Intellectual life needs to be taken abnormally seriously

Monday, December 26th, 2022

The key to aristocratic tutoring, Erik Hoel suggests, 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).


  1. W2 says:

    If the topics and the tutor are suited to the abilities of the pupil, this is the best way to develop whatever capabilities he might have.

  2. Roepke says:

    Puts too much focus on individuality. He should look into how musicians and artists were trained in old Europe – partimento and atelier training respectively. I’m more familiar with former, so to briefly explain.

    If you’ve ever wondered how Mozart et al were so productive, they were trained in a very intensive way. They learned the rules for counterpoint etc as rules for improvisation. In other words, they would have a large number of memorized melodies, such as gregorian chants. They would slowly learn more complex rules for combining two melodies so that they could slowly improvise more and more complex counterpoints on top of the melodies they already knew. In addition, they would memorize large numbers of stock resolutions and cadences to stretch out pieces.

    So they would build up to writing symphonies in a very structured way. First improvise a melody. Then stretch it out using stock cadences into a dance. Combine several of these together into a symphony. This is only the barest introduction, but in general musical genius was taught with less focus on individuality and self direction. They attempted to teach improvisation, composition, and genius in a very structured and progressively graded manner.

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