Human teachers can only help the great work that is being done, as servants help the master. Doing so, they will be witnesses to the unfolding of the human soul and to the rising of a New Man who will not be a victim of events, but will have the clarity of vision to direct and shape the future of human society”.

    Wed, Apr 15, 2009  Permanent link

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    gamma     Fri, Apr 17, 2009  Permanent link

    “Scientific observation has established that education is not what the teacher gives; education is a natural process spontaneously carried out by the human individual, and is acquired not by listening to words but by experiences upon the environment. The task of the teacher becomes that of preparing a series of motives of cultural activity, spread over a specially prepared environment, and then refraining from obtrusive interference. Human teachers can only help the great work that is being done, as servants help the master. Doing so, they will be witnesses to the unfolding of the human soul and to the rising of a New Man who will not be a victim of events, but will have the clarity of vision to direct and shape the future of human society”.

    I cannot explain the fact that it is again 2AM, a time for my best futuristic pajamas. I have a nostalgic, edgy and exciting feeling associated with good lectures, movies and road of self education. I usually sense more "soul" in the self-education. Also, in every way I like to remember the school, and friends who did try to learn all crafts, all courses, languages, music, obtaining certificates?, speed studies...

    My practical results are telling me that despite school and college, there are major portions of my interests in science that remain untrained. For example, I studied math a lot, and yet looking at fractal geometry for example, I see it is rather new and hard topic. Here comes the point. My amateurism stays, remains and it looks and feels wild. Self-learning has tracks going under official education, which is socially transmitted and organized education.

    If we write down rules found along each track, we see that patterns of self-teaching are similar to what was occurring in other uncivilized people long ago. Public education is another pattern, potentially disproportionate OFFICE BUILDING OF SOCIETY. We can find common agreement in some pattern.

    There was some smart lady at John Stewart's yesterday talking about economy. She sounded like she had certain extreme level, a rose of winds assembling in her head, extreme level of truthfulness about things. She needed that accuracy to be able to talk.

    To integrate relevant information from different tracks, I memorize history of certain story (tracking evolution of story) and sorted lists. Our mental space should not feel like differing qualities of disproportionate education tracks. I would suggest we should accept that experiences are happening right now and being integrated now (power of now) within us. It is guidance in form of advice for taking information in without estimating importance by standard of fragmented being. That makes me important immediately and you should start listening to me, because outside of now there is no special, official time for watching brilliance. :-)

    I believe that if we want to know tips and trick today, we must learn it from previously established examples, by tutoring and official work groups, classes. It saves time and lives.

    (Mental space is more dynamical than physical space.and therefore it is a super set of ordinary space, although ordinary space is holding substantial complexity.)
    rene     Sat, Apr 18, 2009  Permanent link
    I just noticed on Twitter that one of my favorite SC contributors, Spaceweaver, whose vision for the future covers a wide expanse of inquiry calls himself a Future Renaissance Being, giving as his location The Mind. A description that fits him perfectly.

    meika     Sun, Apr 19, 2009  Permanent link
    Of course, if one is a failed polymath then one is really bad at too many things, failure on many levels is hard to bear, to be a polymath one must be resilient on many levels.

    And hopefully a post-scacity economy will be able to deliver the time to do all this. Anti-terrorism seems to be the main brake on this at the moment.

    But at base, it all gets back to childcare.

    It always does.
    rene     Wed, Apr 22, 2009  Permanent link
    Always good to get your input Meika. However, being a polymath is also a very good survival strategy in a world where almost everyone has several careers and having just one profession is rapidly becoming a liability. As computer programs are seriously challenging people's traditional ideas about craft and specialization, cross-disciplinary thinking has become more important than ever. Like the web, a Montessori education is an invitation for people to become generalists. Just to be sure, it's important to realize that besides early childhood education the Montessori system extends to high school education as well.

    But I do agree that a lot goes back to childcare. What's so surprising is that the simplest interventions can have world-transforming impact. For example, Friedrich Froebel's method that preceded Montessori, based itself around educational games and a set of wooden blocks influenced effected the early childhod of architects Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright, as well as painters Paul Klee, Piet Mondrian and George Braque. Now think about their work and contemplate for a moment how relatively easy it appears to be to profoundly change the world.
    meika     Fri, Apr 24, 2009  Permanent link
    so polymath would really be a polymath rather than an everythingman
    Olena     Sun, Aug 23, 2009  Permanent link
    Thank you for this post.
    Strangely, I read & commented on "Underground Castles..." before 'accidentally' coming upon this. Again, the Renaissance Man idea.
    I really appreciate this; when I was younger, ever since I had learned of the idea of a Renaissance Man in grade school I had some notion that it was what I wanted to be. Now, I'm glad to be a part of this community of polymaths.

    Also on that note; thanks for mentioning Montessori - hadn't heard of her before this, but I think our public school systems are definitely missing out on implementing her ideas, as you said.
    Unfortunately it only hit me now, while in University: I know nothing. This year alone, I've read & researched more (on my own, making up for lost time) than I did over four high school years, & I loved every minute of learning. There's something amiss with that, isn't there? I wish the focus had been on actually learning back then - to captivate the mind, rather than just prepare it to be an automaton that scores well on tests.

    It also ties into Fuller's question - “If success or failure of the planet and of human beings depended on how I am and what I do… How would I be? What would I do?”.
    Wouldn't we be better off in a society of people who knew how to reason?