Struck by how many US founders and writers – Ben Franklin, Noah Webster, Thomas Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau, and so on – were polymaths, people with incredibly eclectic interests and broad knowledge of their world, former “Librarian without Walls” Marylaine Block remarks how very different things are now, 200 years later:
What is it that has changed, then? Perhaps the boundaries. In the time of Franklin and Jefferson, only 200 years ago, so little was actually known and understood that the contributions of amateurs were not only welcome but invaluable. Amateurs played with physics and astronomy, tinkered with machines, discovered stars and explored continents. Now, I suspect, a Benjamin Franklin might not be taken seriously. Now credentials matter, as do the institutions that sponsor the researcher–do you doubt a scientist from Harvard would automatically be granted more credibility than putterers like Franklin or even Edison?
Nor would Jeffersonian eclecticism be honored in the professional or academic world. It’s not just that historians who chose to write about biology would be pooh-poohed by biologists; their biological treatises would get them no recognition among historians, either, nor would they count toward tenure. The other members of the English department at Columbia never quite knew what to make of the murder mysteries their colleague Carolyn Heilbrun wrote under the name Amanda Cross, and scholars in the business of criticism or theory look down their noses at fellow professors who write sonnets or commit actual art.