Objections to the importance of aristocratic tutoring
Aristocratic tutoring II: Replies to counter-arguments
Occasionally when a post gets a big reaction I’ll do a follow-up like this one; a kind of post-viral clearing of effluvia.
Not that I’m unhappy. There’s been an incredible number of reactions to the previous essay, “Why we stopped making Einsteins,” which argued that a practice of learning via one-on-one tutoring was historically common among the aristocracy and declined, leaving us deprived of some of our most elegant minds.
Many of the threads in the comments and replies to the piece are worth following up on, as they pertain to important questions, from whether the rich still do aristocratic tutoring in secret, to whether aristocratic tutoring might be possible in today’s world, to objections to the theory. Starting with:
Do the rich still do aristocratic tutoring?
Several replies have speculated that the super rich are doing aristocratic tutoring in secret, with none of us the wiser. In my opinion, from what I vaguely know of the super rich, they mostly want to send their kids to Harvard. And college admissions dominates education so thoroughly that aristocratic tutoring has fallen out of favor, since it’s not explicitly geared toward, say, SAT test prep. Several professional tutors of the elite have reached out to me and confirmed this. Here’s one:
"Wish more of our clients asked for what you propose in your (wonderful) essay. Over 15 years working with elites around the world, I'm afraid I can only think of 2 or 3 who have sought what you suggest. The rest - test-prep :("
There are some outliers among the super rich like Elon Musk, who takes an idiosyncratic approach to his children’s education, sending them to a private school he created, Ad Astra. But from the description I’m not sure it counts as aristocratic tutoring:
In 2015. Musk spoke about Ad Astra, explaining that the educational model would be skills-oriented and have goals like:
Be an alternative to the age segregation model. Musk says that separating children by age does not make sense for education, because students have different interests and abilities that are independent of how old they are.
Focus on problem-solving. Instead of giving children ‘tools’ in a vacuum, they should be taught how to solve problems.
Gamification. The tycoon pointed out that he does not have to “encourage his children to play” since education through games is something natural for children.
Unlike regular schools, these kids – aged seven to 14 – aren’t put into grades, and instead learn in teams.
So it seems like even the super rich don’t practice aristocratic tutoring anymore, instead looking to other forms of education, like gamification. This may be a significant missed opportunity.
Is aristocratic tutoring possible now, somehow?
Several companies have reached out and said that they’d like to do aristocratic tutoring, or scale into it, or use AI to do it (e.g., The Collins Institute).
But the list is slim—very slim. If you want to start an aristocratic tutoring start-up, it doesn’t seem like there’s much competition! Probably the harder aspect is demand. One big problem is that aristocratic tutoring, just in terms of the logistics, often necessitates homeschooling (as it often did in the past). And homeschooling is not in vogue, particularly among the elite.
Some have pointed me to economist and education researcher Bryan Caplan as someone currently doing aristocratic tutoring with his kids (via homeschooling). Ironically, Caplan’s books are mostly about how nature trumps nurture, with titles like The Case Against Education. But Caplan appears to think, as I do that, that a lot of education’s null effect is simply how bad standard education is, and he takes a different approach to his own children, homeschooling them while supplementing with outside expertise in a manner that looks a lot like aristocratic tutoring:
. . . my sons are plausibly the only 12-year-olds in the nation taking a college class in labor economics. . . . their peer group now includes Robin Hanson, Alex Tabarrok, Tyler Cowen, Garett Jones, and Nathaniel Bechhofer. That’s plausibly four standard deviations above whatever peer group they’d have in a conventional middle school.
Caplan seems to be sneaking in this modern attempt at aristocratic tutoring through the cracks of the education system, saying that:
As far as I can tell, the Real World pays zero attention to what students do in middle school. The Caplan Family School won’t keep my kids out of good high schools; they can re-enter Fairfax County Public School in 9th grade. It won’t keep my kids out of good colleges; colleges don’t know what applicants did in middle school. And it won’t keep my kids from getting good jobs; there probably isn’t an employer in the country who asks how applicants did in 7th grade. So while homeschooling feels risky for high school, our next two years look like clear sailing.
In other words, you can homeschool your kids and therefore take the time to aristocratically tutor them (particularly if you’re an expert, or, if you’re well off, you could hire tutors instead) until they have to enter 9th grade, all without much downside—they can still get into Harvard (which is what the elite want for signaling purposes), because colleges don’t even look at school records from before high school. I think this is an interesting possibility and one I may pursue with my own kids.
Objections, or, “Contra Scott Alexander”
Blogger and psychiatrist Scott Alexander wrote a “Contra” reply wherein he disagreed that aristocratic tutoring was historically important or contributed to the decline of genius. His objections don’t strike me as particularly strong.
First, Scott attempted to give some evidence that not all historical geniuses were tutored. To make his point he says:
Hoel argues that the decline in aristocratic tutoring is “why we stopped making Einsteins”. But then why did we stop making Newtons, Mozarts, Darwins, Pasteurs, Dickenses, and Edisons?
I’m not sure why he picked these examples, as the majority of names here were tutored. As I said in the piece, it’s actually hard to figure out if people didn’t have tutors and/or governesses (who acted as tutors), and oftentimes family members like mothers and fathers took on the role of the classic aristocratic tutor, and often enough none of this is deigned to be mentioned in high-level sources like Wikipedia. Of those names:
Mozart was tutored 1-on-1 by his father (a musician and, perhaps more importantly, a music teacher), a relationship that has been described, on Mozart’s father’s side, as “obsessive.” He had no other formal education.
Thomas Edison was likely homeschooled and tutored by his mother, who used to be a professional schoolteacher.
Charles Dickens was tutored by his mother (who knew Latin and, as a Barrow, was better educated than the family she married into). Indeed, that’s where Charles got his love of literature from. According to Charles Dickens: A Life, her tutoring in literature and reading makes
“. . . Elizabeth Dickens sound like a mother who cherished her son through careful teaching which sparked his imagination, and from then on words were associated with pleasure and he was set on his path."
Charles Darwin grew up in a household with governesses (who looked after but also taught children):
. . . as the children grew older a succession of governesses was employed. A favourite was Miss Thorley, who stayed for many years, and she was followed by a German governess, Miss Ludwig, who seems to have been in regular employment for some years and then sporadically.
and I think it’s likely he had male tutors as well—certainly his own children grew up in such a household, they write about their tutors in their letters, and it’s hard to believe that their situation, a rich aristocratic family in a huge manor house with a servant’s quarters and governesses and tutors, was different from what Charles himself grew up with. And we know for a fact Charles certainly supplemented with tutors later in life as well; in the essay I give an example of Darwin hiring a freedman tutor when he was merely 16 to point out the casualness and ubiquity of tutoring as an educational supplement. He particularly needed help with math:
In the summer vacation a private tutor was engaged, not so much perhaps to brush up his "maths" as to try and drive some into him; but he had, as he describes it, "no natural turn" for mathematics and gave up before mastering the first part of algebra and "loathing surds and the Binomial Theorem". In later life he much regretted that he had not mastered the first principles of mathematics as it might have helped him in his work. Indeed, he was right. If only he had been a man with even a nodding acquaintance with mathematics he might have forestalled Mendel, and the mechanism of heredity would have been laid before the world by him instead of having to wait to be pronounced by de Vries, Correns and Tschermak following their rediscovery in 1900 of Mendel's work.
So, while it’s tough to imagine, there’s some historical evidence that Darwin would have been an even greater genius with more tutoring than what he received.
Newton? A more complicated case. Newton first goes to a school at the age of 12. What was he doing before that time? Details I can find are sparse, but if he was homeschooled it seems likely he was tutored by a parent. Far more relevantly, education itself was quite different then. Even learning in college was much closer to what we now consider tutoring. Here’s a comment on Scott’s blog by Aneesh Mulye pointing this out:
Newton and Darwin are anti-examples. . . Oxford and Cambridge are *known* for their primary method of education being... tutoring. And I don't mean one-on-many, I mean 1:1 to 1:3 ratios at most. That's literally what they're famous for. That's what's produced the strings of geniuses we see, including even modern eminences such as Dawkins (Dawkins' tutor was Niko Tinbergen, founder of ethology and later Nobelist; the description Dawkins gives of what that was like is astounding, and makes for a stunning and depressing contrast with the meatgrinder/factory model that's the default otherwise — you realise the later may not in fact deserve at all the name 'education').
So *all* the statements of the kind 'and then he went to Oxbridge, which is a totally normal education' are a major category error. That's not how they do things there; over there, they actually bother to press the 'Win' button occasionally.
This is backed up from historical sources of what being in Cambridge at this time would be like. Consider Never at Rest, a biography of Newton, that says:
The system of tutors within the colleges [of Cambridge], which had largely replaced university lectures, had followed its own peculiar development. . . Newton’s tutor, Benjamin Pulleyn, was the champion pupil monger of Trinity during the period Newton was an undergraduate. . . [Newton’s] tutor Pulleyan may have recognized his pupil’s brilliance and tried to help him by enlisting Isaac Barrow, the one man in Trinity fit to judge his competence in the unorthodox studies he had undertaken.
So Newton was homeschooled until he was 12, and then at the age of 17 was one-on-one tutored at Cambridge in a tutoring system that had replaced lectures, again, making him a pretty debatable case.
Louis Pasteur is the only one of the examples who was definitely not tutored. . . unless you again count that the style of education at these top colleges was, at the time, based much more on tutoring—and indeed, Louis Pasteur was later appointed as a “tutor” himself.
So of the six examples Scott Alexander gives as supposed non-tutored geniuses, two were tutored by their parents (who just happened to be professional teachers). Another, Darwin, had governesses and definitely supplemented his later education with tutoring, and possibly his early education as well (at minimum, we know his rich aristocratic family was in the habit of this). A further two, Newton and Dickens, are more debatable, but both show some evidence of tutoring, depending on how one fills in the gaps (which an expert may be able to fill in better than myself), although Dicken’s experience ends quite early. Only the last of the examples, Pasteur, went through the school system in a manner very much like today, unless we include that elite universities of the time still ran on things like tutoring systems.
Overall, if we look into the lives of most of these figures we see a society awash with tutoring—we see mothers tutoring, fathers tutoring, we see hired tutors and governesses, we see an elite education system built around tutoring, and we see the figures themselves becoming tutors.
The problem seems to be that Scott read the essay and came away with “There’s Definitely Only One Thing that Went Wrong with Producing Geniuses and This Is It.” He even says that
I think efforts like Hoel’s to find the One Thing That Went Wrong in producing geniuses are doomed to fail.
And he implies the same with:
. . . Hoel is making a stronger claim: that there are almost no geniuses today. For aristocratic tutoring to explain that, we would need for almost all past geniuses to be aristocratically tutored. But as far as I can tell, that isn’t true.
Yet, in the essay I never said that the decline of genius is due fully and completely to a lack of tutoring. Personally, I do think that “ideas are getting harder to find.” Indeed, evidence of this hypothesis is linked in the original essay. I just don’t think it explains the full decline, and aristocratic tutoring is the missing puzzle piece. Therefore, we should expect to find examples of historical geniuses without aristocratic tutors, and we should also expect to still find geniuses after aristocratic tutoring ended, even now, just at a reduced rate per the effective population (which is indeed what is observed). This makes most of Scott’s criticisms moot, since he’s arguing against a mono-causal straw man.
Why even look for a missing puzzle piece in the decline of genius? As I pointed out, the “ideas are getting harder to find” thesis implies two questionable assumptions: (a) science and arts are “mineable” or “exhaustible” in exactly the same way since the decline seems similar in both, and (b) that ideas got harder to find in such a way it counterbalanced the explosion of free information to everyone on Earth in a period of under 20 years due to the internet. Scott addressed neither of these points, and it’s complications like these why I don’t think the explanation of simply “ideas getting harder to find” is adequate.
Finally, Scott also briefly suggests that there are fields in which we still do aristocratic tutoring (he names music and Chess). Scott’s evidence for the case of music is his own brother, who was tutored by a famous jazz musician, and went on to become. . . a famous musician. Which looks like a successful case of contemporary aristocratic tutoring to me. But Scott seems to think this is so common we should have Mozarts everywhere now, and we don’t, so the overall hypothesis is wrong. A classical musician disagreed, commenting that:
The art has indeed declined on the compositional side, and in fact private tutoring on composing is basically non existent (it was common in the past). In my career as a classical musician I have only heard of private tutoring for composing as a crutch when stuff weren't going well during the normal, boring and uninspiring teaching hours in the music school. Similar to normal school.
Chess (and sports) are the two fields I would name wherein we still regularly do the sort of intense one-on-one tutoring we saw historically in intellectual subjects, and indeed, both chess and sports records have been being shattered decade upon decade very consistently: Magnus Carlsen is a better player than Bobby Fischer, Roger Federer is a better player than Andre Agassi, etc.
So, while I appreciate Scott engaging with the post, none of the objections to the theory seem very strong to me, as they either elide historical details, assume that aristocratic tutoring is occurring now at the same rate (which tutors of the elite disagree with), or assume the thesis implies mono-causality or universality.
This is a fascinating theory, and I think you may be onto something here. I, too, have wondered about why there are fewer geniuses now than in the past. There are a few other potential contributing factors to this that I didn’t see mentioned:
(1) The rise of “publish or perish”. The aristocratic geniuses of the past could work at a leisurely pace and focus only on their most important ideas. Today, most intellectuals are academics or journalists, and both professions require increasing quantities of work from practitioners to maintain employment. This means most intellectuals are forced to spend more time on less important ideas that can be developed over the course of weeks or months rather than years.
(2) Geniuses are out there, but their contributions aren’t as obvious because of specialization. The intellectual world has expanded dramatically. There’s more specialized information than ever. As such, the contributions of geniuses will not be as obvious to the general public, or even intellectuals in their own field who work in different subfields. This applies even to the arts, where (I am told) to appreciate many modern art movements you need to be well educated in an array of specific artists and traditions.
(3) Geniuses are out there, but increased intellectual competition makes each individual less influential. There are so many more intellectuals today than even 200 years ago, and the competition is fierce. Take philosophy. The greats of the past engaged with only a relatively small number of thinkers, most of whom were dead. So a small handful of individuals had all the low hanging intellectual fruit to themselves. A philosopher today must compete with dozens or hundreds of thinkers, all of whom are hunting for objections to her work and/or rushing ahead to beat her to some of that low hanging fruit. Perhaps there are hundreds of hidden great philosophers today who, if there was far less intellectual competition, would eventually pick all the low hanging fruit themselves and therefore be more obviously great.
(I haven’t read the comments on the first post so apologies if these have already been addressed there)
If you're willing to accept "parent did a little tutoring" as an explanation for some of the figures I named (eg Newton), I think that makes your theory much weaker than I had originally thought. In particular, it suggests that a big fraction of the kids being homeschooled by their parents should count as aristocratically tutored - and that's millions of people! I think that makes a lot of the rest of your post - about how this is almost unattainable today, about how it's impossible without unacceptable social inequality - fall flat. If ordinary homeschooling by parents counts, your headline result should be "home school your kids"!
(also, a lot of kids who aren't home schooled get some tutoring by their parents on the side, so I think tens of millions of children probably qualify as "at least as home schooled as Darwin or Dickens")
Likewise, if you're going to count Oxbridge as tutoring, your conclusion shouldn't be "too bad there's no aristocratic tutoring anymore," it should be "Go to Oxbridge, the one place still capable of producing geniuses!" And then you should compare Oxbridge to some equally selective institution like the Ivies to see if this really has an effect.
Although you never said the decline in genius was due entirely to tutoring, you implied it was a pretty strong factor. I think if eg 75% of past geniuses weren't aristocratically tutored, then the decline of aristocratic tutoring can only account for at most 25% of the decline in geniuses, which was not the impression I got from your post. Adding in the existence of current aristocratically tutored people, like home schoolers and Oxbridgeans, and adjusting for the percent of geniuses that they are, would lower these numbers further.