The Polymath Professor’s Role in Online Education

The Polymath Professor’s Role in Online Education
by Fred M Beshears
published August 1, 2016

The job title Polymath Professor is one that may become more popular as a result of recent advances in online education. It’s an idea that turns up in a few recent internet articles. Here’s one by Babu George that caught my attention: A Call for the Return of the Polymath Professor in Academia.

A rather old, but exceptionally well written article on the virtue of being a polymath, and the need for interdisciplinary studies, is General Systems Theory: The Skeleton of Science.

It was written in 1956 by the famous economist turned polymath Kenneth E. Boulding. Here’s an excerpt:

It is the contention of the General Systems Theorists that this optimum degree of generality in theory is not always reached by the particular sciences. The objectives of General Systems Theory then can be set out with varying degrees of ambition and confidence. At a low level of ambition but with a high degree of confidence it aims to point out similarities in the theoretical constructions of different disciplines, where these exist, and to develop theoretical models having applicability to at least two different fields of study. At a higher level of ambition, but with perhaps a lower degree of confidence it hopes to develop something like a “spectrum” of theories – a system of systems which may perform the function of a “gestalt” in theoretical construction. Such “gestalts” in special fields have been of great value in directing research towards the gaps which they reveal. Thus the periodic table of elements in chemistry directed research for many decades towards the discovery of unknown elements to fill gaps in the table until the table was completely filled. Similarly a “system of systems” might be of value in directing the attention of theorists toward gaps in theoretical models, and might even be of value in pointing towards methods of filling them.

But what does this have to do with online education?

With advances in educational technology, there may be job openings in the not-too-distant future for polymath professors. These individuals may find work at schools that have decided to let their students take online courses that have been developed by third parties (e.g. MOOC platforms such as Coursera or edX, publishers such as Pearson, or distance education universities such as the British Open University). The polymath professor who works at a local campus would be there for individual students or groups of students who wish to take one of these online courses.

Since there could be a vast diversity of online courses, the polymath professor would be responsible for providing face-to-face mentoring and tutoring to students on a wide variety of subjects. Currently, many schools are considering the possibility of letting their students take online courses for credit even though they have been developed elsewhere. To the extent these schools decide to import online courses, they may also become interested in creating jobs for on campus polymath professors as well.


Boulding, Kenneth

General Systems Theory: The Skeleton of Science

Babu, George

A Call for the Return of the Polymath Professor in Academia
by George Babu

Published on June 1, 2016

4 thoughts on “The Polymath Professor’s Role in Online Education

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