During an interview with Peter Thiel for “The Portal” by Eric Weinstein, the discussion on technology and culture made a turn towards how universities are forcing students to become specialists in their field. Peter Thiel described when he was an undergraduate that a lot of professors were polymaths. However, the institutional role of universities, both regarding students and their professors, according to Peter Thiel, is “No polymaths allowed.”
Thiel: “You can be narrowly specialized. And if you’re interested in other things (disciplines), you better keep it to yourself and not tell people, because if you do, [..] you must not be interested in what you’re meant to study or teach.”
If we want to fill in the gaps – in between departments or even business units – we need polymaths: people who dare to be transgressive (pass over or go beyond what they are supposed to be doing) and have a trained interest in the disciplines that are adjacent to the gaps we’re trying to fill.
A polymath is a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas—such a person is known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems.
The uncut interview takes about three hours, but Thiel’s statement is at 39 minutes:
Divergents Threaten the System
One cannot ignore the stark reality that our society often favors specialization, creating a challenging environment for those who diverge from predefined paths or resist conforming to predetermined roles. This societal phenomenon finds a compelling parallel in the dystopian narrative of Divergent (2014).
Set in a dystopian Chicago, the movie depicts a society where, at the age of 16, individuals undergo a test determining their lifelong allegiance to one of five factions. For those who don’t neatly fit into any faction, a fate of ‘factionless’ awaits—an existence devoid of rights and prospects. However, there exists a concealed faction, the Divergent, individuals displaying traits spanning multiple factions, making them unpredictable and potentially disruptive to the established order. The fear of the Divergent emanates from their perceived threat to the rigid societal structure. Upon discovery, Divergents face the grim options of exile or execution.
The allegory within Divergent is striking, with the five factions mirroring the Big Five personality traits. The rigid division and forced choices parallel the real-world pressure on individuals to opt for highly specialized roles. The narrative invites reflection on how our society values specialization, sometimes at the expense of embracing the rich diversity and multidimensional potential inherent in every individual.