260 Comments

Thanks, this was a great essay, and very compelling. Obviously there are more factors than the decline of personal tutoring (James Joyce, Johannes Kepler, Shakespeare-if-you-agree-Shakespeare-is-Shakespeare didn't have tutors). It had me thinking of another problem, also appearing around 1950, which for the glibness of this comment I'll call the Decline of Boredom. How much does boredom play into creative thought, and what does constant stimulus do to suppress that creative thought? Might it be that genius was created on a rainy day when the genius was thinking of something to do?

Expand full comment
Mar 16, 2022·edited Mar 16, 2022

God, how I miss boredom! (Words child-me would never, ever have believed I'd someday say.) Our current pace of life is exhausting and occurs in a modern environment that unrelentingly trains us toward short attention. It all leaves me too worn-through most of the time for the kind of deep thought and engagement that I did as a child, and which I would very much love to do again.

I strongly suspect it's not just me, and that we really are gradually, collectively becoming more aware that progress -- as amazing and beneficial as it has largely been! -- has had some negative side-effects. The extreme proliferation of various forms of self-help (which I am absolutely guilty of partaking in) around the topic of simple/slower/mindful/distraction-free/tech-minimal/attentive living seems to support this. Certainly, I would love to figure out how to live a more substantive and fulfilling life, without giving up all the positive aspects of said progress. Perhaps that's a naive or quixotic expectation. I hope not, but I can't deny that I'm rather underwhelmed with my own results so far.

Expand full comment

agreed with this. This is why our shower thoughts are the weirdest, because all the work is repetitive and there is room for thought

Expand full comment

Perhaps the Internet has suppressing effects. A common SF trope is that a telepath’s life is misery, constantly swamped by unwanted input from random minds. We are all that telepath now. On the supply side a truly curious person gets pulled in too many directions. This can inhibit the focus needed for (and supplied by tutors in the past) development of genius-level contributions. On the demand side we need an intelligentsia that is able to find, understand and recognize genius. Finding fails in a thicket of drivel, shouting, and self-promotion by the ignorant. Good work is obscured by noise, by competition for attention, by opposing (and often inferior) ideas of many stripes. Maybe the Internet could someday stop magnifying all our worst motivations and cognitive biases.

To the importance of tutoring, I can attest that it is still a tradition at some elite institutions. My daughter is a grad student at Oxford, where it is common for her and her peers to be paid to have tutoring sessions with 2 or 3 less advanced students. This is not remedial. Tutoring so-defined is the primary teaching/learning method there.

Expand full comment

It's also often the primary method used to teach within industry; I work in finance, and no course can adequately teach credit analysis. The only people who are any good at it have had hundreds of hours of personal guidance from experts, adjusting feedback to performance and individual situations.

Expand full comment

Great article.

There are billionaires who are not hiring this sort of tutor for their children. Rather, they will spend $50,000+ annually to send them to a private school.

Why?

I think it is because actual knowledge and learning really don't matter. The role of education has become one of signaling and class status.

MIT and Stanford literally give away access to their courses online for free. What other business gives away their core product??

The answer is, it isn't their core product. There is nothing you will learn at MIT or Stanford that you won't learn elsewhere. It is all about the credentials. Nothing else matters.

Will a private tutor improve your access to Harvard or Yale? If not, most people who can afford a tutor simply don't see the point.

You attend a prestigious grade school to get into a prestigious prep school so you can get into a prestigious college. Test scores matter only insofar as it will help achieve this goal. Actual learning and knowledge doesn't really play a part.

If you haven't read it already, I'd recommend The Case against Education by Bryan Caplan, an economist from George Mason.

Expand full comment
author

Agreed. A number of people have said that somehow billionaires are doing this in private, and yet I see no evidence. Indeed, a private tutor DMed me to lament that in 15 years working with elites across the world, only 2-3 requested anything that looked like aristocratic tutoring https://twitter.com/erikphoel/status/1506268242616229893

Expand full comment

Oddly, I definitely got something like this as a young financial analyst. I know actuaries often get the same. I think this exists where margins allow it (finance, tech, ...).

Expand full comment

One of the main lessons I took from the article is that true education is about engagement and not content. What MIT and Stanford (and many others) did was opening up content, but not engagement (e.i. projects, group discussions, feedback sessions). That can't be delivered in tidy internet packages.

Expand full comment

If you live in the area, most professors will happily let you audit their courses. You can sit in the classroom and ask questions and they will be happy to answer. You can literally join study groups, participate and no one will care.

The reason why no one cares is that so long as you aren't on the official registration, in their eyes, it doesn't matter.

I've never heard of an administrator cracking down on people auditing courses. I can't say I've ever even heard of someone being accused of "stealing" an education, even though it is now worth more than a new car at some schools.

As the cost of a college education has increased, the incentive for "stealing" an education has gone up, yet it is unheard of. Why?

The reason is because you can't steal what they are really selling, which are credentials.

Why is demand for "elite" schools greater than large state schools even though they teach the exact same things? Credentials.

It is credentialism all the way down.

Expand full comment

I can recall reading an article 25 years ago about the top tutor in Chicago's upscale North Shore suburbs. His most famous clients had been the children of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who seems like a pretty demanding client.

Expand full comment

Perhaps - but maybe the core product is engagement with the professors? Beyond intro courses anyway. And that fits the model described albeit later in life...though of course the signaling is also a big piece.

Expand full comment
Mar 16, 2022·edited Mar 16, 2022Liked by Erik Hoel

This, plus your Butlerian Jihad essay, have won me over that you're not just Another Guy Writing About Things. Meaningful, original commentary. Good stuff!

Expand full comment
author

Very much appreciated, thank you

Expand full comment

I appreciate this essay, though I have a natural aversion to picking data points in this way from history. The data is self-sorted, because the geniuses are there for us to examine. But the data does not answer other questions - (1) is genius declining or is the period of the late 19th century a blip in the overall pattern? (2) is our capacity of measuring genius biased towards western countries? (3) is genius the outlier of their time, in which case is the 'lack' of a genius today more about how much human potential is expressing itself simultaneously? In other words, are we not able to find a genius today because there are so many in so many fields of life, now that the internet has unshackled us from geographically-limited networks?

Expand full comment

One can hardly call a century-long period a, "blip." You can also go back to the aristocratic thinkers of Isaac Newton's day, or the Golden age of Islam with its revolutionary thinkers.

Expand full comment
Mar 17, 2022Liked by Erik Hoel

From Scott Alexander's article:

"The coincidences actually pile up beyond this. Von Neumann, Wigner, and possibly Teller all went to the same central Budapest high school at about the same time, leading a friend to joke about the atomic bomb being basically a Hungarian high school science fair project.

But maybe we shouldn’t be joking about this so much. Suppose we learned that Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach all had the same childhood piano tutor. It sounds less like “ha ha, what a funny coincidence” and more like “wait, who was this guy, and how quickly can we make everyone else start doing what he did?”

In this case, the guy was Laszlo Ratz, legendary Budapest high school math teacher. I didn’t even know people told legends about high school math teachers, but apparently they do, and this guy features in a lot of them. There is apparently a Laszlo Ratz Memorial Congress for high school math teachers each year, and a Laszlo Ratz medal for services to the profession. There are plaques and statues to this guy. It’s pretty impressive.

A while ago I looked into the literature on teachers and concluded that they didn’t have much effect overall. Similarly, Freddie deBoer writes that most claims that certain schools or programs have transformative effects on their students are the result of selection bias.

On the other hand, we have a Hungarian academy producing like half the brainpower behind 20th century physics, and Nobel laureates who literally keep a picture of their high school math teacher on the wall of their office to inspire them. Perhaps even if teachers don’t explain much of the existing variability, there are heights of teacherdom so rare that they don’t show up in the statistics, but still exist to be aspired to?

II.

I’ve heard this argument a few times, and I think it’s wrong.

Yes, two of Ratz’s students went on to become supergeniuses. But Edward Teller, another supergenius, went to the same high school but (as far as I know) was never taught by Ratz himself. That suggests that the school was good at producing supergeniuses regarldess of Ratz’s personal qualities. A further point in support of this: John Harsanyi also went to the school, also wasn’t directly taught by Ratz, and also went on to win a Nobel Prize and invent various important fields of mathematics. So this school – the Fasori Gymnasium – seems to have been about equally excellent for both its Ratz-taught and its non-Ratz-taught pupils."

From:

"THE ATOMIC BOMB CONSIDERED AS HUNGARIAN HIGH SCHOOL SCIENCE FAIR PROJECT"

Expand full comment
author

Wigner was homeschooled, tutored individually by a professional teacher until he was 9. Not sure about Teller.

Expand full comment

I'm reading the new biography of von Neumann. It says Hungarian students didn't start school until age 10 before WWI, but von Neumann's wealthy father hired top tutors for him from long before. Something similar is probably true for the other Hungarian Jewish "Martians."

Expand full comment

Hi Erik, thank you for writing such an insightful and engaging article.

What if there is something that aristocratic tutors were doing that is responsible for most of the success of tutored geniuses?

What if that something is replicable without having a full time tutor?

You mentioned « engaging them in discussions, often in a live-in capacity, fostering both knowledge but also engagement with intellectual subjects and fields. »

There is a book by British psychologist Hans Eysenck: Genius, the natural history of creativity

Among other things the book highlights that, at equal intelligence, personality traits determines the difference between genius and not genius.

Personally I suspect that a 1:1 tutoring allows children to be actively engaged. They are obliged to speak up and share their views, they will be challenged and have to come up with defense arguments or revise their views. This particular exercise will give them powerful social skills that boost self-confidence, sociability, perseverance. All key personality traits of geniuses.

PS. Universality is also a common trait of geniuses neglected in today’s world which favor specialization.

Expand full comment
author

This is a great question Mario. In fact, you've predicted a further post on this series where I examine in depth exactly what aristocratic tutoring looked like day to day, and exactly what's responsible for its success. Broadly I think you summed it up nicely - the engagement is what's important - but I'll have a lot more to say about what the details of that looks like.

Also, thank you for the book recommendation, I hadn't heard of it. This is increasingly becoming an interest of mine, and I've been reading a number of books on the subject, so that's a great recommendation to add to my to-read pile.

Expand full comment

Have you looked into modern analogues like Oxford tutors or Amherst? It doesn't appear that the 1:1 they provide has led to greater geniusness, though it is obviously later in life. For me, being tutored at Oxford was the single greatest time of my intellectual life.

Expand full comment

Awesome, looking forward to read it!

Expand full comment

Or is it simply that we have a prejudice about what geniuses do? We count the artistic, scientific, and philosophical geniuses, but ignore the technical, military, and business geniuses. The geniuses of our time are mostly writing code.

Expand full comment
author

I think you're right that, for instance, there's less of an argument that business genius has declined (e.g., Elon Musk vs Henry Ford). But I think intellectual genius has indeed declined (artistic, scientific, and philosophical).

Expand full comment

These disciplines aren't valued as they once were; teenagers aren't striving to become the next Sartre and even if they were--who would notice? I'm sure you'll agree that book publishing has narrowed tremendously... we have to wonder what great works are getting stuck at the gateway because they're simply not "commercial." Genius is esoteric and the esoteric doesn't sell reliably so it doesn't get picked up. It's a terrible cycle: high-level writing isn't given its due, which diminishes the impetus to make it.

Expand full comment

Publishing has narrowed tremendously, yes. Partly this is due to woke politics, but mostly to data-driven marketing. The irony is that data-driven marketing is a work of genius that severely impedes the flourishing of genius in other fields.

Expand full comment

This is a result of our religion of pure profit above all else. Because maximizing money is our society’s most important value, all fields narrow to achieve that goal. Intellectual literature doesn’t sell so it isn’t focused on and promoted. Schools produce people as commodities to credentialize so education no longer educates. Healthcare, politics, ad infinitum. Worshipping maximized profit impedes almost everything. It’s a value disorder that’s destroying things.

Expand full comment

I don't think there is anything wrong with the profit motive in itself. The problem is that it lacks a sufficiently powerful rival: a widely shared value that also needs to be met. (And don't say equity. Equity is not a rival to the profit motive. It is the profit motive expressed by those without enterprise or capital.)

Expand full comment

I would say it's more the fault of corrupt and uneducated population. The reason philosophers could write and speak in the past was people interested n genuine philosophy, as in ancient Greece. People today are interested in status, and thus shallow "philosophy"... but not really any deep thinking beyond, "this one neat trick will _*blow your mind."*_

Expand full comment

I seriously doubt the illiterate peasantry of Greece were interested in philosophy. There is far greater interest in such topics today than ever. The real difference is the diversity of thought. We now have choices. You might read Plato, and I might be into Kant, and Steve over there likes reading about Hobbits, and that is okay.

Mass market books and e-books are a gift from God. The greatest threat we face are the greedy great grandchildren of authors extending their copyright. We need more open and free books from the 1900's. I have met young people who are amazingly well-read from free book on kindle. It is a blessing.

Expand full comment
Mar 20, 2022·edited Mar 21, 2022

If to think of scientific genius as a great discoverer/inventor, one explanation for apparent decline could be that the "low hanging fruits" have already been picked. Today's best scientists could be no less "genius" but it's just much harder to discover big new things.

Expand full comment

You'd be interested in Charles Murray's 2003 book "Human Accomplishment" (from which some of this post's graphs are drawn). Here's my review of it:

https://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/cultures-bell-curve/

Expand full comment

Murray has posted online his database of 4,002 eminent individuals in the arts and sciences from Homer to 1950:

https://osf.io/z9cnk/

To quantify your theory, you could take Murray's, say, top 100 geniuses and look up their tutors, starting with Wikipedia's "Early Life" and following up with searches for "tutor" in biographies on Google Books.

Expand full comment

So then the question becomes, is it normal in history for genius to be distributed across all fields, or is genius clumpy? Renaissance painters or classical composers, for instance, suggest that genius is highly clumpy.

This would not be incompatible with your tutor theory, as it suggests that there is a social aspect to genius, that it may require brilliant people of similar interests to get together to raise one or two of their number to genius.

Expand full comment

I am not aware of many astrophysicists who publish short fiction, or chemists who paint. The training level for modern sciences is LONG. This retards growth in other areas, methinks. How old are scientists when they get tenure these days? 40?

Expand full comment

While currently active stand-out individuals in the arts and sciences may be harder to pick than in times past, it's hard to say that today's art and science isn't far ahead of that of the ages of geniuses.

When only aristocrats (and similar) can be artists and scientists, (and the vast majority choose not to be) one might expect there to be few of them. Now such vocations are within the grasp of most people in the WEIRD world, there are many excellent practitioners.

Expand full comment
Mar 16, 2022Liked by Erik Hoel

Yeah ... Google Ads code

Expand full comment

John Carmack surely is a tech genius. There are a bunch of revolutionaries from early computing, though I'm not sure who deserves genius status.

Expand full comment

Turing? Shannon of course.

Expand full comment

Turing absolutely. I would put him equal if not beyond Einstein. Turing shaped our world far more. He built modernity's foundations.

Expand full comment

Linus Torvalds gets my vote.

Expand full comment

Love this in terms of how Bentham and Mills plays out in the real world: greatest good for the greatest number of students; and the flatlining rigor that results. I enjoyed how you considered the privilege piece here, too: if we made some lifestyle changes, my husband and I could afford to hire at least one tutor to supplement my boys' education (school has not yet suggested they need one to keep up, so it could remain an exercise in inspiration). But the cost of that isn't purely economic. Part of what makes a genius is the elevated experience that also provides an outsider's POV. IE: Instead of doing what other kids do, you'll be studying the Stoics. As a parent it's hard to force upon your child the separateness that genius demands.

Expand full comment
author

Thank you for this comment Isabel, I think it's really important. You're totally right, a sort of forced separateness is not something most would be willing to do now, even if they could afford it. It's almost a feedback loop: aristocratic tutoring without an aristocracy may mean the child pays a social price that no one in the aristocracy paid (since the kids then could just hang out with other aristocrats)

Expand full comment
Oct 11, 2022Liked by Erik Hoel

I would attest that the rise of corporations has not removed geniuses, but certainly made them anonymous. There are far too many big companys that employ far too many people for none of them to be geniuses. I would also posit that the majority of these geniuses are not looking at big problems the world is facing. They are more likely designing a new clip to hold a washing machine hose back in transport to avoid damage, or some other mundane task that does not let them realise their potential.

Expand full comment
Apr 18, 2022Liked by Erik Hoel

This man homeschooled his three daughters and all of them becamse chess Grandmasters.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/László_Polgár

Expand full comment
Mar 16, 2022Liked by Erik Hoel

A more recent example of genius is Feynman. I don't think he had tutors, although he talked about how his father had influence on his early learning.

Expand full comment

I looked up Feynman, Claude Shannon, and Alan Turing, three individuals who became famous for their genius in the latter decades of the 20th Century (and Shannon is still relatively obscure). The former two appear to have been educated in American public schools, while Turing, who was from an elite background, attended a fancy private school that tried to teach him more classics than math.

Expand full comment
Apr 27, 2022Liked by Erik Hoel

First time reading. I like the general idea here but I have a different life experience and observations on genius.

I'm not one. Even though I did Tensor calculus and Einstein GR at 16.

But. I did go to MIT in 72 and I said after a year..oh! Those are the really smart people..ie not me.

My observations are summed up in my lifetime of seeing, participating in various sciences and technologies as:

Nothing is New. Absolutely nothing in 50 years. I claim everything that we have today..everything... was established by the physics and discoveries and 1st techs up to maybe 1970.

Bohr - Einstein begat... photovoltaics and the semiconductor. From which integrated circuits, CPUS, computers..and by necessity software are just darwinian derivatives.

We were on the internet/DARPANET, played multiplayer games, had social conversations across the nation ie FB... messages..all 50 yrs ago. We had flaming spam emails, then voice mail flames and chat rooms 40+ years ago. Cell phones 40 yrs ago.

Exhibit A: We have a ways to the next true Bohr Einstein physics leap ahead.

Exhibit B. I agree with the Author that the close environment of a prospective genius is most vital (not always) but proven incubator for that genius. I would add:

Exhibit C. Florence 13th to 18th century. But..consider especially that both DaVinci and Michaelangelo were children surrounded by the creations of Donatello, the duomo, Ghiberti, Donatello, Brunelleschi. Along with Raphael, they admired, were envious and competed.

Their art was breakthrough. Because by definition it had not been done before. Firsts.

Jobs and Wozniak grew up in the semiconductor innovation and manufacturing supercenter of the Bay area. Surrounded by chip maker and all the new rush for computers they had accand participated real time in a historical geocentric innovation moment. It totally facilitated them. There are no such from Iowa or Mississippi.

So... where are we. I say the lack of such world changing genius is predominantly because there is a lack of unsolved fundamental science.

In art, the 20th century Americans...were the game changers from the classical orchestral form, to modern music. Scott Joplin, George Gershwin melded classical and Jazz..and the American Jazz, Folk, country led to Ray Charles, Little Richard and Chuck Berry. Everything followed from them.

I think for a good while, the human body, genetic engineering is the immediate frontier..more development than basic.science.

Expand full comment

Here here

Expand full comment

As an extra piece of data, Elon Musk admits that he was taught a lot of engineering by his father. When his parents divorced, he chose to live with his father while his other two siblings stayed with his mother.

(Source: https://twitter.com/elonmusk/status/1386759755088211974?lang=en)

Expand full comment

I would argue there is a clear genius among us who has been creating a complex, deep, intricate body of work since 2006. Her name is Maria Popova. Her online project began as “Brain Pickings” and is now “The Marginalian.” She grew up in Bulgaria, the daughter of an engineer and a librarian. When she was small, her grandmother read to her from encyclopedias. Her own body of work on philosophy, literature, science, and the arts is encyclopedic.

I believe one aspect of genius is the ability to make meaningful connections among seemingly disparate ideas and pieces of information culled from different time periods--Popova does this like no one else. And she does it humbly with deep compassion and empathy.

Expand full comment
Apr 24, 2022Liked by Erik Hoel

One of the best thought article I have read in a longtime. Need to assimilate it by going through 'slowly'. At my age - I am 74, we had the privilege of having lots of time and boredom. However that curiosity thus created was never ignited beyond obvious. My fourth standard - I was 9 years old - was the best learning period. I was given eighth standard Maths book to test my understanding and problem solving skills.

Being poor, in a small town in India, was not a big hindrance in learning. There were no private schools, teachers were dedicated and class rooms were filled with students from all classes. Society was more adjusting towards this variance. However , lack of intellectual discussions and classic books ( did not even know of classics ) might have affected the learning. Being first in the class was a great , be all and end all, achievement.

Another deficiency in the learning, I feel, was not being driven by the teachers or peers to learn by applying first principal and then developing the solution for the problem at hand. I still feel it's not too late to start even now if I want to enjoy the real command over the subject and contribute to it.

So , where do we go from here. Online learning is a fad and necessity in the pandemic times. But the learners are not enjoying and hence are learning less and less. Examination system are getting tweaked to adjust the lower learnings by creating tests of multiple options questions.

Languages are getting affected by the shortcuts being practiced in WhatsApp or other apps.

I think , as parents we have a big role to play. We should take our responsibility of rearing a child seriously. At Least , till the child reaches the teens years, we can be guide and tutor to the child. Observe her progress in learning and thinking prowess. Provide the necessary stimulant ( external or inhouse). And avoid the rat race.

( May be we need to gather our thoughts about parental schema towards their children)

Expand full comment