Three Angles on Erik Hoel’s Aristocratic Tutoring

Erik Hoel, concerned that we’re not getting our fair share of geniuses, suggests that aristocratic tutoring is what’s missing:

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.

“Aristocratic tutoring” is not how we would describe it, but otherwise this sounds about right. We think Erik is right that historical tutoring was better than education today. But we don’t think being aristocratic is what made it better. So here are three other angles on the same idea:

I.

It’s no secret that school sux. It’s not that tutoring is good, it’s that mechanized schooling is really bad. If we got rid of formal 20th century K-12 education, and did homeschooling / unschooling / let kids work at the costco, we would get most of the benefits of tutoring without all the overhead and inequality.

Our personal educational philosophy is that, for the most part, the most important thing you can do for your students is expose them to things they wouldn’t have encountered otherwise. Sort of in the spirit of, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. So K-12 education gums up the works by making bad recommendations, having students spend a lot of time on mediocre stuff, and keeping them so busy they can’t follow up on the better recommendations from friends and family. 

From this perspective, mechanized schooling is actually a net negative — it is worse than nothing, and if we just let kids run around hitting each other with sticks or whatever, we would get more geniuses. 

Future Geniuses

But another possibility is that mechanized schooling is net neutral, and the problem is that we’ve lost some active ingredient that makes tutoring effective.

II.

Education no longer includes moral instruction. Back in the day, a proper education taught you more than “the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell” — it taught you to take your character as seriously as your scholarship, to lead and to serve, and to understand your moral responsibilities. Tutoring worked because tutors inspired their pupils. Modern education is a lot of things, but “inspiring” ain’t one of them.

Back when formal education could still be inspiring, it still produced brilliant individuals. People have pointed out that the Manhattan Project was led by a group of strangely brilliant Hungarian scientists. Not only did most of them come from Budapest, many of them went to the same high school, and some of them had the same math teacher, László Rátz. Eugene Wigner, a Nobel Laureate in physics and one of Rátz’s pupils, had this to say:

… there were many superb teachers at the Lutheran gymnasium. But the greatest was my mathematics teacher László Rátz. Rátz was known not only throughout our gymnasium but also by the church and government hierarchy and among many of the teachers in the country schools. I still keep a photograph of Rátz in my workroom because he had every quality of a miraculous teacher: He loved teaching. He knew the subject and how to kindle interest in it. He imparted the very deepest understanding. Many gymnasium teachers had great skill, but no one could evoke the beauty of the subject like Rátz.

Rátz may or may not have been responsible for Wigner’s success, and he didn’t teach everyone involved in the Manhattan Project; our point is just that these Hungarians lived in a time when high school math teachers could still inspire former students to describe them as “miraculous”. This seems to be an aspect of the educational system that we have lost.

If this is right, then we don’t need to worry about tutoring being aristocratic. You shouldn’t need tutors or even miraculous Hungarian math teachers. Other things that are also inspiring / socially encouraging would work just as well — see for example the amazing progress of the speedrunning community, a bunch of teenage nerds bootstrapping a scene by inspiring each another to insane degrees of precision.

Erik hints at this by mentioning the social element. “For humans,” he says, “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.” Individual attention is good, but we also think kids are good at teaching themselves. The active ingredient to us is showing kids “what serious intellectual engagement looks like”, and most kids today don’t see that until college (if ever).

III.

The real problem is segregating children. Tutoring worked because you exposed children to people practicing a real skill (even if it’s only speaking their native language), or working in an actual profession. Modern education exposes them only to teachers.

At the end of your German tutelage you can speak to people you wouldn’t have been able to speak to before, read books and poems you wouldn’t have been able to read. At the end of your taxidermy tutelage you can take samples and stuff birds, and could theoretically make a living at it. Meanwhile at the end of high school you can write a five-point essay, a “skill” that you will never use again as long as you live.

So the problem is not the lack of tutoring per se, as much as the lack of giving children any sense of the real world at all. Today, children have to be sent to guidance counselors to be advised on what is out there. Teenagers dream of being youtubers and influencers. This isn’t their fault — these are some of the only professions where they actually understand what is involved. It’s the fault of adults, for not letting children see any of the many ways they could actually go out and exercise their powers in the world.

But tutoring isn’t the only way to expose children to real skills. So did working in the family business, and so did apprenticeships. Writing about why nerds are unpopular, Paul Graham says: 

I’m suspicious of this theory that thirteen-year-old kids are intrinsically messed up. If it’s physiological, it should be universal. Are Mongol nomads all nihilists at thirteen? I’ve read a lot of history, and I have not seen a single reference to this supposedly universal fact before the twentieth century. Teenage apprentices in the Renaissance seem to have been cheerful and eager. They got in fights and played tricks on one another of course (Michelangelo had his nose broken by a bully), but they weren’t crazy.

As far as I can tell, the concept of the hormone-crazed teenager is coeval with suburbia. I don’t think this is a coincidence. I think teenagers are driven crazy by the life they’re made to lead. Teenage apprentices in the Renaissance were working dogs. Teenagers now are neurotic lapdogs. Their craziness is the craziness of the idle everywhere.

Paul is right; in many parts of the world, useful apprenticeship was the historical norm. As anthropologist David Graeber writes:  

Feudal society was a vast system of service… the form of service that had the most important and pervasive influence on most people’s lives was not feudal service but what historical sociologists have called “life-cycle” service. Essentially, almost everyone was expected to spend roughly the first seven to fifteen years of his or her working life as a servant in someone else’s household. Most of us are familiar with how this worked itself out within craft guilds, where teenagers would first be assigned to master craftsmen as apprentices, and then become journeymen… In fact, the system was in no sense limited to artisans. Even peasants normally expected to spend their teenage years onward as “servants in husbandry” in another farm household, typically, that of someone just slightly better off. Service was expected equally of girls and boys (that’s what milkmaids were: daughters of peasants during their years of service), and was usually expected even of the elite. The most familiar example here would be pages, who were apprentice knights, but even noblewomen, unless they were at the very top of the hierarchy, were expected to spend their adolescence as ladies-in-waiting—that is, servants who would “wait upon” a married noblewoman of slightly higher rank, attending to her privy chamber, toilette, meals, and so forth, even as they were also “waiting” for such time as they, too, were in a position to marry and become the lady of an aristocratic household themselves.

Service was especially pervasive in England. “Few are born who are exempted from this fate,” wrote a Venetian visitor around 1500, “for everyone, however rich he may be, sends away his children into the houses of others, whilst he, in return, receives those of strangers into his own.”

Even just having your children around adults and being a part of adult conversations will go a long way. For what it’s worth, this is how we were raised, i.e. mostly around adults.

This may be another element common to the cases Erik mentions — most of the geniuses he names seem to have had very little contact with children outside their immediate family. Whether or not this is good for children psychologically is a separate question, but it does seem to lead to very skilled adults.

In fact, the number of children in a family might also be a factor. There was a time when most families were pretty large, so a lot of children had several older siblings. If you have five older brothers, you get both benefits — other children to play with, and a more direct line to adulthood through your older siblings. Erik mentions the example of Bertrand Russell, and we wonder if this might be more representative than he realizes:

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?

It’s easy to come up with other examples (though of course this is not universal). Charles Darwin was the fifth of six children. The Polgár sisters are all chess prodigies, and were intentionally raised to be geniuses, but the youngest daughter Judit is the best of the three. Jane Austen had five older brothers and an older sister. Her eldest brother James wrote prologues and epilogues for plays the family staged and it seems as though this moved Jane to try her hand at something similar.

So part of the success of tutoring might simply be exposing a child to subjects “before they are ready”, and one way to reliably do that is to have them overhear the lessons of their older siblings, who they are ready to imitate.

This ties neatly into the social/moral element we mention above. Children may be moved by a passionate tutor, or a beloved uncle, or a cousin, or a medical student who lives in the spare room. But they will always be influenced by older siblings, and the more older siblings there are, the more gates to adult influence will be opened. Maybe if we want more geniuses, people need to start having larger families.

5 thoughts on “Three Angles on Erik Hoel’s Aristocratic Tutoring

  1. Yev says:

    > Our point is just that these Hungarians lived in a time when high school math teachers could still inspire former students to describe them as “miraculous”. This seems to be an aspect of the educational system that we have lost.

    Citation needed. I bet* if you did a Manhattan project now, a significant number of scientists in it would make similar comments about Po-Shen.

    *If anyone is interested, we should come up with good resolution criteria and create a prediction market about it.

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      1. MathNow says:

        Yes that’s right but he he’s the coach of the US Math Olympiad team of high school kids and he regularly engages with high school and younger kids through YouTube livestreams and other events. Another important forum is the Art of Problem solving which is a focal community for young advanced math learners.

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  2. Unirt says:

    About the effect of siblings, wasn’t there lately a discussion and an attempt to make statistics about this topic on Astral Codex Ten, where they found that geniuses (or just math professors or Nobelists) were more likely than expected by chance to be oldest siblings?

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  3. I have to wonder if being raised in a larger family also teaches kids to work as part of a group, making it easier for them to join a community of intellectual workers later on. In other words, a neurotic single child simply doesn’t have the tools to engage with something like LessWrong and so cannot develop ideas as fast as a non-neurotic kid.

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