Why we stopped making Einsteins
Aristocratic tutoring I: Explaining the decline of genius
I think the most depressing fact about humanity is that during the 2000s most of the world was handed essentially free access to the entirety of knowledge and that didn’t trigger a golden age.
Think about the advent of the internet long enough and it seems impossible to not start throwing away preconceptions about how genius is produced. If genius were just a matter of genetic ability, then in the past century, as the world’s population increased dramatically, and as mass education skyrocketed, and as racial and gender barriers came thundering down across the globe, and particularly in the last few decades as free information saturated our society, we should have seen a genius boom—an efflorescence of the best mathematicians, the greatest scientists, the most awe-inspiring artists.
If a renaissance be too grand for you, will you at least admit we should have expected some sort of a bump?
And yet, this great real-world experiment has seen, not just no effect, but perhaps the exact opposite effect of a decline of genius. Consider how rare true world-historic geniuses are now-a-days, and how different it was in the past. In “Where Have All the Great Books Gone?” Tanner Greer uses Oswald Spengler, the original chronicler of the decline of genius back in 1914, to point out our current genius downturn.
[Spengler] repeatedly describes Tolstoy (d. 1910), Ibsen (d. 1906), Nietzsche (d. 1900), Hertz (d. 1894), Dostoevsky (d. 1881), Marx (d. 1883), and Maxwell (1879) as figures of defining “world-historical” importance: in other words, as working on the same plane as Plato, Archimedes, Ovid, Shakespeare, and Newton. He does not argue their merits; to him it is obvious that these are the men who deserve to be thought of as “world-historical” figures, and it is clear from the way he makes his arguments that he expects that his own readers already agree with him.
Ponder that! Spengler began writing Decline of the West in 1914. Tolstoy was only four years dead when Spengler started his book; Marx was only 30 years deceased. But Spengler could state, with the full expectation that his audience would not question him, that these men belonged in global pantheon of humanity’s greatest figures. But Spengler was hardly alone in this sort of judgement. Ten years later John Erskine would teach his course on the great works of the Western tradition—which was the granddaddy of the Columbia Common Core, the St. John’s curriculum, and the Great Books of the Western World series—and it included all of the names mentioned above as well. To this Erskine would add the names William James, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Hardy, and Charles Darwin. . .
Is there anyone who died in the last decade you could make that sort of claim for?
How about for the last two decades?
The last three?
Or is there anyone at all who is still living today that might be described this way?
There are a bunch of other analyses (really, laments) of a similar nature I could name, from Nature’s “Scientific genius is extinct” to The New Statesman’s “The fall of the intellectual” to The Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Where have all the geniuses gone?” to Wired’s” “The Difficulty of Discovery (Where Have All The Geniuses Gone?)” to philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel’s “Where are all the Fodors?” to my own lamentation on the lack of leading fiction writers.
If you disagree, I’ll certainly admit that finding irrefutable evidence for a decline of genius is difficult—intellectual contributions are extremely hard to quantify, the definition of genius is always up for debate, and any discussion will necessarily elide all sorts of points and counterpoints. But the numbers, at least at first glance, seem to support the anecdotal. Here’s a chart from Cold Takes’ “Where’s Today’s Beethoven?” Below, we can see the number of acclaimed scientists (in blue) and artists (in red), divided by the effective population (total human population with the education and access to contribute to these fields).
This particular dataset ends at 1950, but the downward trend is clear. And Strange Loop Canon put together this graph of geniuses based on Wikipedia mentions.
These charts don’t even quantify the effective population explosion that the internet represented (and its unsettling concomitant lack of a genius boom).
One might, of course, reply that there are still many Einsteins, they just don’t come off as Einsteins because ideas are so much harder to find now. This “ideas are getting harder to find” argument does indeed have some data to support it, although not everyone agrees. Yet, even if ideas are getting harder to find (to some degree), does it actually fully explain our dearth of geniuses? Surely, ideas didn’t get harder to find in the last twenty-five years to exactly such a degree it completely nullified the explosion of free information to pretty much everyone on Earth? And “ideas are getting harder to find” seems especially unconvincing outside the hard sciences in domains like music or fiction.
We may be uncomfortable with it being pointed out, but the absence of genius is a major problem. Global cultural and intellectual exhaustion are an existential risk to the longterm viability of humanity. Geniuses prevent that from happening; they renew us, rejuvenate and reinvigorate us. We shouldn’t be shy about it.
So, where are all the Einsteins?
The answer must lie in education somewhere. And if we look into research on different education strategies and their effectiveness, we do indeed see all sorts of debates about best practices, learning styles, class size, monetary policy, and equality. But mostly we see, actually, that none of it matters much. Education researcher and fellow Substack writer Freddie deBoer points out that
. . . winning a lottery to attend a supposedly better school in Chicago makes no difference on educational outcomes. In New York? Makes no difference. What determines college completion rates, high school quality? No, that makes no difference; what matters is “preentry ability.” How about private vs. public schools? Corrected for underlying demographic differences, it makes no difference. Parents in many cities are obsessive about getting their kids into competitive exam high schools, but when you adjust for differences in ability, attending them makes no difference. The kids who just missed the cut score and the kids who just beat it have very similar underlying ability and so it should not surprise us in the least that they have very similar outcomes, despite going to very different schools. (The perception that these schools matter is based on exactly the same bad logic that Harvard benefits from.) Similarly, highly sought-after government schools in Kenya make no difference. Winning the lottery to choose your middle school in China? Makes no difference.
Many have taken this null effect of schools to be a sign of genetic determinism, wherein some innate ability, like IQ, is all that matters, and education is, at best, just the delivery of a repository of facts.
I don’t think this is the case. For paradoxically there exists an agreed-upon and specific answer to the single best way to educate children, a way that has clear, obvious, and strong effects. The problem is that this answer is unacceptable. The superior method of education is deeply unfair and privileges those at the very top of the socioeconomic ladder. It’s an answer that was well-known historically, and is also observed by education researchers today: tutoring.
Tutoring, one-on-one instruction, dramatically improves student’s abilities and scores. In education research this effect is sometimes called “Bloom’s 2-sigma problem” because in the 1980s the researcher Benjamin Bloom found that tutored students
. . performed two standard deviations better than students who learn via conventional instructional methods—that is, "the average tutored student was above 98% of the students in the control class.”
However, despite its well-known effectiveness, tutoring’s modern incarnation almost universally concerns specific tests: in America the Advanced Placements (AP) tests, the SATs, and the GREs form the holy trinity of private tutoring. Meaning that contemporary tutoring, the most effective method of education, is overwhelmingly targeted at a small set of measurables that look good on a college resume.
This is only a narrow version of the tutoring that was done historically. If we go back in time tutoring had a much broader scope, acting as the main method of early education, at least for the elite.
Let us call this past form aristocratic tutoring, to distinguish it from a tutor you meet in a coffeeshop to go over SAT math problems while the clock ticks down. It’s also different than “tiger parenting,” which is specifically focused around the resume padding that’s needed for kids to meet the impossible requirements for high-tier colleges. Aristocratic tutoring was not focused on measurables. Historically, it usually involved a paid adult tutor, who was an expert in the field, spending significant time with a young child or teenager, instructing them but also engaging them in discussions, often in a live-in capacity, fostering both knowledge but also engagement with intellectual subjects and fields. As the name suggests it was something reserved mostly for aristocrats, which means, no way around it, it was deeply inequitable.
It’s a tradition that goes back as far as one can find. For example, consider one of the greatest statesmen of all time and one of the few true philosopher-kings, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Will Durant, in The Story of Civilization: Vol III, Caesar and Christ, said of Aurelius’s education that:
Never was a boy so persistently educated. . . Marcus liked games and sports, even bird snaring and hunting, and some efforts were made to train his body as well as his mind and character. But seventeen tutors in childhood are a heavy handicap. Four grammarians, four rhetors, one jurist, and eight philosophers divided his soul among them. The most famous of these teachers was M. Cornelius Fronto, who taught him rhetoric . . . Marcus love him, lavished upon him all the kindnesses of an affectionate and royal pupil, and exchanged with him letters of intimate charm. . .
Spanning kingdoms and continents aristocratic tutoring had a several-millennia long run. If we fast forward almost 2,000 years we can find Bertrand Russell, one of the undeniable geniuses of the 20th century, who was a classic case of aristocratic tutoring—raised by his rich grandparents, he didn’t even attend school until he was 16, and had a revolving door of tutors to equal Marcus’s. Many of whom were impressive scientists and intellectuals in their own right, e.g., J. Stuart, one of Russell’s tutors, had himself been a student of Lord Kelvin (that “Kelvin”). Russell, thanks to his detailed autobiography, gives us a clear impression of what aristocratic tutoring was like. Here’s from the graphic novel adaption of Russell’s life, Logicomix:
The same sort of idyllic learning situation was true for Russell’s famous compatriot, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was privately tutored at home until he was 14. Name a genius and find a tutor: the governesses1 of John von Neumann taught him languages, and he had other later tutors as well. Even in the cases where the children weren’t entirely homeschooled, up until the latter half of the 20th century aristocratic tutors were a casual and constant supplement to traditional education. Consider the easy nature by which Darwin, at the age of only 16 and already in university, personally hired John Edmonstone, a former slave and black freedman, to give him lessons on taxidermy outside of his classes (lessons later key to his specimen collections on The Beagle). The young Darwin described Edmonstone in his letters as someone who
. . . gained his livelihood by stuffing birds, which he did excellently: he gave me lessons for payment, and I used often to sit with him, for he was a very pleasant and intelligent man.
When you go back further, into the 1600s and 1700s, aristocratic tutors are the norm, often members of the aristocracy themselves. Voltaire’s tutor when he was young was the educated and worldly abbe de Chateauneuf, who was also his godfather. In turn, Voltaire was tutor to Émilie du Châtelet, an early female scientist and mathematician (notorious for her harsh demands of her tutors). Ada Lovelace, inventor of the first algorithm, was tutored as a youth by Mary Somerville, another early female scientist (indeed, the term “scientist” was coined specifically to refer to Somerville in a gender-neutral way, rather than the previously-used “man of science”).
The great philosopher himself, Descartes, literally died from tutoring—at the age of 53 he was giving lessons to Queen Christiana at the ungodly hour of 5 A.M., and the morning walk to the cold castle (which he hated) gave him pneumonia.2 But most of the time life as a tutor was essentially a cushy patronage job, wherein you instilled a sense of intellectual discovery into a young child in return for a hefty salary that left most of your free time intact—surely that’s what the tutors living on the Tolstoy estate must have felt, whiling away the evening hours chasing the local peasant girls after educating the young writer in the morning.
Indeed, it’s remarkable how common aristocratic tutors were. Essentially universal. You may have heard of the Grand Tour that young European aristocrats took part in, traveling from country to country, visiting universities and partaking of the various cultures and cuisines and sights. But did you know the young aristocrats always took their tutors along with them?
The young man (or woman) would not be traveling alone. Often it was the tutor who had already spent time educating the boy that was attached to the youngster in his (or her) travels. It could also be a specially appointed traveling tutor who was to supervise the journey.
Perhaps the clearest example in history of a genius constructed by tutoring comes from the case of John Stuart Mill: philosopher, economist, politician, early feminist, and all-around Renaissance man. His father, already a famous intellectual, raised John explicitly to be a genius capable of carrying on the cause of philosophical utilitarianism, purposefully keeping the young John away from children his own age. The result was:
Starting with Greek at age three and Latin at age eight, Mill had absorbed most of the classical canon by age twelve—along with algebra, Euclid, and the major Scottish and English historians. In his early teenage years, he studied political economy, logic, and calculus, utilising his spare time to digest treatises on experimental science as an amusement. At age fifteen—upon returning from a year-long trip to France, a nation he would eventually call home—he started work on the major treatises of philosophy, psychology and government. All this was conducted under the strict daily supervision of his father. . .
This last part is a common pattern: the line between parent and tutor is often a blurry one, and it is precisely in this way that the aristocratic style of tutoring sometimes bled into the lives of the non-aristocratic. Karl Marx’s father (who was rich enough to own vineyards) privately tutored him up to the age of 12, his official schooling starting only after. Or consider the later case of Hannah Arendt, a titan of 20th century philosophy; raised upper-middle class and Jewish in Germany during the rise of Hitler, she was no aristocrat, but she received independent tutoring from rabbis and professors at various points in her young life, and, perhaps far more relevantly, her own mother acted in the role of a classic aristocratic tutor3:
Hannah Arendt's mother, who considered herself progressive, sought to raise her daughter along strict Goethean lines, which amongst other things, involved the reading of the complete works of Goethe. . . Goethe, at the time, was considered the essential mentor of Bildung (education), the conscious formation of mind, body and spirit. . . Hannah's developmental progress (Entwicklung) was carefully documented by her mother in a book, which she titled Unser Kind (Our Child) and measured her against the benchmark of what was then considered normale Entwicklung ("normal development").
Another example of a case where parents acted as aristocratic tutors: Virginia Woolf. While Woolf famously did not get a formal education, she was instead rigorously homeschooled.
While she was growing up, Woolf did not attend school. However, she had a tutor who educated her in English literature and the classics. Her father took an interest in her education as well, giving Woolf and her siblings private lessons in which he recommended literature and worked on improving their writing.
With these examples in mind, it’s likely that at a significant contributing factor for the phenomenon of genius running in families is that genius family members act as aristocratic tutors, encouraging learning, the life of the mind, and inculcating the pursuit of the higher mysteries in the young. When Bertrand Russell’s older brother introduced him to geometry at the age of 11, Russell later wrote in his autobiography that it was:
. . . one of the great events of my life, as dazzling as first love.
Is that really solely his innate genetic facility, or was mathematics colored by the love of his older brother?
Recently I was discussing with a friend the hypothesis that aristocratic tutoring (of the kind we don’t do anymore) is the only known consistent method to at least occasionally produce geniuses, to which he objected “What about Einstein?” A great point. Einstein’s reputation makes him seem one the most democratic of geniuses, a term he’s synonymous with; Einstein emphasizes the innateness of genius, its capability of coming from anywhere, even a lowly patent clerk. Isn’t there that story of him getting low grades in middle school?
Well, it turns out most of the school stuff is exaggerated or apocryphal, and Einstein had multiple tutors growing up in subjects like mathematics and philosophy, such as his uncle, Jakob Einstein, who taught him algebra. In fact, there was a family tutor of the Einsteins who went by the name Max Talmud (possibly the best name of a tutor ever), and it was indeed Max Talmud who introduced the young 12-year-old Albert to geometry, prefacing young Albert’s eventual transformation of our understanding of space and time into something geometric. Maybe we don’t make Einsteins anymore because we don’t make Max Talmuds anymore.
I’m certainly not saying that aristocratic tutoring is the only path to genius. There are people like Ramanujan, whose father was a clerk, and who was one of the greatest mathematical minds of all time (although I’ll note briefly that his home did lodge college students, who, it’s been suggested, may have acted as informal tutors). Some geniuses weren’t tutored, although verifying an absence is surprisingly difficult; tutoring is often not deigned to be mentioned except in detailed biographies. Certainly though, it appears that would-be-genius children had extremely abnormal amounts of one-on-one time with intellectually-inclined adults, who often introduced them to advanced topics far beyond their age. Once you begin looking, tutors pop up like mushrooms around historical geniuses.
The traditional line for why essentially all intellectuals used to be aristocrats is that they were the only people with the leisure time to pursue the life of the mind. But what if it was never solely about leisure, but also a style of education that has fallen out of favor?
For the decrease in genius sure does seem to coincide with the end of the aristocracy. Europe looms large in the history of geniuses, and for many reasons, but perhaps also its centuries-long tradition of tutored aristocracies. And this stretched quite late into the modern age. For instance, if I were forced at gunpoint to name the two greatest minds of the 20th century, I’d pick Bertrand Russell and John von Neumann. Is it really a coincidence that both were basically aristocrats? “Von” is, after all, a title. They were relics, anachronisms in a century that was shamefully and rapidly moving away from their kind. Aliens from an older world.
Now consider our current situation. Despite all the language professing otherwise, in general the education system of the United States is based entirely on genetic determinism. A child is born assumed to have innate traits, including, for example, a preference as to what they want to be when they grow up (somehow just waiting fully-formed inside of their six-year-old selves). Then they are thrown into the school system, a competitive academic meritocracy wrapped in an obtuse hierarchical bureaucracy, a structure in which they will spend most of their young adult life, forced to learn mostly from their peers, who know as little as they do. Those who can’t sit through it are given drugs until they can. If they happen to test well or their parents spend the money, they might end up in slightly smaller classes, and with slightly better teachers, and with slightly smarter peers, but the structure will be the same. The first real intellectuals that most children meet in person are their college professors—already at eighteen and stuck in a class with dozens of other people (even at Harvard, introductory courses are often in the hundreds). Is it any surprise that such methods don’t reliably produce geniuses? Is it not anathema to how humans normally become interested in things? We sequestered children from great minds, and, perhaps it’s worth briefly noting, we also sequestered great minds from children.
Today, tutoring is seen mostly as a corrective to failures within the bureaucratic structures of eduction, like an intervention to help out a course, grade, or test.4 In general, those doing well in school don’t get tutoring—it’s like we’re applying the secret genius sauce solely to the kids who aren’t going to be geniuses.
Might technology swoop in to the rescue once more? Perhaps aristocratic tutoring doesn’t have to be solely for aristocrats. Recent research has shown the two-sigma effect of tutoring using AI tutors compared to traditional online courses. Perhaps in the future once could imagine personalized AI governesses and AI tutors. But by then, will we even need human geniuses?
Returning to now, while online courses are growing in popularity, the grand experiment that was the introduction of the internet tells us that access to information counts for little in producing genius—perhaps almost nothing. As great as YouTube math tutorials are, they themselves haven’t triggered a golden age of mathematicians. Instead, what’s necessary for genius historically is early engagement with, not access to, intellectual subjects. And, for humans, engagement is a social phenomenon; particularly for children, this requires interactions with adults who can not just give them individual attention, but also model for them what serious intellectual engagement looks like. Think of how influential the in-his-twenties Max Talmud must have seemed to a preteen Einstein, handing him great books by the likes of Spinoza and Euclid.
Could you hire a Max Talmud for your own family? I can certainly imagine a start-up specializing in online aristocratic tutoring, geared not toward tests or college resume padding but toward fundamentals, completely orthogonal to the norm of academic mass-production. This would actually fit in with some of other recent movements, like the “slow food” movement. There has already been a significant rise in homeschooling and even “unschooling” (which sounds like something that could, in some cases, essentially be parental-driven aristocratic tutoring). Yet, for such a start-up the problem is obvious: tutoring highlights economic privilege. And as Tocqueville pointed out, the rejection of aristocracy is a foundation of the American ethos. It’s telling I felt uncomfortable writing this essay, despite being confident it’s true.
So, even if costs were reachable for the upper-middle class, would such a system be allowed to exist?
Not everything improves with time. There are a number of things that people did better in the past, both because of lost wisdom but also simply because in the past things weren’t mass-produced. Beautiful older dresses, hand-stitched rugs, even kitchen appliances used to be sturdier and last longer. You can go purchase a mass-produced cheap samurai sword online, but you’d be a fool to use it in a fight against a blade of 20-times folded steel, even if the latter were ancient. Stradivari violins, hand-crafted by members of the Italian Stradivari family, are legendarily considered to have a superior and unique sound compared to violins made with even the most modern techniques.
A child going from governesses teaching them multiple languages to renowned scholars tutoring them in advanced mathematics is similarly not replicable in today’s world. In turning education into a system of mass production we created a superbly democratic system that made the majority of people, and the world as a whole, much better off. It was the right decision. But we lost the most elegant and beautiful minds, those mental Stradivari, who were created via an artisanal process.
The unfortunate consequence is that, in a very real sense, our intellectual culture is filled with figures who are essentially mass-produced ersatz knock-offs of their aristocratic forebearers. They are of decent quality, they serve their purpose, and boy, they sure were cheap to produce. But I don’t think they have quite the same sound.
This is part I in the Aristocratic Tutoring series, and was followed up by “Objections to the importance of aristocratic tutoring” (part II). Part III explores the day-to-day schedule of aristocratic tutoring in “How geniuses used to be raised.”
Governesses seem like an ignored part of this historical story—they often aren’t explicitly referred to as tutors but acted precisely as such, especially for the earliest portions of education, like learning languages. And governesses were even more universal than tutors among the aristocrats who would eventually become the geniuses of the day.
Descartes death-by-tutoring was nowhere near the top of the ignoble deaths of scholars—that is reserved for those who died via collisions with dogs, e.g., Jean-Jacques Rousseau was knocked over by a rambunctious Grey Hound. Kurt Vonnegut, decades after surviving the fire-bombing of Dresden, was tripped when a small dog wound its leash around his legs. But Francis Bacon outdid them all, famously dying from trying to stuff a dead chicken with snow.
Even Hannah Arendt’s lovers acted as aristocratic tutors. While still a young college student Arendt had an affair with her professor, the philosopher Martin Heidegger, which she (perhaps perversely) described as “the blessing of my life.” Apparently:
Arendt was to Heidegger a young, beautiful woman who could follow the complicated paths of his thought; he was to her an initiation into existential philosophy and the life of the mind.
Perhaps the super rich still do aristocratic tutoring, in secret? It turns out these are mostly, again, interventions, even if we look at the most expensive tutor:
. . . the tutor he placed for $400,000 a year was for a rich family on the West Coast. The student was having trouble with school and with substance abuse, so the tutor had to home-school the student and coach the student and his family through rehab.