Chapter 8 • Conclusion

The opening metaphor of the Root-Bernstein book takes us into the "kitchen of the mind." What the brain can cook up depends a lot upon the ingredients available and the tools one uses to cook. Of course, the experience of the chef matters, too. A good chef can improvise with what is available, even on a battlefield — Chicken Marengo, as legend has it, is one example.[1] It just takes a little creativity ... and a bit of synthesis.
Napoleon's favorite meal [2]
Garlic, olives, onions, mushrooms, tomatoes, et un poulet. Et voilà! La synthèse!
But better tools (and wider variety of provisions) can bring even better results.

Making sure that we have the right tools of the mind, however, does require some work on our part. There's a tendency to think that education provides these tools, when, in many cases, schools and universities only provide the kitchen, the menu, and a few master chefs to guide us along.

We start out as generalists, but end up as specialists, cooking up thoughts in a very constrained kitchen.

A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: 'Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?'C. P. Snow[3]

Teachers, too, tend to become more and more specialized as one climbs up the educational ladder. A Kindergarten teacher may actually have far more instructional skill sets than a university sociology professor. If you doubt this, go through just one day with a Kindergarten class and then one day with the sociology class. Perhaps naptime doesn't require many skills, but getting kids to nap can be much harder for a Kindergarten teacher than for a sociology professor.

But why should that be? Shouldn't it be worth our while, and to the good of our students, to be, say, a math teacher ... and a dancer? An English teacher ... and an amateur biologist? A Master of Educational Technology ... and a polymath?

There is no reason for us to continue to reside in one or the other of the "two cultures" asC. P. Snow termed it.[4]

Perhaps the most concise summary of enlightenment would be: transcending dualism....Dualism is the conceptual division of the world into categories....Human perception is by nature a dualistic phenomenon—which makes the quest for enlightenment an uphill struggle, to say the least.Douglas Hofstadter

That uphill struggle that Hofstadter mentions can be made more interesting, if not less steep, by cultivating an interest in many different areas of life. The phenomenon of the adjacent possible as Stuart Kauffman terms the potentiality of evolutionary advance can also be seen as a phenomenon on a social level, as author Steven Johnson suggests in his new book, Where Good Ideas Come From.

This adjacent possible—the opening of one door into a room of many doors, into further rooms and so on—can also occur in our brains.

Polymathy and imagination go hand in hand. Multiply-trained individuals transform experience, synthesize knowledge, and lead us toward synosia, the understanding that… “everything in nature is connected with everything else.”… The same impulse that motivates the best art, the best literature, the best science can be harnessed to provide the best schooling, as innovators and their teachers have been doing for centuries… Education is meant to open many doors, leading to many rooms. [324-325]


Technical training alone is not enough to fit a man for an interesting and useful life… We need polymaths and pioneers who know that imagination thrives when sensual experience joins with reason, when Illusions link to Reality, when intuition couples with intellect, when the passions of the heart unite with those of the mind, when knowledge gained in one discipline opens doors to all the rest. [326]

Skill Building | Conversations
  1. ^ Although there is some reason to doubt the story.
  2. ^ Photo from here.
  3. ^ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C._P._Snow
  4. ^ Snow himself was a polymath: a physicist and an author both of fiction and non-fiction and was the son of a church organist and choirmaster.