Reflection on Polymathy - RSA

Reflection on Polymathy

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  • Arts and society
  • Fellowship
  • Fellowship in Action
  • Leadership

One definition of polymathy is that it is "the study of many things". Root-Bernstein (2009) however describes it as "the main source of any individual's creative potential". Is RSA Fellowship a bland smoothie or a cocktail of polymathy, pragmatism and purpose? This question was recently put to me in a discussion of diverse non RSA events attended, and politicians heard. In these challenging days, the focus must also be on learning, leadership and level-headedness.

The subject matters have ranged from poverty and UBI to EUNIC; from vacuity and vanity in politics to virtues and values in civic Britain;  from employee ownership to NDAs; from automation to AI and algorithms; from thrift to extravagance; from cycling to integrated and affordable rural transport; from decisional atrophy to fettering discretion; from AI to police algorithms and allegations of embedded bias; from degree shows to cyber crime, trafficking and fraud; from rural policy to low carbon and climate change;  from primary food production through to processing and distribution; from Social Attitude Surveys to the Shared Prosperity Fund; from the values of democracy to the concept of a Citizens Assembly; from the project "Gate to Plate" to the RSA's cross border event "F4 last December" and the RSA Food, Farming and Countryside Commission; from human plastics food chain consumption to plastics re-cycling; from politics and standards in public life to the need for a free press; from Borderlands and SoSEP to CABN and creative industries; from demographics and succession issues to place-making, housing and community capacity building; from social justice to SNIB; from the First Minister's 18th June "take" on the first twenty years of the Scottish Parliament to a DCMS Rural Connective Communities Workshop in Perth (relevant to a past Public Appointment held).   Upcoming issues and events to which my attention will be given, and from which much may be learnt inter alia include natural capital, future urban spaces, creative industries, IP and copyright, tourism and hospitality. 


The links to RSA increase. A passing purchase in a social enterprise has led to names for Oliver Reichardt re the circular economy project. The cyber and international security discussion was with one of many past RSA Fellowship nominees: the individual is now working for a mainland European joint venture company  in the oil and gas industry which allowed conversation around a remarkable administrative and PR job of potential interest to a Fellow in Scotland.  The DCMS event allowed mention - indeed "promotion" -  of the RSA Fellowship as a resource for possible partners and expertise (via boards of voluntary organisations) given the upcoming DCMS Call for 5G multi-partner projects.  Ongoing employee ownership links involve RSA Fellows with a relevant project in the south being put in touch with Sarah Deas in Glasgow and so on. 


The UK is relatively small. Scotland seems sometimes more of a village than anything else.  It therefore follows that RSA Fellows forging a new link or diverse links every day of the week - especially at this time of thrust-upon-us political change - could better develop, harness such contacts in a diversity of projects.  The proposal some of us have for a very specific new Network may also allow this.  As austerity remains, pension pots dwindle and local cuts bite deeper, every talent must be harness and best used.   It reminds me of Neal Ascherson's quote of some years ago about the "kind of Scotland" which is needed.  By the same token, twenty years on, I am minded to suggest reference and a re-read of Donald Dewar's speech at the Opening of the Parliament about "who we are, and how we carry ourselves".   Polymathy may not be easy. Being pragmatic, informed, multi-disciplinary and purposeful is critical to RSA success.   How best to harness this into projects to benefit Scotland: replies welcomed! 

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  • Polymathy may not be easy. Being pragmatic, informed, multi-disciplinary and purposeful is critical to RSA success.   How best to harness this into projects to benefit Scotland? Ann Packard 


    Many thanks Ann for reminding us of the role of polymaths in our society, for encouraging us to open our horizons of imagination; and for promoting the pursuit of a pan-optic view – all for the common good. 


    Donald Dewar, in his 1999 Opening Address, also went on to say: Wisdom, justice, compassion, integrity; timeless values. Honourable aspirations for this new forum of democracy born on the cusp of a new century. We are fallible, we all know that. We will make mistakes. But I hope and I believe we will never lose sight of what brought us here: the striving to do right by the people of Scotland; to respect their priorities; to better their lot; and to contribute to the common weal. I look forward to the days ahead and I know there will be many of them when this chamber will sound with debate, argument and passion. When men and women from all over Scotland will meet to work together for a future built on the first principles of social justice. 


    Yet why do our politicians lie to us? In his 2013 book ‘Why leaders lie: the truth about lying in international politics’, Mearsheimer surprised me (and many others, I am sure) with the conclusion that leaders don’t really do much in the way of lying to each on an international inter-country scale but they sure do lie quite readily, openly and unflinchingly to their own people. Worse still, we let them. Even worse still, we accept/believe what they say. 


    Rowan Williams, in his 2019 article in The NewStatesman: Brexit shows Britain is no longer able to imagine a “common good” observes “Of course people have individual projects, and there is nothing automatically destructive or ignoble about them. But a well-functioning and just society is more than the sum of individual projects, or an uneasy truce between powerful and incompatible interests. A good democracy will encourage us to explore possibilities we had not thought of. It will help us take some risks because it guarantees legal securities and the ongoing possibility of challenging and scrutinising political outcomes.” 


    So, what of our Scotland and its 20-year old devolved parliament? What of a nation rending the very fabric of its being with two referenda in as many years? Neither referendum offering Williams’s overwhelming consensus and neither of them having protected the minority interest. For example, whilst some 45% of the people who voted in 2014 said YES, only 4 of the 32 voting constituencies agreed with them. Similarly, in 2016 some 48% of those who voted UK wide voted against BREXIT and half of the constituent nations (ie 2 out of 4) agreed with them.  


    How to hear the voice of all the people of Scotland and still protect the minority interest of all in Scotland? The Highlands and Islands represent some 30% of the land of Scotland and yet only has around 5% of the population. How can the people of this constituency be heard over those elsewhere, if we do not strive to protect minority interest? 


    Is this the time for projects? There certainly is enough need in Scotland: highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe; highest incarceration rate in Europe; highest drug-related deaths in UK; ever lowering educational attainment (maths, science, reading performance) against international benchmarks; highest alcohol-specific death rate in UK (even though absolute numbers are falling); and so the list could go on. This is not to ‘point the finger’ nor to ignore the great achievements and successes across Scotland and for Scotland within the UK and around the world. Rather just examples of more grist for the project mill. 


    To my mind, the overarching question is whether we should continue milling ‘projects’ on a case by case basis? We might better serve the national interest of Scotland and the common good of her peoples by collectively encouraging ways, as Rowan Williams puts it, for “ to explore possibilities we had not thought of”? To take the pathway of polymathy? To rethink the democracy we have created and challenge its fitness for purpose? To revisit truth, its place and its purpose? To pursue Dewar’s honourable aspirations of ‘Wisdom, justice, compassion, integrity; timeless values’? 


    Is this the time, for the RSA in Scotland to reach out in conversation, from within every corner of this nation, to engage people wherever they be (in schools, groups, communities and homes) in a Futures Conversation about a tomorrow which holds the common good of all at its heart and in which there is no place for lies, exaggerated beliefs, self-aggrandizement nor a democracy of division? 


    Do we know too much about too little (and not a little about ‘everything’) to be able to see a bigger picture? As you say, polymathy may not be easy...