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The Philip of Macedon approach to education
Philip II of Macedon was the father of Alexander the Great. What was Philip’s approach to educating his son? Well, he hired Aristotle to be his tutor.
Over the vast majority of the last 2600 or so years of education, the Philip of Macedon approach to education—hire an excellent full-time tutor—was one of the very, very few ways to get your children an education that had at least a chance of being quite good.
Over that timespan, our species has not made much progress in the field of education: knowledge of learning, development, and supporting materials and practices. But education is a human endeavor, and there are always particular humans that are good at connecting with and communicating to other particular humans. And even if you can’t literally get an Aristotle or a Locke, you can try to find an up-to-date knowledge generalist. In absence of other innovations, something like Bloom’s 2-sigma effect dominates everything else.
The argument blends a few observations: (1) the decline in the frequency of geniuses, (2) the decline of tutoring (or the narrowing of it to be focused almost exclusively on standardized test performance, and (3) as demonstrated in research and illustrated by historical example, the high effectiveness of a good tutor. The piece is worth a read, even if just for the trip through history.
But I’m mostly skeptical of the case overall. Even granting that genius is on the decline, something is being greatly oversimplified—and I say this as someone who has devoted his life to education—in the premise that “The answer must lie in education somewhere.”
The issue of education and genius is somewhat similar to the issue of education and war, which we covered a few weeks ago. These things have broader causes, rooted in the fundamental ideas and values that are operative in cultures. Education is one (important) leg of how those fundamental ideas and values operate. One shouldn’t understate the importance of education, but one also shouldn’t overstate it. Generally, I think one big part of the way that intellectual leaders in education have a broader impact is by keeping the wider view in mind, by noticing how their philosophies of education relate to, well, philosophies.
I don’t have a super strong view as to the biggest determinants of the incidence of genius, but my highest prior is: where in history there is a density of discovery and creation, it's largely because of broadly shared cultural ideals that valorize them. These ideals are absorbed by ambitious children when they grow up, and also affect institutions and social networks in ways that function as ambient rocket fuel for “genius” (or any other degree of talent and ambition).
It’s difficult for education to override cultural defaults. It works better when it’s an effective delivery system for extant trends, as a multiplier on culture.
Incidentally, the raison-d’être for Montessorium’s initiatives is to try to filter out worse cultural trends and amplify better cultural trends in our educational system:
The Pedagogy of Progress initiative is an extended analysis of how industrial progress can serve as an ideal and centerpiece for a positive vision of human progress generally
The Agency and Identity initiative is an extended analysis of identity development in a way that is agency-promoting—and a critique of popular approaches that are, in our view, agency-demoting.
Our core philosophy is meant to interrelate our educational philosophy to general issues in ethics, epistemology, and philosophical anthropology.
As for Bloom’s 2-sigma effect and the Philip of Macedon approach: my view is that their powers are real but more limited than they seem. They are a brute force solution in a field that needs optimized solutions. They are lead bullets in a domain that needs silver bullets.
Education in a group setting and a prepared environment, guided by adults who have more specific learning expertise—a learning environment more or less along the lines that Montessori envisioned—is better than having a killer tutor. A prepared physical and social environment offers a better surface area for learning and development than individual adult instruction.
In the very early years, this form of education is already relatively accessible (though not nearly accessible enough), thanks to Montessori and a century of grassroots movement. And, though rarer, it’s not even completely unknown for older students. Even at the most advanced stages of education, there are oddball examples of exceptional cutting-edge pedagogy—the structure and content of The Origin of Species is one; persistent, exceptional learning communities such as those of the early universities are another—that serve as models of non-brute-force innovation that exceeds the capacity of tutors.
The problem with the Philip of Macedon method isn’t just that it’s hard to scale Aristotle as a tutor. It’s that we can do better.
What we’re reading
Writing matters (academic paper): Jan Feld, Corinna Lines, and Libby Ross argue that papers with more editorial effort are more likely to be accepted into conferences and journals. Twitter discussion here.
I ♥ universities (essay): Lucy Keep offers a heartfelt appreciation of the depth and virtuous semi-permeability around university culture. Apropos of the above discussion, the learning culture of universities is incredibly hard to capture with a single tutor, and one question for educators is what the analogous setup is for younger students.
Maryland takes a stand against the college degree (opinion): Tyler Cowen in Bloomberg on the significance of a shift away from requiring a college credential for many government jobs in Maryland. Slow train coming.
Montessori’s unpinned butterflies (book review, paywall): Another review of the de Stefano’s new Montessori biography (we published an excerpt here earlier this week). Barbara Spindel, the reviewer, focuses unduly on Montessori’s messianic streak; the biography itself is more objective on this point.
There’s a tempest of controversy around a paper arguing that physics education has too much “whiteness”—not at the level of representation, but at the level of pedagogical practices, like using labs and writing and even whiteboards. It’s so ridiculous that I’m by fiat imposing the judgment that this tempest is teapot-contained, but here’s a representative tweet so you can judge for yourself:New paper argues that whiteboards in physics classrooms 'play a role in reconstituting whiteness as social organization', and 'collaborate with white organizational culture' 🙃 journals.aps.org/prper/pdf/10.1…