The Renaissance Man

When establishing the Interdisciplinary Research Honor Society (IDR) we had in mind all the big pro-university ideas: promoting interdisciplinary research, advancing science, multiplying the number of interdisciplinary funded projects, etc. However, when you look beyond all that, on a single human scale, the stakes are actually even higher. What is a byproduct of the IDR is a return of the so-called “Renaissance man”.

What I mean by a “Renaissance man” (or woman – don’t get me wrong – it’s just a fixed expression) are guys like Alberti or da Vinci, or Newton. When you look at IDR at the scale of a one man, they are the true incarnations of what we are geared towards – a person, whose scope of vision and expertise is larger than his/her test-tube or computer screen, a man/woman of a highest intellectual and spiritual integrity.

Talking to my Chair about doing a PhD recently, I discovered that the modern PhD’s seized being PhD’s. PhD stands for Doctor of Philosophy. This comes from the time when Philosophy was still “the mother of all sciences” – a notion that died with the advent of modern science. By now PhD has long lost its true meaning and is an acronym for something no one really understands. However, it has a gravity to it. Tell me, how many Philosophy Doctors do you know and how many PhD’s? What is the difference – purely in the wording even. Can you feel the difference?

Modern science got extremely compartmentalized. Being an “encyclopedist” is neither fashionable nor practical any more. We do not have people of many talents – one, usually (if lucky), which gets oversaturated and fertilized, like livestock or agricultural crops, to grow in one direction only and produce an extremely narrow cone of knowledge. However, we see a rising trend to use such words as “integration”, “overall”, “holistic” and others in all sorts of settings from the kitchen to the lab. IDR is both a result and a tool of this trend.

Our goal, on a human scale and in a philosophical understanding, is the return of people for whom painting, sculpting, policy making, proficiency in higher mathematics and production of engineering marvels all at the same time was not something extraordinary, but natural. A “balanced education”. Not balanced in the sense that you get just as little of math as you do of languages, but balanced in the sense of a full spectrum; doing multiple things that inform and enrich each other.

Before, one man could know many things. Gradually those things seemed to have grown too big for a single mind to contain. A little later we fooled ourselves into believing that the only thing we should do is what our “department” is doing, because “we cannot handle more”. Now, following the periodic graph, we are heading back to the “overall” and the “complex”, back to True Humanity. Once again a Human Being is thinking outside of the constraints that his/her certain field imposes. Although, we do it from a different end – from integrating many into one, rather than growing from one into many – the result is comparable – an individual with many folds and facets, with a complex, but holistic understanding of the world around him/her, a man of many talents, a “Renaissance man”. In a sense, this mission of IDR is just as important as raising awareness and funds, if not most important, because it is the Individual that is in focus. And isn’t this a beautiful and truly noble mission to be a part of?


The essay was submitted for the IDR essay award at Virginia Tech this year.