Aristocratic tutoring I: Explaining the decline of genius
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?
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.
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.
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.
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!
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?
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."
"THE ATOMIC BOMB CONSIDERED AS HUNGARIAN HIGH SCHOOL SCIENCE FAIR PROJECT"
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This man homeschooled his three daughters and all of them becamse chess Grandmasters.
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)
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.
Fascinating stuff. I wonder if there are people out there who are creating genius-level works that are getting lost in the increasing abundance of average works. It's going to become more difficult to get to that pre-eminent status when you're competing with more people (and more judges of pre-eminence). An interesting consequence of our connected society.
i legitimately think this will go down with Scott Alexander's "Meditations on Moloch" as one of the most important essays of the last 20 years.
my Dad is an Elementary School drama teacher--30 years as of September--and having an ongoing cast of educators in a variety of fields constantly around at a very young age was really huge for nurturing curiosity and 'how to think about thinking'.
my own kids--a 3.5 year old and a 2 year old--have both benefited from COVID, in that we've (my wife has been in education for a while) been hunkered down with grandparents and a small 'pod' of folks learning Spanish...but more just learning to love learning. it seems to be paying dividends already as the kids are really enthusiastic about all things knowledge in ways that bode well for the long haul.