How geniuses used to be raised
Aristocratic tutoring III: The day-to-day practices
Of late corporations seem awfully keen to replace human geniuses with machines, but I don’t think we should give up on humanity just quite yet. That’s why I wrote “Why we stopped making Einsteins” about how historical geniuses were often molded via an artisanal method of education—especially the many geniuses born aristocrats who were shaped by a cavalcade of governesses and private family tutors (tutors who were in turn unusually likely to be great scientists or experts in their own right).
Because the inequitable aristocratic method is impossible to scale into the mass-production required by our current education system, it’s feasible that the abandonment of aristocratic tutoring has led to a decline in genius and polymathy. While access by children to adult intellectuals is much more equitable in today’s world, it is parceled out until it is spread slim, vs. the concentrated dose that privileged children (extremely unfairly, I must stress) received historically. The physicist Richard Feynman summed up the benefits of tutoring, as well as the impossibility of implementing it at scale, when he wrote in his 1961 book of lectures Six Easy Pieces that:
I think, however, that there isn’t any solution to this problem of education other than to realize that the best teaching can be done only when there is a direct individual relationship between a student and a good teacher—a situation in which the student discusses the ideas, thinks about the things, and talks about the things. It’s impossible to learn very much by simply sitting in a lecture, or even by simply doing problems that are assigned. But in our modern times we have so many students to teach that we have to try to find some substitute for the ideal.
But in the cases where the ideal is possible, when learning can be spared no expense, what does it look like? What methods of day-to-day education reliably produce geniuses?
First, a note. The goal of these investigations into aristocratic tutoring is to provide, albeit it at a high level, a guide to its organization and philosophy, which could in theory be used to bring it back. Hopefully in a more equitable manner, e.g., in a way affordable to the middle class, perhaps by taking advantage of new technologies. While individual tutoring may never be affordable to everyone, frankly, elite education isn’t affordable anyways. Due to skyrocketing costs, a top private high school costs around $70,000 a year, and yet statistics struggle to find any advantage in outcome from sending a student there. Student loan debt approaches two trillion dollars and yet colleges seem to be (as someone who has spent almost 20 years in them now) ever more bureaucratic and managerial, more a service for young adults than an attempt to inculcate genius. It seems possible to dream of a different world.
From the early days of the Enlightenment onward the aristocracy, which was the source of many of the great intellects, if not the majority of them, was culturally awash with tutoring. In many ways, tutoring was the predominate form of education for centuries—developed and refined within the aristocracy, it was practiced across the socioeconomic spectrum, such as new money modeling themselves after the aristocracy, or, in rarer cases, middle-class or poor families, wherein parental tutors personally took on the role.
Even orphans were occasionally aristocratically tutored. Consider Alexander Hamilton, who is canonically portrayed (like in the musical Hamilton) as being entirely self-made, an inexplicably intelligent freak of nature. But that’s not what actually happened. Alexander had experience as a bookkeeper for his mother, and after she died this led to a job as a clerk at an international trading firm, handling the details of the logistics for the owner, Nicholas Cruger, who took a special interest in training the boy. And Hamilton had another dedicated tutor in the form of a talented reverend:
Knox—who took Hamilton under his wing shortly after Rachel's death—was a Scottish Presbyterian minister at odds with the mainstream of his faith because of his firm belief in free will over the Calvinist doctrine of Predestination. For someone like Hamilton who was otherwise predestined to a life of obscurity, we can see how Knox's philosophy would have appealed to him. The Reverend's encouragement and influence undoubtedly led Hamilton to dream big dreams. Knox, a brilliant sermon-writer and occasional doctor, took the young orphan under his wing and tutored him in the humanities and sciences. When he was able to get away from the office, Hamilton further expanded his intellect in Knox's library, where he read voluminously in the classics, literature, and history.
Beyond the many such cases that are identifiable through biographies, there is evidence that Cambridge and Oxford spent decades wherein there were no lectures at all and instead their systems of education were based entirely on 1-on-1 tutoring, overlapping with when many great geniuses, like Newton, attended them. Indeed, tutors effectively ran the business of the universities during these times, even collecting student payments. The famous final step of a classical aristocratic education, the European Grand Tour, was led by the tutors of the young and rich. And one finds that intellectuals (Descartes, Pasteur, etc) often made their own living via tutoring the aristocracy. Even back in Ancient Rome it was the rich who homeschooled their children via tutors, and only the non-affluent attended schools that looked like our own.
What actionable information can we derive from this historical record?
Consider one of the clearest historical cases of a constructed genius, John Stuart Mill, whose contributions spanned economics, philosophy, and politics, one of the greats of the age. Mill wrote a detailed autobiography communicating to posterity his education (all quotes from Mill originate here). It is possibly the most well-detailed case of aristocratic tutoring of that era. Tutoring, in this case, by Mill’s father. Mill writes that:
it may be useful that there should be some record of an education which was unusual and remarkable, and which, whatever else it may have done, has proved how much more than is commonly supposed may be taught, and well taught, in those early years which, in the common modes of what is called instruction, are little better than wasted.
Mill described his father James Mill’s activity as:
during the whole period, a considerable part of almost every day was employed in the instruction of his children: in the case of one of whom, myself, he exerted an amount of labour, care, and perseverance rarely, if ever, employed for a similar purpose, in endeavoring to give, according to his own conception, the highest order of intellectual education.
James Mills was himself a prominent intellectual. His educational methods (under the advice of another great genius, Jeremy Bentham) consisted of exactly the sort of aristocratic-style of tutoring which is so impossible in the current day. For instance:
My father never permitted anything which I learnt to degenerate into a mere exercise of memory. He strove to make the understanding not only go along with every step of the teaching, but, if possible, precede it. Anything which could be found out by thinking I never was told, until I had exhausted my efforts to find it out for myself. As far as I can trust my remembrance, I acquitted myself very lamely in this department; my recollection of such matters is almost wholly of failures, hardly ever of success.
That is, to what degree they can, an aristocratic tutor focuses on process and first principles, avoiding unnecessary memorization (the opposite of current school). Of course, in some cases, large amounts of memorization is impossible to avoid, e.g., like his father’s teaching of Greek to the three-year-old Mill:
My earliest recollection on the subject, is that of committing to memory what my father termed vocables, being lists of common Greek words, with their signification in English, which he wrote out for me on cards.
Later Mill wrote that he read:
under my father’s tuition, a number of Greek prose authors, among whom I remember the whole of Herodotus, and of Xenophon’s Cryopaedia and Memorials of Socrates. . .
But it was not like Mill was being taught everything all at once—his father was very specific and focused. First Greek, then arithmetic and history, but little other subjects at first. Starting with languages was common in aristocratic tutoring, often under the tutelage of governesses, although sometimes, as with Mill, via parents or male tutors. Mathematics, it was thought, required a more developed mind to appreciate, but languages, history, and literature made for natural early subjects to focus on (note how different this is from modern school, which tries to scale up knowledge in all domains simultaneously).
Additionally, Mill was allowed to study topics via his own investigations and readings, even from a young age. Concerning arithmetic:
this also my father taught me: it was the task of the evenings, and I well remember its disagreeableness. But the lessons were only a part of the daily instruction I received. Much of it consisted in the books I read by myself, and my father’s discourses to me, chiefly during our walks. . . I made notes on slips of paper while reading, and from these in the morning walks, I told the story to him. . .
Think of the difference between this and modern tutoring, wherein one meets an older student at a coffeeshop to grind SAT problems. The aristocratic method is unhurried and less structured, sometimes even conducted best, it seems, on walks.
Mill himself was often put into the position of being an aristocratic tutor to his younger siblings.
In my eighth year I commenced learning Latin, in conjunction with a younger sister, to whom I taught it as I went on, and who afterwards repeated the lessons to my father . . . I, however, derived from this discipline the great advantage, of learning more thoroughly and retaining more lastingly the things which I was set to to teach; perhaps, too, the practice it afforded in explaining difficulties to others, may even at that age have been useful.
This again is actionable information: it is helpful to put the child themselves in the role of tutor. It is difficult to imagine doing this to one so young in a standard lecture-based learning system—how do they know how to tutor, if they themselves have never experienced it? So we can see how early childhood tutoring opens up educational possibilities otherwise impossible.
After arithmetic, Mill was tutored in Euclid’s geometry, as well as Algebra, all also under his father’s guidance. By 11 and 12, Mill was writing histories and studies, essentially mini-essays and papers, which his father encouraged but did not read, to spare Mill an overly-critical eye. Again I think this is actionable information: the biggest danger for a well-meaning and talented tutor is to become the authoritative critic, which can suck the joy out of intellectual creativity, replacing it with dread. All early intellectual products will necessarily be mere sandcastles constructed by children and just as ephemeral and easy to destroy.
In our current education system, particularly in college admissions, what is most rewarded is the “well-rounded candidate.” But in geniuses we often see early specialization encouraged by their tutors. Mill, while still a pre-teen, had already begun to assist his father’s intellectual work (Blaise Pascal was a similar age when he began helping his father), signaling that at some point aristocratic tutoring should move into a more advanced stage wherein it resembles an apprenticeship or collaboration, much like the current relationship between professors and graduate students, but at an extremely young age.
The collaboration in Mill’s case was, essentially, that his father and he would go for walks to discuss a subject at length, with Mill taking notes, as he always had before, but now the walks concerned the same subject day after day, with his father expounding on various aspects of it. Later, Mill would turn over an organized draft of his notes with the purposeful goal of helping his father write a book on political economy, and he and his father would go over the draft together:
until it was clear, precise, and tolerably complete. In this manner I went through the whole of the science; and the written outline of it which resulted from my daily compte rendu [report], served him afterwards as notes from which to write his Elements of Political Economy. . . Such a mode of instruction was excellently calculated to form a thinker, but it required to be worked by a thinker, as close and vigorous as my father. . . I do not believe that any scientific teaching ever was more thorough, or better fitted for training the faculties. . . Striving, even in an exaggerated degree, to call forth the activity of my faculties, by making me find out everything for myself, he gave his explanations not before, but after. . .
Think of how naturally James Mill progressed his son via just their walks alone. First, his son was simply to take notes on whatever James felt like discussing, and they reviewed the notes the day after. Years passed. Eventually, this evolved into the apprenticeship model, wherein James returned to the same subject and his own son was then helping him write his next book.
Perhaps not coincidentally, this is exactly the method that Aristotle used when teaching his own students (including Alexander the Great, who used to carry an annotated copy of Homer on his campaigns given to him by Aristotle). In fact, many of the books commonly attributed to Aristotle, like his Rhetoric, are really student-created notes originally produced for pedagogical effect rather than publication. What to us are monumental and world-historic works were merely tutoring exercises.
Let us turn to a second historical case of aristocratic tutoring, one that also happens to be well-documented via an autobiography—the education of Bertrand Russell. But it was different in its nature. Unlike John Stuart Mill, Russell did not have a dedicated parental tutor, and instead had a revolving door of many, possibly dozens, of tutors. However, Russell’s family still played a role, which is discussed extensively in The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell.
My Uncle Rollo [a meteorologist] had some importance in my early development, as he frequently talked to me about scientific matters, of which he had considerable knowledge. . . His conversation did a great deal to stimulate my scientific interests.
As did his Aunt Agatha. Russell describes his experience with her as:
When I was six or seven she took me in hand again and taught me English Constitutional history. This interested me very much indeed, and I remember to this day much of what she taught me.
In the current world, can anyone imagine their aunt teaching them history, especially via rigorous, day-in, day-out lessons? This was a repeating pattern: at the age of 11, Bertrand Russell’s older brother began tutoring Bertie on Euclid.
In fact, same as Mill, early tutoring by Russell’s hyper-intellectual family often led to his notebooks being filled with adult pontifications and explanations, with the young tutored subject serving as stenographer. Other times, they merely explored works together, like how Russell recalls reading to his grandmother:
After I had learnt to read fluently I used to read to her, and I acquired in this way an extensive knowledge of standard English literature. I read with her Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, Cowper’s Task, Thompson’s Castle of Indolence, Jane Austen, and hosts of other books.
It was Russell’s grandmother who carefully designed Russell’s education, tailoring it to avoid what had happened with her eldest grandson, who would burn her letters unread due to her overbearing religiosity. According to The Life of Bertrand Russell, the reasoning was that:
Bertie at least must be preserved pure, religious, and affectionate; he must be fitted to take his grandfather’s place as Prime Minister and continue the sacred work of Reform.
(Note the similarity to James Mill, for whom his son was a vessel to carry on the flag of utilitarianism). And it was Russell’s grandmother who kept the revolving door of tutors turning, perhaps, Russell himself speculates, to not diminish her own hold on him. At the same time, she was fearful of overworking him, and kept Russell’s official learning time as short as possible.
Russell also had a number of governesses who lived at Pembroke Lodge, like the German nurse Wilhelmina, who often had a significant free hand in both praise and punishment.
. . . I became devoted to her. She taught me to write German letters. . . She used to slap me occasionally, and I can remember crying when she did so, but it never occurred to me to regard her as less of a friend on that account. She was with me until I was six years old.
(An entire history PhD awaits to be written about the influence of governesses on geniuses, as so many served as unnoticed early tutors.)
Male tutors would also not only live with the family, but sometimes actually conduct scientific research on the estate grounds of Pembroke Lodge. Describing one such tutor, Russell writes:
He was a Darwinian, and was engaged in studying the instincts of chickens, which, to facilitate his studies, were allowed to work havoc in every room in the house. . .
Not everything flowed easily, and Russell’s progress often seems to have depended on the quality of the tutor, with the worst merely recapitulating the memorization and lecture format of the classroom.
The beginnings of Algebra I found far more difficult, perhaps as a result of bad teaching. I was made to learn by heart: “The square of the sum of two numbers is equal to the sum of their squares increased by twice their product.” I had not the vaguest idea what this meant, and when I could not remember the words, my tutor threw the book at my head, which did not stimulate my intellect in any way. After the first beginnings in Algebra, however, everything else went smoothly. I used to enjoy impressing a new tutor with my knowledge.
By the time he was 18 Russell, like Mill, shifted from tutorship to apprentice-hood, acting as assistant and collaborator to the legendary older mathematician Alfred North Whitehead, eventually becoming a co-author on the world-historic Principia Mathematica. Their relationship would end, as many of these tight teacher-pupil relationships do, as bitter enemies. For ultimately the Principia Mathematica, despite its brilliance, was a doomed attempt to patch the holes at the heart of logic and mathematics. But they spent nine years working together in incredibly close proximity, to the degree of staying at each other’s homes for weeks at a time. Engaging in constant discussion and debate was a vital stimulant to the future Nobel Prize winner, and Russell must have felt like electricity was running through him all that time. I know this because I once felt something similar, at least at a psychological level, while working with a mentor on another impossible intellectual project. One that also tried to patch up a gaping hole in our knowledge—except we were trying to establish a science of consciousness via what’s called “Integrated Information Theory.”
The simple truth is that historically little survives of the day-to-day schedules of young geniuses. Often the only source of details are autobiographies by the geniuses themselves.
But still, there can be some substantive takeaways. The first is that there is no Golden Path of education of one subject to another, nor any appropriate time to introduce some particular academic subject, nor some perfect lesson plan. Consider Blaise Pascal, who like John Stuart Mill was tutored aristocratic-style by his father (a well-off and well-educated tax collector who just happened to also be deeply versed in theories of education). But it was different in scheduling and topics than Mill. Pascal, who would become a famous mathematician, was kept away from mathematics until he was much older, halfway through being a teenager. His father literally locked the books on math in another part of the house so as not to distract the young Blaise. The same for languages, which Pascal didn’t study until he was 12; instead, his father focused on general rules of grammar first, building up to specific languages from fundamental principles. (According to Blaise Pascal: Reasons of the Heart, his father also tutored his daughter, Jacqueline Pascal, and she ended up being an infant prodigy in literary circles.)
So what matters, it appears to me, is not the schedule of tutoring, nor even what subjects are covered. Rather, the key ingredients, judged from some of the most stand-out and well-documented accounts, are (a) the total amount of one-on-one time the child has with intellectually-engaged adults; (b) a strong overseer who guides the education at a high level with the clear intent of producing an exceptional mind (in Mill’s case, his father, in Russell’s case, his grandmother, in Hamilton’s case, Knox, and we can look to modern examples like mathematician Terence Tao, whose parents did the same); (c) plenty of free time, i.e., less tutoring hours in the day than traditional school; (d) teaching that avoids the standard lecture-based system of unnecessary memorization and testing and instead encourages thinking from first principles, discussions, writing, debates, or simply overviewing the fundamentals together; (e) in these activities, it is often best to let the student lead (e.g., writing an essay or poetry, or learning a proof); (f) intellectual life needs to be taken abnormally seriously by either the tutors or the family at large; (g) there is early specialization of geniuses, often into the very fields for which they would become notable (even, e.g., Hamilton’s childhood experience with logistics making him an ideal chief of staff for Washington’s war); (g) at some point the tutoring transitions toward an apprenticeship model, often quite early, which takes the form of project-based collaboration, such as producing a scientific paper or monograph or book; (h) a final stage of becoming pupil to another genius at the height of their powers, often as young adulthood is only beginning (Mill with the early utilitarians like the Bethams and his father, Russell with Whitehead, Hamilton with Washington). From there, they are off and running. Earlier on in history, they often eventually became tutors themselves, as if they were an organism completing a life-cycle and returning to the place of its origins (e.g., Huygens, who was tutored by famous scientists of the day, tutoring Leibniz).
What would happen to such geniuses today, to the Russells, the Mills, even to someone like Einstein? In some cases, like Terence Tao, they might be protected by their parents. Kept close, as he was, at a local unchallenging college, going through a carefully designed curriculum that had little to do with standard academic progression. But in other cases, the would-be geniuses would merely be shunted into the same system of mass-production that is so good for medians and so bad for extremes. What would happen then?
I think they can tell us themselves. Here is Bertrand Russell, speaking of his relationship with academic tests:
The attempt to acquire examination technique had led me to think of mathematics as consisting of artful dodges and ingenious devices and as altogether too much like a crossword puzzle. When. . . I emerged from my last mathematical examination I swore that I would never look at mathematics again and sold all my mathematical books.
And here is Einstein, perhaps the greatest of the pantheon of geniuses, writing soon after graduating from the Zurich Polytechnic:
The coercion [for examinations] had such a deterring effect that after I had passed the final examination I found the consideration of any scientific problems distasteful to me for an entire year.
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 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