Aristocratic tutoring III: The day-to-day practices
What strikes me here is how broad these people are. Most STEM "intellectuals", especially bloggers or writers on substack, have the foggiest ideas about the humanities
I’m so enjoying this series of essays. Thank you. As a home-educating family, we find that many of the strategies you describe here are as rewarding as they are effective. We aren’t consciously trying to raise “geniuses,” but our two sons do have an unusual level of intellectual curiosity — and appetite for learning — especially compared to their schooled peers.
What’s most interesting to me is that Mill and Pascal got a lot of tutoring from their fathers. I don’t have kids, so maybe this is naive, but do you think it’s possible for contemporary people to try to bring some amount of aristocratic tutoring to their parenting? Is that just a luxury of being an aristocrat? Or does aristocratic tutoring lose its benefits when it’s performed in addition to (rather than instead of) modern schooling? You mention free time as an important characteristic of successful tutoring, and at the end it seems like you’re suggesting that schooling will have to change if there’s any hope for integrating aristocratic tutoring at all. I definitely agree that exams suck, especially when it comes to math, so is there any point trying it without serious education reform?
I try to imagine myself as a kid, my dad making me do more lessons on top of school, and I just think I would have hated that… but at the same time, I loved spending time with my dad, and maybe if the lessons were aristocratic and not just more homework, I would have loved them.
Not going to lie bro, laying here in my bed at 30, barely halfway through my clin psyc/PhD program, a life full of misdirections and false starts, I'm feeling a little sad my wonderful and intellectually brilliant parents didn't satisfy my curiosity as much as they could have. I remember my father teaching me single and double point perspective when I was 4/5 and reading to me Bill Brysons 'The Short History of Nearly Everything' by my bedside, but after that I was on my own, scrounging for any scraps of information - that luckily I must say, did sit on their enormous and varied bookshelf. I would love you to do a piece on 'late bloomers', who lacked intimate tutor-relationships as children, and after misdirection, found their way and maybe produced something brilliant. This is the case for artists, certainly.
I loved this article, thanks for sharing. I also see a connection between walking and the acquisition of knowledge to eating and digesting food. Perhaps, one could say they are the contemplative steps of the mouth that internalizes information for human flourishing. There is this savoring structure that needs to be recaptured. We “thirst” for knowledge, we must drink from gentle fountains and not gushing firehoses.
I agree with you that one-on-one education was probably was the cause of a lot of invention in 18th, 19th and early part of 20 centuries.
The invention has become much harder as most of low hanging fruits have already been picked and future invention requires collaboration of people from multiple fields and requires a very high level of specialization even in a particular subfield. As you see people are becoming highly specialized in each subfield as it is becoming harder to get a job being only having a very high knowledge of a field or subfield like you get during your bachelor’s degrees.
I also believe that two world wars from 1915 to 1945 and another 15-20 years after that led to a time where we saw inventions in certain areas but a lot of basic research suffered due to people fighting wars and/or a lot of folks have to interrupt their education and jobs to fight wars and millions of them dying in their peak years and another factor was Europe took a long time to recover from the wars.
However, I think that there is another factor playing a role especially in the last 30-40 years.
Here are a few excerpts from Utopia for Realists by
“In the 1950s, only 12% of young adults agreed with the statement “I’m a very special person.” Today 80% do, when the fact is, we’re all becoming more and more alike. Is it any wonder that the cultural archetype of my generation is the Nerd, whose apps and gadgets symbolise the hope of economic growth? “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads,” a former math whiz at Facebook recently lamented.
A study conducted at Harvard found that Reagan-era tax cuts sparked a mass career switch among the country’s brightest minds, from teachers and engineers to bankers and accountants. Whereas in 1970 twice as many male Harvard grads were still opting for a life devoted to research over banking, 20 years later the balance had flipped, with one and a half times as many alumni employed in finance.
Back in 1970, American stocks were still held for an average of five years; 40 years later, it’s a mere five days. If we imposed a transactions tax – where you would have to pay a fee each time you buy or sell a stock – those high-frequency traders who contribute almost nothing of social value would no longer profit from split-second buying and selling of financial assets. In fact, we would save on frivolous expenditures that aid and abet the financial sector. Take the fiber optic cable laid to speed transmissions between financial markets in London and New York in 2012. Price tag: $300 million. Time gain: a whole 5.2 milliseconds.
More to the point though, these taxes would make all of us richer. Not only would they give everyone a more equal share of the pie, but the whole pie would be bigger. Then the whiz kids who pack off to Wall Street could go back to becoming teachers, inventors, and engineers.”
When our best and brightest are applying their knowledge in a zero sum games like wallstreet and trying to become rich by keeping people longer on a website or making them click on a page something will suffer and I think that is another factor playing a big role. I know several of friends kid went to an Ivy League/MIT etc schools and majority of their class mates went to either wallstreet, consulting or a tech company like mentioned above because of much higher pays. The incentive to go thru the pain of inventing which takes decades and chance that you may be a complete failure is also there when you can take a shortcut and be a multimillionaire in 10 years or less.
So to summarize, I think the priorities have changed we still produce a number of geniuses but they are very specialized and/or are focused on the industries that does not use their skills effectively. However, one-on-one education is probably the best way to produce a lot more geniuses than current education system can produce.
Hi Erik, inspiring part III, thank you for investigating and raising awareness on this subject!
Respect for setting up the goal of bringing back some of the organization and philosophy of aristocratic tutoring making more affordable. It sounds equally challenging and fun to me!
One key lever I am experimenting with my kids is how much 1:1 tutoring time is required. Before starting this experience I though as much as possible but soon realize they saturate after a certain quantity of 1:1 tutoring per day and need free time, as you describe in your article; perhaps to decompress, digest and wander about the interactions with the tutor.
My kids are still young (2 and 5) but even when we have full days available we can't go beyond 3 hours of tutoring per day. Full days are usually more productive as we do 2 sessions, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, with 3 or 4 different activities per session. When they go to school we do just one 2-3h long session in the afternoon with 3 or 4 activities. When I have to introduce a challenging new activity I only do that and shorten the session.
To the point about James & John Stuart Mill, the apprenticeship model, and Aristotle’s students’ notes—
This was standard throughout 18th and early 19th c. music education as well. Many of JS Bach’s greatest masterpieces were written as pedagogical works for his sons & students. He wrote on the title of his Inventions & Sinfonias:
“Forthright instruction, wherewith lovers of the clavier, especially those desirous of learning, are shown in a clear way not only 1) to learn to play two voices clearly, but also after further progress 2) to deal correctly and well with three obbligato parts, moreover at the same time to obtain not only good ideas, but also to carry them out well, but most of all to achieve a cantabile style of playing, and thereby to acquire a strong foretaste of composition.”
Perhaps more mind-boggling are the Organ trio sonatas, some of Johann Sebastian’s greatest works, which were written for his eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann to practice and study as an apprentice. More to the point, many “lesser” works were written as exercises where Bach would write a bass line or a melody and expect the student to fill in the rest. The Bach family even kept a notebook where they would scribble down bits and pieces of music they heard and found interesting on their travels. They would expand upon it, write alternate versions, make arrangements, and just play with it in general. We have a fair few gems of music from that notebook. I have even found manuscripts from Wilhelm Friedemann’s later years where Johann Sebastian seems to have filled in some music where WF left off--their roles, even if only for a line or two, were reversed. In any case, their relationship was much more collaborative than what we would think of as teacher/student today.
I use the Bach family as an example because they were extraordinarily prolific, but the structure of their education was nothing unusual as far as I can tell. For example, many of the standard works we play now by JJ Quantz were originally found in notebook scribblings by his students such as JD Braun and Frederick the Great. And so on…
Music is still taught this way--for now. Conservatories are basically trade schools. It’s impossible to learn it otherwise. Even as performers we learn by playing with our teachers over the course of years, first in private duets, then in public orchestral or recital programs. But even in music schools, I see portents of this approach coming to an end in favor of more standardized education models. That, perhaps, is a topic for another time...
Anyway, thanks for this essay, Erik! Wonderful food for thought, as always.
The bit by Russell saying "I used to enjoy impressing a new tutor with my knowledge" is more revealing than one might realize at first.
I think a key mechanism through which one-on-one tutoring in early-childhood may achieve its effects is that of a child wanting to impress / get validation from a parent-like figure.
Interesting. One irony I would add is that these polymath generalist aristocratic kid geniuses are more useful today, because we are awash in specialist findings on our laptops but have no experience integrating such knowledge. My next book is an attempt to synthesize and generalize social science thinking I expect to get most of my free PR from specialists complaining about its shallowness (despite alll the footnotes)
In the modern era finding a true polymath is becoming increasingly rare,and this should be worrying us.
I have to say that the first article in the series had a profound impact on my thinking of education, and since I'm the parent of a young kid, the future eductaion of at least one person. Thanks Eric for writing it, doing the podcasts (I heard your discussion on Palladium) and these follow up articles. I understand that its always a shot into the dark when sharing these kinds of perspectives, but at least for this one it is having an impact in me and at least some others I've shared it with.
For our situation, we are genuinely starting to frame up a tutoring approach for our daughter. The more we research, the more it seems viable and not nearly as crazy as one might expect. I wouldn't expect genius outcomes, but I would expect at least a better chance at strong critical thinking.
I'm curious about the ‘failed’ instances of tutoring. E.g. the child never grew up to be so smart
Also curious if you have any thoughts on if tutoring affects g/IQ potential
I remember when I was 16, I told a girl that school ruined my creativity by all of that rot learning. Of course, I know that I didn't come up with that idea, must have heard it somewhere, as it was in the air those days. Yet, a few seconds later I felt tremendous embarrassment, as I realized that what I just worded was nonsense. What I would be creative about, based on what knowledge and doing what? It was almost 50 years ago, but I still remember how dumb my statement felt to me. Seriously, I blushed, and still do remembering!
Thus, a few points:
1. Most of the examples in this post are about learning 100 or more years ago, when people were studying Greek and Latin and foreign languages, of all useless things. Because there wasn't much depth to any even hard sciences. Granted, there were Maxwell equations of electrodynamics then, but they required basic calculus to solve simple problems, and there were no computers to solve any complex configuration. Genetics: sure, Pearson built some foundations by 100 years ago, but Fisher and Haldane were only starting. Etc. Thus, there was not much to tutor on, so, I don't really understand the emphasis on it. Sure, all other pupils were getting 3R education - reading, righting, rythmetics - so tutoring was most superior to those.
2. Regarding the comments by Einstein and Russell - apparently, they weren't damaged for life by memorizing, but soon moved forward from the base they were given in direction of their personal interest. And succeeded tremendously.
3. IQ is highly stable in adulthood - based on twin studies most prominently by Plomin, Minnesota Twin studies, Nordic countries studies, etc. That is, by early adulthood the raw IQ is almost completely invariant with the upbringing (barred the serious material and educational deprivation). Thus, you cannot make a genius out of a dunce. Now something akin to the Terman experiment - finding talented kids, with IQ >150 - about one in a thousand in a population, and tutoring them could have effect, but you also would have to match these kids with suitably genius level tutors with expertise in the area of kids interest - which coincidentally would be also the area where a major breakthrough hasn't happened yet, and is on a verge of happening - quite impossible to choose. Not easy task finding suitable tutors too, because most likely such potential tutors these days are pursuing their own work, projects and careers. And, if the teaching is against the grain of a pupil, or the tutor is not as smart as a pupil, it would be annoying to a 15–16-year-old in very short order. Particularly, if kids possess suitable arrogance, empowering to go often against the prevailing knowledge later. You need a highly conforming kid to go along with such routine. I for one would hate it more than impersonal schooling.
4. While the school material may be too easy for such kids, the schooling in the US doesn't take that much time of the day, and the curious geeks will pursue their interest. Internet makes it easy these days. Still, broad schooling provides a broad basis to look into.
Thus, I don't see the aristocratic tutoring practical, or much helpful in 'making' geniuses.
In discussing the two articles with my colleagues, friends, and family, I came across the same initial objection: that aristocratic tutoring deprives the pupil of socialization. Erik mentioned this as a top issue in his interview on Palladium. Let me just give a perspective I've developed and see what others think.
I believe we make an error of logic if we assume ipso facto that the schooling system as we know it provides superior social outcomes. It certainly provides more same-age child contact, i.e. if we judge socialization as being in large scale interactions with other kids of the same age then it probably will indeed be best. But I suspect that schools are asymptotically arriving at maximum child-to-teacher load out of economic neccessity. That means they always will put as many children as possible together under the guidance of a given number of adults. And our schooling system is segregated by year: those kids will all be born within 12 months of each other. The maximization of child count is at least orthogonal to quality of social skill acquisition. One would assume that the social skills increase from a group size of 1, but decline also at some larger size. I don't believe the group sizes are chosen based on socialization outcomes (they may not even be chosen based on learning outcomes).
But the age segragetion seems to be outright bad for socialization in a way that something like sex-segregation or ethnic group segregation would also be seen as simply not aligned with social skill formation. Most social skills benefit from observation, immitation, and intentional instruction: all things that mixed age groups would achieve better than single-age groups. I suspect that grouping by a single age is simply a technique to simplify group teaching, both by reducing the expertise needed of the teacher and maximizing the chances that an undifferentiated lesson will fall on pupils ready for it.
So, in summary, the "the child would be too alone" risk needs to be addressed both as a true concern (social skills need to be learned indeed, so be sure that's figured out), and as a red herring argument in favour of schooling. Schools may give you bigger groups of same-age kids, but that's not to say they give you benchmark-level social skill formation.
>(d) teaching that avoids the standard lecture-based system of memorization and testing and instead encourages discussions, writing, debates, or simply overviewing the fundamentals together;
I am slightly skeptical of this. It wasn't lecture-based, but I would be surprised if Mill's or Pascal's education didn't contain a lot of memorization and rote-learning.