They are very, very careerist people

Monday, January 9th, 2023

Stephen Hsu worked for a time as a vice president of a university and notes that administrators are a different group:

The top level administrators at universities are usually drawn from the faculty, or from faculty at other universities. After being a top level administrator at a Big 10 university, and meeting provosts and presidents at the other top universities, I have a pretty good feel for this particular collection of people.

You can imagine what it is that makes someone who’s already a tenured professor in biochemistry decide they want to take on this huge amount of responsibility and maybe even shut down their own research program. They are very, very careerist people. And that is a huge problem, because incentives are heavily misaligned.

The incentive for me as a senior administrator is not to make waves and keep everything kind of calm. Calm down the crazy professor who’s doing stuff, assuage the students that are protesting, make the donors happy, make the board of trustees happy. I found that the people who were in the role so they could advance their career, versus those trying to advance the interests of the institution, were very different. There were times when I felt like I had to do something very dangerous for me career-wise, but it was absolutely essential for the mission of the university. I had to do that repeatedly.

And I told the president who hired me, “I don’t know how long I’m going to last in this job, because I’m going to do the right thing. If I do the right thing and I’m bounced out, that’s fine. I don’t care.” But most people are not like that.

In economics, there’s something called the principal-agent problem. Let’s say you hire a CEO to manage your company. Unless his compensation is completely determined by some long-dated stock options or something, his interests are not aligned with the long-term growth for your company. He can have a great quarter by shipping all your manufacturing off to China, have a great few quarters, and get a huge bonus. Even if, on a long timescale, it’s really bad for your bottom line.

So there’s a principal-agent problem here. Anytime you give centralized power to somebody, you have to be sure that their incentives — or their personal integrity — are aligned with what you want them to promote at the institution. And generally, it’s not well done in the universities right now.

It’s not like it used to be that, “Oh, if Joe or Jane is going to become university president, you can bet that their highest value is higher education and truth, that’s the American way.” It was probably never true. But they don’t claw back your compensation as a president of the university if it later turns out that you really screwed something up. You know, they don’t really even do that with CEOs.

It is the exodus from the universities that explains what is happening in the larger culture

Monday, January 2nd, 2023

Russell Jacoby argued — in The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe, back in 1987 — that public intellectuals had ensconced themselves in the universities, where the politics of tenure loom larger than the politics of culture:

But my critics and I both missed something that might not have been obvious 30 years ago. By the late 1990s the rapid expansion of the universities came to a halt, especially in the humanities. Faculty openings slowed or stopped in many fields. Graduate enrollment cratered. In my own department in 10 years we went from accepting over a hundred students for graduate study to under 20 for a simple reason. We could not place our students. The hordes who took courses in critical pedagogy, insurgent sociology, gender studies, radical anthropology, Marxist cinema theory, and postmodernism could no longer hope for university careers.

What became of them? No single answer is possible. They joined the work force. Some became baristas, tech supporters, Amazon staffers and real estate agents. Others with intellectual ambitions found positions with the remaining newspapers and online periodicals, but most often they landed jobs as writers or researchers with liberal government agencies, foundations, or NGOs. In all these capacities they brought along the sensibilities and jargon they learned on campus.

It is the exodus from the universities that explains what is happening in the larger culture. The leftists who would have vanished as assistant professors in conferences on narratology and gender fluidity or disappeared as law professors with unreadable essays on misogynist hegemony and intersectionality have been pushed out into the larger culture. They staff the ballooning diversity and inclusion commissariats that assault us with vapid statements and inane programs couched in the language they learned in school. We are witnessing the invasion of the public square by the campus, an intrusion of academic terms and sensibilities that has leaped the ivy-covered walls aided by social media. The buzz words of the campus—diversity, inclusion, microaggression, power differential, white privilege, group safety—have become the buzz words in public life. Already confusing on campus, they become noxious off campus. “The slovenliness of our language,” declared Orwell in his classic 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” makes it “easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

As Peter Turchin notes, this is textbook elite overproduction.

A young man entering full-time research interested in warfare would find himself stymied at every turn

Friday, December 30th, 2022

Why are archaeologists taking to anonymous online spaces to practice their craft?

In part because we have an inflation of young people, educated to around the postgraduate level, who no longer see a future in the academy, where jobs are almost non-existent, and acutely aware of the damage a single remark or online comment can do to a career. But also because we have a university research system that has drifted towards a political position that defies a common sense understanding of human nature and history. A young man entering full-time research interested in warfare, conflict, the origins of different peoples, how borders and boundaries have changed through time, grand narratives of conquest or expansion, would find himself stymied at every turn and regarded with great suspicion. If he didn’t embrace the critical studies fields of postcolonial thought, feminism, gender and queer politics or antiracism, he might find himself shut out from a career altogether. Much easier instead to go online and find the ten other people on Earth who share his interests, who are concerned with what the results mean, rather than their wider current political and social ramifications.

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).

Thinking about why those rules were rules will be much easier than trying to deduce how to be considerate from first principles

Thursday, December 15th, 2022

The sympathetic opposition explains how and why to be ladylike — ostensibly for women with (high-functioning) autism:

So, imagine you’re a young woman. (Apparently everyone likes to do that.) You are starting to possess some degree of sexual attraction, which impacts others around you. Also, you live in a social world, and you want things from other people. At the same time, you are ambivalent about your powers of sexual attraction, which sometimes cause people to behave threateningly or at least unpleasantly towards you, and definitely put you in a lot of awkward situations you didnt ask for. And also because you’re being judged, and it’s hard to get a break. What to do?


Being overtly sexy hijacks people’s attention on a level that they don’t have much control over — and the overt hate/dislike that they respond with is an attempt to wrest back some control over their responses. It’s simple epistemic hygiene, and the girls don’t like it because they feel competed with and defected against, and they feel it’s unfair and unpleasant. When they feel unfairly competed against sexually, they are going to respond by upping the social competition, and it will suck for people like us, because we have already established we are not good at that.


Acting like a lady is leveraging your attractiveness (whatever degree of it you might have) while also giving yourself/the people you’re interacting with, plausible deniability that you’re leveraging your attractiveness.


Here’s the Dune quote I promised, by the way:

The Reverend Mother must combine the seductive wiles of a courtesan with the untouchable majesty of a virgin goddess, holding these attributes in tension so long as the powers of her youth endure. When youth and beauty are gone, she will find that the place between, once occupied by tension, has become a wellspring of cunning and resourcefulness.


When you’re sexually attractive to a man you’re talking to, it hijacks some of his attention, and it’s not easy for him to wrest it back. Sorry for sounding like a middle aged schoolteacher explaining dress code to you.


Consider reading old etiquette books — old ones, not recent ones — and thinking about how the rules worked. they won’t always explain the rules in a way that’s available to you, but thinking about why those rules were rules will be much easier than trying to deduce how to be considerate from first principles.

Schooling is actually a net negative

Sunday, November 6th, 2022

The Slime Mold Time Mold crew think that Erik Hoel is right that historical tutoring was better than education today:

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.

Why does everybody lie about social mobility?

Thursday, November 3rd, 2022

Why does everybody lie about social mobility?, Peter Saunders asks:

The answer [to a growing concern that the UK was squandering vast pools of potential working-class talent that it could ill afford to lose], addressed in the 1944 Education Act, was to make all state-aided secondary schools, including grammar schools, free for all pupils. A new national examination — the ’11-plus’ — was introduced, and those scoring high-enough marks were selected for grammar schools, regardless of their parents’ means. From now on, children from different social class backgrounds would be given an equal opportunity to get to grammar schools. The only selection criterion was intellectual ability.

It didn’t take long, however, for critics to notice that children from middle-class homes were still out-competing those from working-class backgrounds in the 11-plus competition for grammar school places. The possibility that this might be because middle-class kids are on average brighter than working-class kids was ruled out from the start.


In 1965, the (privately-educated) Labour Education Secretary, Anthony Crosland, issued an instruction to all local education authorities to close down their grammar schools and replace them with ‘comprehensives’ which would be forbidden to select pupils by ability. Within a few years, all but 163 of nearly 1,300 grammar schools in the UK disappeared.


But very rapidly, the familiar pattern reappeared. Middle-class children clustered in disproportionate numbers in the higher streams of the comprehensive schools, and they continued to out-perform working-class children in post-16 examinations and university entry.

One response to this was to weaken or abolish streaming.


The minimum leaving age was raised to 16 in 1972 to force under-performing working-class children to stay in school longer, and when that didn’t make much difference to the attainment gap, the Blair government legislated in 2008 to force everyone to stay in education or training up until the age of 18. Yet still the social class imbalance in educational achievement persisted.


With nearly half of all youngsters getting degrees, more demanding employers started recruiting only from the top universities. Politicians responded to this by putting pressure on the top universities to admit more lower-class applicants.


Looking back over this sorry half-century history of educational reform and upheaval, we see that we have increased coercion (restricting school choice by parents, forcing kids to stay in education even if they don’t want to, limiting the autonomy of universities to select their own students), diluted standards (dumbing down GCSEs, A-levels and degrees), and undermined meritocracy (forcing universities and employers to favour applicants from certain kinds of backgrounds at the expense of others who may be better qualified). What we have conspicuously failed to do, however, is flatten social class differences in educational achievement.

Talent and not money is the truly scarce variable

Tuesday, October 4th, 2022

Rob Henderson finds Tyler Cowen’s latest book, written with Daniel Gross, thorough yet breezy, providing useful tips for how to develop a talent-spotting mindset with insights from psychometrics, management, economics, and sociology:

Cowen and Gross note that in the U.S., from 1980 to 2000, the main cause of income inequality was whether a person graduated from college. But from 2000 to 2017, income inequality primarily existed within educational groupings. In other words, talent appears to be more responsible than education for economic returns.

Cowen and Gross each describe how often they reject proposals, and they conclude that “talent and not money is the truly scarce variable.” But where does it come from? They acknowledge that talent can differ between individuals, but they also stress the importance of practice. Indeed, those with the potential to cultivate serious talent sometimes practice to the point of obsession. Discussing which attributes predict eminence in a field, psychology professor David Lubinski has said that passion for work is key, and that highly creative people tend to be “almost myopically” fixated on work.

Relatedly, Cowen and Gross observe, “If you are hiring a writer, look for signs that the person is writing literally every day. If you are hiring an executive, try to discern what they are doing all the time to improve networking, decision-making, and knowledge of the sectors they work in.” Developing the habit of practice and self-discipline — the authors describe it as “sturdiness” — is critical for talent acquisition. “Sturdiness is the quality of getting work done every day, with extreme regularity and without long streaks of non-achievement,” they write. “If you are a writer, sturdiness is a very powerful virtue, even if you do not always feel you are being extremely productive.”

Accordingly, the book cites research indicating that perseverance is a stronger predictor than passion for success. When it comes to achievement, persistence pays off more than pure passion.

The authors’ favorite interview question about browser tabs is meant to tap into this question about whether a person spends his or her free time practicing. What the book describes as “downtime revealed preferences” are more interesting than “stories about your prior jobs.” For instance, asking what newsletters or subreddits a person reads is often more illuminating than asking what a person did at their previous job.

The book is very much about identifying high performers, as opposed to average workers. This is particularly true of its interview section, which gives guidance on unstructured, as opposed to structured, interviews. Most research indicates that interviews are more effective for higher-level jobs.

Talent provides several fascinating questions designed to yield interesting answers. How did you prepare for this interview? What’s a story one of your references might tell me when I call them? Which of your beliefs are you most likely wrong about? Whether the candidate can draw on intellectual and emotional resources to answer is a sign of broader stores of intellect and energy that he or she will bring to the job. The authors suggest that interviewers should not be afraid to let a question hang in the air after asking it; better to hold the tension to make clear you expect an answer.

The authors suggest using challenging and unusual questions to identify those with more style than substance. As they put it, “Beware of verbally adept storytellers.” Most of us have a bias toward well-spoken and articulate individuals. Bear this in mind, for it can lead you to hire what the authors describe as “glib but unsubstantial people.” They conclude this line of advice with, “Do not overestimate the importance of a person’s articulateness.”

It was not an education system

Tuesday, September 27th, 2022

Growing up on the Swedish seaside, Henrik Karlsson had a five-minute walk to four open learning facilities, not counting the library and the youth center:

One of the premises was an abandoned church that my friends and I used as a recording studio; we’d renovated it ourselves with funding from a study association. In another, I learned French from an émigré of Montpellier. We arranged public lectures — once, to our great surprise, we even managed to book then general secretary of the United Nations Ban-Ki Moon for a lecture in Uppsala. I analyzed Soviet cinema with a group of whom an unsettling number sang Sång för Stalin before the screenings.

Since leaving Sweden, I have realized that not everyone grows up like this. And I miss it. In fact, if the whole of Sweden was about to burn down and I could only save one thing, I might grab just folkbildningsrörelsen.

Folkbildningsrörelsen: that is the name we have for this movement of self-organized study groups, resource centers, maker spaces, public lectures, and free retreats for personal development.

These types of things exist in other countries too — but not at the same scale. Or even close.


In the 19th century, when these houses and the financing that enables them began to be built out, the main impetus came from the German Bildung tradition.

Bildung etymologically refers to shaping yourself in the image (das Bild) of God. God in this context should be imagined as a highly self-possessed spectral being — in control of its emotions, with mind and heart in harmony, and willing to take individual moral responsibility. Think Bertrand Russell but less atheist, and sitting on a cloud.


In the 19th century, the popular education movement started to grow into a significant societal force. This began with the creation of so-called folk high schools (folkhögskolor). These first emerged in Denmark, in Ryslinge, where Christen Kold in 1851 started a school based on N.F.S. Grundtvig’s idea of an ungraded, discussion-focused institution for higher education, aimed at the lower classes.

Folk high schools were located in scenic areas — not so much to be romantic retreats for city dwellers but to be close to the farmers who were their main clientele. In The Nordic Secret, Andersen and Björkman argue that folk high schools were retreats for ego development along lines similar to Robert Kegan’s. It was about creating the conditions for people who had lived in simple small-scale communities to develop the knowledge and psychological complexity required to navigate modern society. Much emphasis was placed on discussions, practical skills and simulations.


They arranged role-playing events where workers and farmers played out committee meetings and other arcane parts of the political process. This meant that once they got the vote and started sweeping into office, the worker representatives out-maneuvered the representatives from the upper classes, to the great surprise of many who had argued against democracy on the grounds that it would lead to a flood of unwashed plebeians. The secretaries in the government office, who were in the habit of grading political representatives for their professionalism, left good marks for the early workers’ representatives.

At their peak, 10 percent of young adults in rural areas choose to attend folk high schools. Andersen and Björkman’s thesis is that this created a critical mass, well distributed in the population, that had the intellectual and emotional tools needed to effectively navigate a complex society. This, in turn, would explain the rapid transition that the Nordic countries made, from being the poorest in Europe in the 1850s to being the happiest, most equal, and nearly richest societies in the world eighty years later. I think that is overplaying the importance of the folk high school – but it does gesture at the transformative impact that popular education had on large swaths of the population.

And it was only just beginning.


Olsson had returned from a trip to the United States where he had observed the success of the Chautauqua movement, an educational spectacle with speakers, showmen, and preachers, which Theodore Roosevelt, quite aptly, called “the most American thing in America”. Now Olsson was trying to figure out how to bring these ideas to his Good Templar lodge in Lund, to help his fellow Good Templars spread temperance.

What he came up with was a Scandinavian, minimalist version of Chautauqua, which he called a study circle. The study circle, Olsson envisaged, would be made up of equals and elect a leader from among its members. It would take literature as its starting point, and help its members acquire knowledge in the course of free conversation. It was, as all good memes are, a very simple idea. And it was cheap. The members (numbering between 5 and 20) could, if necessary, meet at home and would choose their own study material. That created an economically viable form of education for the working class.

And it was made even more viable three years later, when the Riksdag, Sweden’s parliament, voted to give grants for the purchase of books, on the condition that the books were made available to the general public1.

Another factor behind the success of study circles was their focus on communal self-improvement. Study circles were a child of the temperance movement — a movement that neither sought collective power, like the unions, nor self-improvement for the individual, but rather encouraged people to improve to serve their fellow human beings. This focus on communal self-improvement seems to have provided momentum to the movement. It also helped foster social capital formation, creating dense high-trust networks.


It was not an education system. Rather, it was an attempt to unleash what I have called the learning system. Instead of interventions aimed at controlling what people learn — which is how we can think about traditional education — folkbildningsrörelsen provided people with the resources they needed to learn on their own. The movements created the conditions for an ecosystem to emerge.

A whopping 19 out of 20 principals were replaced in the Houston experiment

Sunday, September 25th, 2022

Connie Morgan believes that Dr. Roland Fryer may have cracked the code on how to eliminate the academic gap between races:

White students score about 30 points higher on math tests than black students. Fryer implemented a strategy at a failing Houston school district that closed the gap. He did it by applying to elementary and secondary schools in the Houston district the five tenets of school success that he discovered in researching the habits of highly successful charter schools. Theories on how to close the academic achievement gap vary from “fix the home” to “fix the school” to “fix the community.” Fryer’s results make a compelling case for “fix the school.”

The five tenets are clear-cut:

  1. Increased Time in School
  2. Good Human Capital Management
  3. High Dosage Tutoring
  4. Data Driven Instruction
  5. Culture of High Expectations

Increasing time children spend in school may be unpalatable for parents concerned about indoctrination but this concern is addressed with the human capital management tenet (more on this in the following paragraph). Others may balk at longer schooldays, citing conflicting research on foreign schools pointing to shorter days as a tenet of student success. However, research on small homogenous countries like Finland is unlikely to reveal practices easily transferable to the United States. Fryer’s experiment confirms, in contrast, that when time in school is spent well, it’s good to spend more of it, particularly when the alternative might be a home environment non-conducive to children’s learning. Fryer had treatment schools in the Houston district increase time on task in various ways, including eliminating breaks between classes, expanding the school day by one hour, offering weekend classes, and adding days to the school year.

Human capital management is probably the most obvious tenet of improving education. In other words, get rid of teachers who won’t embrace the mission and hire ones that will. This tenet is likely the most difficult to execute. Politics and scarcity of resources are the challenges. A whopping 19 out of 20 principals were replaced in the Houston experiment. It took over 300 interviews to find 19 principals to replace them. Of the teachers, 46% were replaced. The district spent more than $5 million buying out teacher contracts. Additionally, feedback to teachers was constant. In the treatment schools, teachers received ten times more observations and feedback than those in the control group. Principals regularly lead staff development and training sessions.

Few schools tutor the number of students for the length of time that Fryer recommends. Remember that extra hour added to the school day? This is where it’s put to work; daily, focused small-group tutoring. In the Houston experiment, low performing fourth graders and all sixth and ninth graders were intensively tutored.

Like their teachers, students in the experiment were constantly being evaluated. Many schools collect data, but few are good at adjusting instruction in light of data. In Fryer’s experiment, treated schools held assessments every three weeks as well as benchmark exams three times in a school year. These results informed tutoring and allowed teachers to set highly specific performance goals with students.

A culture of high expectations is the trickiest tenet to measure. The tenet goes beyond posters that say “Nobody Cares, Work Harder.” Indicators that a real attitude shift has occurred may include things like professional dress codes for teachers, posted achievement goals and/or contracts between parents and schools agreeing to honor expectations.

Math achievement rose significantly in the schools that implemented Fryer’s tenets. Assessment scores increased by 0.15 to 0.18 standard deviations in a year. In layman’s terms, under this program, there is potential to close the math achievement gap between black and white students in less than three years. Even more important than comparison between groups and closed gaps is the absolute good of increased math proficiency among students who have been too long neglected.

The original paper notes that “injecting best practices from charter schools into traditional Houston public schools significantly increases student math achievement in treated elementary and secondary schools — by 0.15 to 0.18 standard deviations a year — and has little effect on reading achievement.”

(Hat tip to Arnold Kling, who expects any gains to fade out.)

Napoleon did not recommend the study of battles, but of campaigns

Saturday, September 24th, 2022

Napoleon did not recommend the study of battles, but of campaigns:

Campaigns before the twentieth century are in many ways the opposite of case studies. The latter thrusts us into a specific scenario, at a certain time and place, with a certain number of troops and resources, and with an immediate objective in mind. In set-piece battles of yore, as in modern operations, most of a commander’s mental efforts took place before things even begin: gathering an intelligence estimate of the enemy, selecting the best scheme of maneuver, matching troops to task, arranging logistics, etc. Once the action commenced, there were only a limited number of decision points where he could influence the course of events—to grossly simplify, the results came down to a series of rolls of the dice. This naturally focuses our attention on the mechanism of victory: what predetermined course of action gives the best probability of success in a scenario, accounting for a limited range of possible enemy responses.

Campaigns, on the other hand, were fundamentally more open-ended. When armies marched out of their winter cantonments for the season, they did not always know in advance which fortress to attack or where to fight a decisive action. Even when they did have a definite objective in mind, the entire challenge lay in precipitating conditions which would allow them to accomplish it; just as often, however, enemy action or the accidents of fate forced them to reconsider their intermediate steps or even the final objective itself.

This open-endedness created a very different decision-making structure. Plans had to account for a far greater degree of uncertainty, and the ability merely to remain in the field as a coherent force was at least as important as the pursuit of an objective. Sheer accident could moot one’s present course—Napoleon’s own staff was famous for issuing a steady stream of countermanding orders as circumstances evolved—and it was quite common for armies to stumble into a decisive engagement without realizing it. In short, decision-making was a far more continuous process.

This remained true even when both sides were clearly heading toward a decisive clash. Most of a commander’s focus had to remain outside the object itself: heeding his own vulnerabilities, considering the enemy’s intervening actions, ensuring that he was not detracting from his own efforts elsewhere, and getting enough men and supplies to the right place. And looming above all that was the risk of failure: what would the immediate consequences be? Was there a safe line of retreat? How would failure change his overall position? Naturally enough, the decision whether to engage in battle was just as important as the battleplan itself.

These questions shine through in narratives and memoirs from past campaigns. Many sources record war council debates over objectives, contingencies, marching routes, and supply considerations. It is by engaging with these debates and working through the decision-making process that a student can develop an intuition for the principles of war—not as a list of rules, but as a way of conducting operations in the face of uncertainty and risk. Even when the sources don’t reveal a commander’s thoughts, it can be just as instructive to try to figure out what he might have been thinking, or whether a failed action might have been somewhat justified by some non-obvious factor.

At its best military history is like a problem set with a partial answer key.

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.

You are always internalizing the culture around you

Wednesday, September 7th, 2022

Chimpanzees, who are born into the habitat their genes expect, get by largely on instinct:

We cannot. We have to rely on what anthropologists call cultural learning.


If you measure two-and-a-half-year-old children against [same-aged] chimpanzees and orangutans, they are about even in their capacity to handle tools and solve problems on their own. Only when it comes to observing others and repeating their actions is there a noticeable difference.

Two-and-a-half-year-olds can extract knowledge from people just by watching them move about a room. They start to desire what those around them desire. They pick up tacit knowledge. They change their dialect to match their peer groups. And after a handful of years of hanging about with people more skilled than themselves, our babies — these tiny, soft-skulled creatures — can out-compete chimpanzees in all but close combat.

This ability is not something you can turn on and off. You are always internalizing the culture around you. Even when you wish you didn’t. So you better surround yourself with something you want inside — curate a culture.

This was a world where the humanities mattered

Saturday, September 3rd, 2022

In the 1960s, when history and English majors were among the most popular on campus, America was a very different place, T. Greer explains:

This was an America where most kids memorized reams of poetry in school, where one third of the country turned on their television to watch a live broadcast of Richard III, and where listening to speeches on American history was a standard Independence Day activity. The most prominent public intellectuals of this America were people like Lionel Trilling (literary critic), Reinhold Niebuhr (theologian), and Richard Hofstader (historian). This was a world where the humanities mattered. So did humanities professors. They mattered in part, as traditionalists like to point out, because these professors were seen as the custodians of a cultural tradition to which most American intellectuals believed they were the heirs to. But they mattered for a more important reason—the reason intellectuals would care about that birthright in the first place.

Americans once believed, earnestly believed, that by studying the words of Milton and Dante, or by examining the history of republican Rome or 16th century England, one could learn important, even eternal, truths about human nature and human polities. Art, literature, and history were a privileged source of insight into human affairs. In consequence, those well versed in history and the other humanistic disciplines had immense authority in the public eye. The man of vaulting ambition studied the humanities.

Living in walkable neighborhoods alone does not do the job

Friday, August 19th, 2022

There was a viral tweet recently saying something like “Americans only obsess over college so much because it’s the only time they get to live in a walkable neighborhood,” and Ben Southwood thinks there’s something to this:

But living in walkable neighbourhoods alone does not do the job. Most Americans do not choose to live in walkable neighbourhoods, developers do not maximise profits by building walkable neighbourhoods, and walkable neighbourhoods don’t usually have the highest location-adjusted prices. (Though see many admirable projects trying to change this on Coby Lefkowitz’s Twitter feed.)

Americans rarely live on walkable streets. There are some very high rent neighbourhoods that are walkable &mdsah; Manhattan, Georgetown, and so on. There are bungalow courts and assisted living areas for older people. These two neighbourhood types involve clustering, based around affordability or other restrictions, and are often desirable.

Then there are trailer communities, and there are some neighbourhoods of public housing that are in some sense walkable, although the walks tend to be across bleak windswept open spaces or within poorly kept up towers and blocks. These two neighbourhood types tend not to be people’s first choice, and are generally seen as less desirable.

As will be clear if you read my first post, or the title of this very Substack, I think the reason people loved their college days so much, apart from the fact they were young and beautiful, with perfectly functioning brains and livers, is that at university one has all one’s best friends within two minutes walk. And they’re almost always free to hang out.

Compared to the small town example I looked at before, people at a given university are probably more like potential friends. Most importantly, the students all chose to be there — unlike prisoners, who also live in walkable neighbourhoods. And they chose to be there in part because of an organising feature of the university, probably making the intake similar to each other in some way, possibly fitting some cultural type.

In short: it’s also about clustering.