Private tutoring and John Stuart Mill

This piece in the Economist on the rise of private tutoring amongst elites veers between the absurd:

One of my friends ran a session on Impressionism for a group of seven-year-olds (every child already seemed to know the term “pointillism”). Another was paid £200 a day to escort a nine-year-old around the British Museum. A company I work for runs online workshops for children as young as eight on topics that range from crime writing to geopolitics; the same firm recently called for a tutor to run a five-week series of sessions with a 12-year-old on “public speaking”, “news/debating” and “ethics and philosophy”

and the grim:

I recently came across a request for a tutor to assist with interview practice for a three-year-old boy who was applying to an exclusive kindergarten. The website for one top London tutoring agency, Bonas MacFarlane, carries a tagline, “From cradle to career”.

The article should be read alongside Daniel Markovit’s attack on meritocracy (a word that was originally coined pejoratively. Like “the lucky country” it has since been stripped of its original connotation.).

It reminds me of John Stuart Mill. The famous liberal philosopher was raised in a demanding intellectual environment by a father grooming him to be the preeminent philosopher and reformer of the Victorian era (his father succeeded). From Mill’s Stanford Encyclopedia entry:

Starting with Greek at age three and Latin at age eight, Mill had absorbed most of the classical canon by age twelve—along with algebra, Euclid, and the major Scottish and English historians.

Mill impersonating an eight year old

Equally famous is Mill’s subsequent breakdown. Quoting now from Chapter V of Mill’s Autobiography:

But the time came when I awakened from this as from a dream. It was in the autumn of 1826. I was in a dull state of nerves, such as everybody is occasionally liable to; unsusceptible to enjoyment or pleasurable excitement; one of those moods when what is pleasure at other times, becomes insipid or indifferent; the state, I should think, in which converts to Methodism usually are, when smitten by their first “conviction of sin.” In this frame of mind it occurred to me to put the question directly to myself: “Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, “No!” At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to have been found in the continual pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing left to live for.

For those who have also woken to a world that feels suddenly hollow, take some comfort in Mill’s reflection on the experience:

Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way. The enjoyments of life (such was now my theory) are sufficient to make it a pleasant thing, when they are taken en passant, without being made a principal object. Once make them so, and they are immediately felt to be insufficient. They will not bear a scrutinizing examination. Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life.

The other important change which my opinions at this time underwent, was that I, for the first time, gave its proper place, among the prime necessities of human well-being, to the internal culture of the individual. I ceased to attach almost exclusive importance to the ordering of outward circumstances, and the training of the human being for speculation and for action.

Mill is both inspiration and warning. I wish I had been taken on more tours of the British Museum as a nine year old, but Cambridge seems a poor price for one’s youth.

Constitutional Crisis

America has ordered a cocktail and Trump is behind the bar. An election, a Supreme Court nomination, and a pandemic are being shaken, stirred, and poured at a time when roaming groups of armed men are an increasingly normal sight. The prospect is leading to increasingly dire predictions for the future of the US. A repeat of Bush’s 2000 victory, which came down to a Supreme Court decision, could be literally explosive today.

Edward Luce’s long read in the FT is a wonderful overview of the possibilities ahead. Please do read the whole thing. A passage I found interesting:

Pessimism about America’s future is in vogue, but while Luce is accurate about the short-term politics, I am cautious with simplistic accounts of American decline. Whatever America’s domestic problems, it is still far and away the world’s most powerful military and financial power. Its economic position has been eroding since WW2 but is still formidable. It borders no threatening states (unlike the Ottomans) and is technologically advanced. Declinists must square this with today’s turmoil.

Cycling and population density

From this piece in the LRB on the history of tennis comes a fascinating fact about cycling:

One reason road cycling has historically been so much more important in France, Spain and Italy than in the UK is that in those more sparsely populated countries getting a crowd together in one place to watch a match was difficult, whereas during a Grand Tour your sporting heroes could come to you

Sports writing

The bestseller sections of certain bookstores, the ones where glossy covers outnumber matte, usually contain several sports memoirs. As someone who never played sport, the genre projects an aura that keeps me moving past it to the cramped shelves where they keep the history books.

I re-read David Foster Wallace’s tennis essay “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart” yesterday. It is one of my favorite pieces of writing, in part because he eloquently makes the case that those memoirs, cheesy titles and all, contain transcendental truths. A few snippets:

There is about world-class athletes carving out exemptions from physical laws a transcendent beauty that makes manifest God in man.

This memoir could have been about both the seductive immortality of competitive success and the less seductive but way more significant fragility and impermanence of all the competitive venues in which mortal humans chase immortality.

Please do read the whole thing.


Ongoing waves of protest in Thailand have led to public criticisms of the King being aired. This piece in the FT is essential reading on the bizarre and terrifying King of Thailand, who in 2018 transferred the entire crown portfolio (>$40 billion) into his personal control.

Thai GDP per capita is about 7200 US Dollars.

The King of Thailand spends most of his time living in Germany, where people cannot be prosecuted for insulting him.

A final bite

Eating with a friend a few days ago, I mentioned I had just finished the new Keynes bio. They asked me who Keynes was.

This is a perfectly legitimate response for someone who has never studied economics. Nor is it surprising, because there is a very real sense in which economics exists in an ivory tower. We know it is there, and from time to time it ventures out – shrouded in numbers and jargon – to issue warnings or prescribe rules. It is unknown in the way God once was: impossible to understand but impossible to ignore.

It is not necessarily an issue. I don’t understand how a fuse box works or why turning my router on and off always fixes it; the world is full of mysteries reserved for specialists.

But it is absolutely a tragedy. At its core economics is concerned with human flourishing. This can be and should be communicated in the language of values and vision, resonating with passion and feeling.

So, even though I have already spoken about the book, I could resist a final few quotes from what has been a truly inspiring read that I recommend highly:

Keynesianism in this purest, simplest form is not so much a school of economic thought as a spirit of radical optimism, unjustified by most of human history and extremely difficult to conjure up precisely when it is most needed: during the depths of depression or amid the fevers of war.

“Down with those who declare we are dumped and damned,” the twenty-one-year-old Keynes cried in 1903. “Away with all schemes of redemption and retaliation!” A better future was not beyond our control if the different peoples of the world worked together, leading one another to prosperity.

I have written about how economic planning is making a comeback. Let us remember vision too.