Chasing the Renaissance Man

I started this post with the idea in mind that I would write a post about Thomas Jefferson. It is, after all, his birthday today. I should have realized what a fool’s errand it would be to “write a post about Thomas Jefferson” as if I’d be able to say something succinct but intelligent about one of history’s most complex and talented men.

Jefferson lived a life so full of accomplishment it almost seems like he lived the lives of several men, so disparate were his interests. It makes my daily accomplishments, like writing an article or writing something else (I mostly just write things, to be frank), seem, while perhaps not futile, certainly small in comparison. It feels strange, I suppose, knowing that while I am honing my skills in a very specific area, Jefferson was a sort of 18th century Renaissance man, knowledgeable across so many subjects, enabling him to become a legend in American history.

What has even happened to the Renaissance man, that is, a man (or woman, really) who applies him or herself across a wide range of subjects and disciplines, making the effort sharpen multiple talents. DaVinci, for instance, was such a man. Jefferson is easily one as well as a politician, architect, ambassador, writer, inventor, oh, yeah, and the third President of the United States.

I have some reservations saying things like “education these days” with any kind of derision, because education these days is truly widespread, attainable, and spectacular. But I do think that education these days simply isn’t built for making Renaissance men (and women). The modern education system is more egalitarian. It produces good citizens and encourages specialization. In a way this is wonderful–its goal is not to produce an educated elite, but to disseminate knowledge and critical thinking skills among all sorts of people. It does, however, make me nostalgic for a thing I’ve never actually had, nostalgic for the kind of learning that is for the sake of learning, that is self-motivated, and can stretch across any interest one might have.

It’s not as if this kind of education and learning is impossible in modern society, but I certainly think it’s harder, especially because of the way we are trained to learn. Learning is classroom oriented, and the kind of learning Jefferson subscribed to made something of a classroom anywhere he went.

Don’t mistake me, this isn’t criticism on modern education, simply a musing on how education has changed, what kinds of people different kinds of education produce. I just wonder, I suppose, that while our society will undoubtedly continue to produce great and learned men and women, if we will ever create great and learned men and women like Thomas Jefferson, or if we even should? Perhaps we’ve moved on. Maybe we don’t need Renaissance men anymore.

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