History Corner: The Renaissance Man

David Madill

As a child, I always had a fascination with Dick Van Dyke’s Bert in Mary Poppins. He seemed to have so much fun! First he was a one man band, then he was a sidewalk artist and racehorse extraordinaire, and then he eventually settled into his most well-known role of chimney sweep. While age and further knowledge of the time period has lessened my desire to be like him when I grow up, (the job of a chimney sweep was reserved for orphan children and the extremely poor, as most sweeps died after a couple years from lung diseases), his versatility is to be admired. He represents the Renaissance man, the quintessential jack-of-all-trades. He can do a little of everything.

The concept of the Renaissance man has been around since, well, the Renaissance. At that time, men such as Michelangelo and Da Vinci, who dabbled in sciences, painting, sculpture, anatomy, inventing, were in high demand from patrons like the Medicis. Rich merchants or nobles would sponsor an artist financially in return for commissioned pieces. This system worked well for both parties. It was basically a job for the artist and custom interior decorating for the patron.

Tracing forward to today, the Renaissance man has lost some of his value as specialization of fields limits the need for people who can do a little of everything. Is there any point in knowing a little engineering and a little neuroscience? Without a thorough knowledge of either one, both are worthless.

This issue is especially relevant to students, who often ask why they have to learn things like algebra or chemistry if they plan to make their careers in different fields. I mean, really, what use will the structure of a haiku be to me in real life? Like, ever. While any teacher can tell you that there are reasons beyond the knowledge itself to learn something (learning work ethic, building a foundation for further knowledge, gaining thinking skills, etc.), the Renaissance man presents a different take on the standard explanations for why alliteration, symbolism or theme should matter to a future engineer.

There is an interesting discussion among art historians about the extent to which these patronized Renaissance men can be considered artists because those who funded their projects told them what to make. While that discussion could take this article down a different path, the fact remains that what these men wanted to do – produce art – was not a financially viable option. The only way they could do what they loved was at the cost of a lot of freedom.

Consider this: you are a Renaissance era artist. Your specialty and passion is sculpting. You are fascinated by the revolutionary techniques of free-standing figures. However, to fund your hobby, you must be able to paint lifelike portraits for your patron. Suddenly that skill of painting that you hated back in “art school” is essential to your ability to sculpt.

People say life is a set of decisions; the choices you make determine how well you do. While this is optimistic, it simply isn’t true. More often than we, as high schoolers living with our parents, realize, life chooses our paths for us. All we can do is be flexible. Chances are, you will never use a haiku again in your life. But who in 1970 could have told a high school student that the ability to type would one day be a commodity for more than just “typing stupid essays on a stupid typewriter?” When the automobile was invented, who could have predicted the importance of the now essential skill of driving a car? The bottom line is that we don’t know the future, but the past teaches us that flexibility is the key to success in an ever changing, ever progressing world. As Proverbs 4:7 exhorts, “The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom. Though it costs all you have, get understanding.” Skills, knowledge, wisdom, whatever you want to call it, school is where you have a chance to invest in yourself for the future. Don’t miss that chance.


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