The instinct was to curate a culture

Thursday, September 8th, 2022

Henrik Karlsson helped Erik Hoel comb through the literature on the upbringings of historical geniuses:

But what has struck me, more than anything else, is the insane quality of the cultures they internalized. The pedagogies their guardians employed differed radically; they had differing temperaments; they mastered different disciplines, but they all had this in common: they spent their days around highly competent people.

Most who grew up to become geniuses, pre-1900, were kept apart from same age peers and raised at home, by tutors or parents. Michel Montaigne’s father employed only servants who were fluent in Latin, curating a classical culture, so Montaigne would learn Latin as his mother tongue. J.S. Mill spent his childhood at his father’s desk, helping his father write a treatise on economics, running over to Jeremy Bentham’s house to borrow books and discuss ideas.

Blaise Pascal, too, was homeschooled by his father. His father choose not to teach him math. (The father, Etienne, had a passion for mathematics that he felt was slightly unhealthy. He feared mathematics would distract Pascal from less intrinsically rewarding pursuits, such as literature, much like modern parents fear TikTok.) Pascal had to teach himself. When it was discovered that Pascal, then a young teenager, had rederived several of Euclid’s proofs, the family relocated to Paris so father and son could participate in the mathematical salons of Mersenne. The instinct was to curate a culture, not to teach, not primarily.


  1. Jim says:

    Public school, as everyone knows, represents the total inversion of this instinct.

    It is beautifully designed, in its own “special” way, manifestly a work of inspired genius.

    Many think it an accident that it is as bad as it is. Could it be…?

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