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Why we stopped making Einsteins

For paradoxically there exists an agreed-upon and specific answer to the single best way to educate children, a way that has clear, obvious, and strong effects. The problem is that this answer is unacceptable. The superior method of education is deeply unfair and privileges those at the very top of the socioeconomic ladder. It’s an answer that was well-known historically, and is also observed by education researchers today: tutoring.


I think the most depressing fact about humanity is that during the 2000s most of the world was handed essentially free access to the entirety of knowledge and that didn’t trigger a golden age.


Think about the advent of the internet long enough and it seems impossible to not start throwing away preconceptions about how genius is produced. If genius were just a matter of genetic ability, then in the past century, as the world’s population increased dramatically, and as mass education skyrocketed, and as racial and gender barriers came thundering down across the globe, and particularly in the last few decades as free information saturated our society, we should have seen a genius boom—an efflorescence of the best mathematicians, the greatest scientists, the most awe-inspiring artists.


If a renaissance be too grand for you, will you at least admit we should have expected some sort of a bump?


And yet, this great real-world experiment has seen, not just no effect, but perhaps the exact opposite effect of a decline of genius. Consider how rare true world-historic geniuses are now-a-days, and how different it was in the past. In " Where Have All the Great Books Gone?" Tanner Greer uses Oswald Spengler, the original chronicler of the decline of genius back in 1914, to point out our current genius downturn:

[Spengler] repeatedly describes Tolstoy (d. 1910), Ibsen (d. 1906), Nietzsche (d. 1900), Hertz (d. 1894), Dostoevsky (d. 1881), Marx (d. 1883), and Maxwell (1879) as figures of defining “world-historical” importance: in other words, as working on the same plane as Plato, Archimedes, Ovid, Shakespeare, and Newton. He does not argue their merits; to him it is obvious that these are the men who deserve to be thought of as “world-historical” figures, and it is clear from the way he makes his arguments that he expects that his own readers already agree with him.
Ponder that! Spengler began writing Decline of the West in 1914. Tolstoy was only four years dead when Spengler started his book; Marx was only 30 years deceased. But Spengler could state, with the full expectation that his audience would not question him, that these men belonged in global pantheon of humanity’s greatest figures. But Spengler was hardly alone in this sort of judgement. Ten years later John Erskine would teach his course on the great works of the Western tradition—which was the granddaddy of the Columbia Common Core, the St. John’s curriculum, and the Great Books of the Western World series—and it included all of the names mentioned above as well. To this Erskine would add the names William James, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Hardy, and Charles Darwin...
Is there anyone who died in the last decade you could make that sort of claim for?
How about for the last two decades?
The last three?
Or is there anyone at all who is still living today that might be described this way?

There are a bunch of other analyses (really, laments) of a similar nature I could name, from Nature’s "Scientific genius is extinct" to The New Statesman’s "The fall of the intellectual" to The Chronicle of Higher Education’s "Where have all the geniuses gone?" to Wired’s "The Difficulty of Discovery (Where Have All The Geniuses Gone?)" to philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel’s "Where are all the Fodors?" to my own lamentation on the lack of leading fiction writers.


If you disagree, I’ll certainly admit that finding irrefutable evidence for a decline of genius is difficult—intellectual contributions are extremely hard to quantify, the definition of genius is always up for debate, and any discussion will necessarily elide all sorts of points and counterpoints. But the numbers, at least at first glance, seem to support the anecdotal. Here’s a chart from Cold Takes’ "Where’s Today’s Beethoven?" Below, we can see the number of acclaimed scientists (in blue) and artists (in red), divided by the effective population (total human population with the education and access to contribute to these fields).


This particular dataset ends at 1950, but the downward trend is clear. And Strange Loop Canon put together this graph of geniuses based on Wikipedia mentions.


These charts don’t even quantify the effective population explosion that the internet represented (and its unsettling concomitant lack of a genius boom).


One might, of course, reply that there are still many Einsteins, they just don’t come off as Einsteins because ideas are so much harder to find now. This “ideas are getting harder to find” argument does indeed have some data to support it, although not everyone agrees. Yet, even if ideas are getting harder to find (to some degree), does it actually fully explain our dearth of geniuses? Surely, ideas didn’t get harder to find in the last twenty-five years to exactly such a degree it completely nullified the explosion of free information to pretty much everyone on Earth? And “ideas are getting harder to find” seems especially unconvincing outside the hard sciences in domains like music or fiction.


We may be uncomfortable with it being pointed out, but the absence of genius is a major problem. Global cultural and intellectual exhaustion are an existential risk to the longterm viability of humanity. Geniuses prevent that from happening; they renew us, rejuvenate and reinvigorate us. We shouldn’t be shy about it.


So, where are all the Einsteins?


The answer must lie in education somewhere. And if we look into research on different education strategies and their effectiveness, we do indeed see all sorts of debates about best practices, learning styles, class size, monetary policy, and equality. But mostly we see, actually, that none of it matters much. Education researcher and fellow Substack writer Freddie deBoer points out that

...winning a lottery to attend a supposedly better school in Chicago makes no difference on educational outcomes. In New York? Makes no difference. What determines college completion rates, high school quality? No, that makes no difference; what matters is “preentry ability.” How about private vs. public schools? Corrected for underlying demographic differences, it makes no difference. Parents in many cities are obsessive about getting their kids into competitive exam high schools, but when you adjust for differences in ability, attending them makes no difference. The kids who just missed the cut score and the kids who just beat it have very similar underlying ability and so it should not surprise us in the least that they have very similar outcomes, despite going to very different schools. (The perception that these schools matter is based on exactly the same bad logic that Harvard benefits from.) Similarly, highly sought-after government schools in Kenya make no difference. Winning the lottery to choose your middle school in China? Makes no difference.

Many have taken this null effect of schools to be a sign of genetic determinism, wherein some innate ability, like IQ, is all that matters, and education is, at best, just the delivery of a repository of facts.


I don’t think this is the case. For paradoxically there exists an agreed-upon and specific answer to the single best way to educate children, a way that has clear, obvious, and strong effects. The problem is that this answer is unacceptable. The superior method of education is deeply unfair and privileges those at the very top of the socioeconomic ladder. It’s an answer that was well-known historically, and is also observed by education researchers today: tutoring.


Tutoring, one-on-one instruction, dramatically improves student’s abilities and scores. In education research this effect is sometimes called "Bloom’s 2-sigma problem" because in the 1980s the researcher Benjamin Bloom found that tutored students

...performed two standard deviations better than students who learn via conventional instructional methods—that is, "the average tutored student was above 98% of the students in the control class.”

However, despite its well-known effectiveness, tutoring’s modern incarnation almost universally concerns specific tests: in America the Advanced Placements (AP) tests, the SATs, and the GREs form the holy trinity of private tutoring. Meaning that contemporary tutoring, the most effective method of education, is overwhelmingly targeted at a small set of measurables that look good on a college resume.


This is only a narrow version of the tutoring that was done historically. If we go back in time tutoring had a much broader scope, acting as the main method of early education, at least for the elite.


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. As the name suggests it was something reserved mostly for aristocrats, which means, no way around it, it was deeply inequitable.


It’s a tradition that goes back as far as one can find. For example, consider one of the greatest statesmen of all time and one of the few true philosopher-kings, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Will Durant, in The Story of Civilization: Vol III, Caesar and Christ, said of Aurelius’s education that:

Never was a boy so persistently educated... Marcus liked games and sports, even bird snaring and hunting, and some efforts were made to train his body as well as his mind and character. But seventeen tutors in childhood are a heavy handicap. Four grammarians, four rhetors, one jurist, and eight philosophers divided his soul among them. The most famous of these teachers was M.Cornelius Fronto, who taught him rhetoric... Marcus love him, lavished upon him all the kindnesses of an affectionate and royal pupil, and exchanged with him letters of intimate charm...

Spanning kingdoms and continents aristocratic tutoring had a several-millennia long run. If we fast forward almost 2,000 years we can find Bertrand Russell, one of the undeniable geniuses of the 20th century, who was a classic case of aristocratic tutoring—raised by his rich grandparents, he didn’t even attend school until he was 16, and had a revolving door of tutors to equal Marcus’s. Many of whom were impressive scientists and intellectuals in their own right, e.g., J. Stuart, one of Russell’s tutors, had himself been a student of Lord Kelvin (that "Kelvin"). Russell, thanks to his detailed autobiography, gives us a clear impression of what aristocratic tutoring was like. Here’s from the graphic novel adaption of Russell’s life:


The same sort of idyllic learning situation was true for Russell’s famous compatriot, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was privately tutored at home until he was 14. Name a genius and find a tutor: the governesses of John von Neumann taught him languages, and he had other later tutors as well. Even in the cases where the children weren’t entirely homeschooled, up until the latter half of the 20th century aristocratic tutors were a casual and constant supplement to traditional education. Consider the easy nature by which Darwin, at the age of only 16 and already in university, personally hired John Edmonstone, a former slave and black freedman, to give him lessons on taxidermy outside of his classes (lessons later key to his specimen collections on The Beagle). The young Darwin described Edmonstone in his letters as someone who

...gained his livelihood by stuffing birds, which he did excellently: he gave me lessons for payment, and I used often to sit with him, for he was a very pleasant and intelligent man.

When you go back further, into the 1600s and 1700s, aristocratic tutors are the norm, often members of the aristocracy themselves. Voltaire’s tutor when he was young was the educated and worldly abbe de Chateauneuf, who was also his godfather. In turn, Voltaire was tutor to Émilie du Châtelet, an early female scientist and mathematician (notorious for her harsh demands of her tutors). Ada Lovelace, inventor of the first algorithm, was tutored as a youth by Mary Somerville, another early female scientist (indeed, the term “scientist” was coined specifically to refer to Somerville in a gender-neutral way, rather than the previously-used “man of science”).


The great philosopher himself, Descartes, literally died from tutoring—at the age of 53 he was giving lessons to Queen Christiana at the ungodly hour of 5 A.M., and the morning walk to the cold castle (which he hated) gave him pneumonia. But most of the time life as a tutor was essentially a cushy patronage job, wherein you instilled a sense of intellectual discovery into a young child in return for a hefty salary that left most of your free time intact—surely that’s what the tutors living on the Tolstoy estate must have felt, whiling away the evening hours chasing the local peasant girls after educating the young writer in the morning.


Indeed, it’s remarkable how common aristocratic tutors were. Essentially universal. You may have heard of the Grand Tour that young European aristocrats took part in, traveling from country to country, visiting universities and partaking of the various cultures and cuisines and sights. But did you know the young aristocrats always took their tutors along with them?

The young man (or woman) would not be traveling alone. Often it was the tutor who had already spent time educating the boy that was attached to the youngster in his (or her) travels. It could also be a specially appointed traveling tutor who was to supervise the journey.

I'll finish archiving this text later. If you want to continue reading, here is the original source.