Modern Schooling and the Lone Genius


Was having a interesting, as in interesting, discussion with an acquaintance of mine the other day. It was one of those discussions where my wife came from the adjoining room and politely told me shut up – she’s really good at this, having had her natural gifts honed by a bit of practice on me over the years. So we didn’t get to finish, and it was just getting good, judging by decibel level…

My interlocutor was expounding an interesting theory that boiled down to saying that if you let Da Man issue you speeding tickets for, you know, speeding, then you’ve basically submitted to slavery under a totalitarian regime. This of course managed to remove from the discussion the mundane issue of whether the speeding ticket in question was deserved, because, in the rarefied and oxygen-deprived air on the high plateau of Theory and Principle to which we ascended, it wouldn’t matter if the ticket resulted from doing 100 in a school zone during lunch hour on a school day. Nope – it’s an issue of basic freedom that the government doesn’t get to tell you how fast you can drive.

I exaggerate, and must mention that we never did get to finish the discussion, so perhaps when fully fleshed out, his theory would have convinced me.

I kind of doubt it, though.

The interesting part, such as it was, was an appeal to the nature of state power as defined someplace, and the technical legal nature of a license – we didn’t get to discus the sources of these ideas, which may be just as well. The assertion was that the state, as a corporation, only has jurisdiction over that which it incorporates (it wasn’t any clearer than that), that the acts of individuals as individuals are not necessarily part of that corporation, and that, specifically, driver’s licenses are issued and required for *commercial* activities, not, for example, drag racing through a crowd of toddlers, so long as no money is involved. I guess. Again, I exaggerate.

We’ll stop now. As I said, to be fair, I did not get to hear the entire argument, which may have worked its way back into this space-time continuum eventually, and been stone certain TRVTH. I’ll probably never know.


John C Wright posted one of my favorite Chesterton essays the other day, wherein GK propounds the good and beneficial nature of trying to get along with those people who just happen to be you family and neighbors, as opposed to only associating with people who agree with you or at least are willing to leave you alone. A recurring theme on this blog is friendship as the basis of education. You can perhaps train a stranger or enemy, but true education requires a meeting of souls as friends. Chesterton’s point is even more basic – you will have a narrow view of humanity unless you have gotten to know your neighbors and learned to get along with your family:

Doubtless men flee from small environments into lands that are very deadly. But this is natural enough; for they are not fleeing from death. They are fleeing from life. And this principle applies to ring within ring of the social system of humanity. It is perfectly reasonable that men should seek for some particular variety of the human type, so long as they are seeking for that variety of the human type, and not for mere human variety. It is quite proper that a British diplomatist should seek the society of Japanese generals, if what he wants is Japanese generals. But if what he wants is people different from himself, he had much better stop at home and discuss religion with the housemaid. It is quite reasonable that the village genius should come up to conquer London if what he wants is to conquer London. But if he wants to conquer something fundamentally and symbolically hostile and also very strong, he had much better remain where he is and have a row with the rector. The man in the suburban street is quite right if he goes to Ramsgate for the sake of Ramsgate–a difficult thing to imagine. But if, as he expresses it, he goes to Ramsgate “for a change,” then he would have a much more romantic and even melodramatic change if he jumped over the wall into his neighbours garden. The consequences would be bracing in a sense far beyond the possibilities of Ramsgate hygiene.

Can a man become educated if he doesn’t know his neighbors and get along with his family? Up until the 16th century, philosophy and education in general were group activities among friends and neighbors – Socrates walking about Athens talking with whatever fellow citizens he happened across, Greek noblemen taking young men under their wings to complete their education(1), Plato in his Academy befriending the most promising students, the tiny classes and ‘colleges’ in the sense of boarding house/fraternity/family away from home that characterized the medieval universities – these are all inextricably tied to the notion that education and, ultimately, philosophy as the Queen of the Sciences, take place between friends.

Since the 16th century, the idea of the Lone Genius has emerged, an idea that quickly and almost inevitably morphs into the Guru – the Lone Genius with followers.(2)  Note how it has become traditional for scientists, the prototypical Lone Geniuses of the modern age(3), to more or less humbly point out that they stand on the shoulders of giants. A scholar in a medieval university would assume everybody understood that – they saw themselves as picking up the ball from their predecessors, adding their little bit, and passing it on to their students. The things that fell under the medieval definition of science were never 100% certain or exhausted, but were always the best that could be done given the limitations of human knowledge.Thus, the constant references in Scholastic writings to the opinions and positions of others. Sure, modern science is supposed to work in the same way – it is, after all, the child of the scholastic method – and out of control egos existed just as much in the 14th century as they do now. It’s just that we now see our heroes as Lone Genius by default, and must be reminded, often and admirably by the scientists themselves,  that it’s not so.


Back to modern education and the production of Gurus. The modern classroom allows grudgingly, if at all, for friendships. Instead, there’s an active master and there are passive pupils. One pours out information, the others receive it. The teacher is, in effect, a sort of Lone Genius. Further, since no challenges to his authority are brooked, the lessons are received on authority alone. Search ‘Fichte’ on this blog and you’ll see that this is by design. Finally, the grade itself is arbitrary – students are grouped not as neighbors, family and friends, not by what any one particular student needs to learn, but by age. In every way, modern schools seek to prevent real education and substitute impersonal training. No bonds of friendship are formed over the insatiable curiosity characteristic of children (until it is beaten out of them, at least), but, if friendships arise at all, they are strictly outside the normal course of things.(4)

(The single most effective educational system in America was the one-room school houses, where everyone in the school were at least neighbors and often friends, and where peer-to-peer teaching was the norm. But we put a stop to that.)

Given this environment, a certain percentage of people are going to aspire to become Lone Geniuses. Look at the Nobel Prize winners! Look at our talking heads! What are they except those who have transcended the system, have assumed their places as Authorities, the veracity of their words relying on nothing more than their genius itself. Sure, they can explain to you logically how their view is the simple truth – but it will require accepting a few premises that you’d need to be a genius to understand! Sometimes, these are packaged as mysteries accessible only to the initiate; other times (such as is the case with Freud, Marx and Hegel), your failure to grasp the underlying truth is nothing more than a symptom of your moral or intellectual failure!

The problem with all this is that disputes between gurus or between gurus and the rest of us cannot be solved by reason, once you get to the point where enlightenment is required. One of two things will prevail: war or subterfuge. The last few centuries have seen plenty of both, and I fear more is coming

Personally, I need to make friends with my neighbors, or at least talk religion somebody else’s housemaid – sadly, I don’t have one.

  1. The sometimes sexual aspect of these relationships corresponds to nothing in the modern world, and was not essential – friendship was essential.
  2. It is remarkable how truly crazy you have to be as a Lone Genius to not have any followers – enthusiasm and conviction are more than adequate to cover to even the dumbest ideas, and attract at least some followers. If you can promise them enlightenment or better health or money or salvation, all the better.
  3. When Nobel Prizes are given out, the committee tries to pick out one or two people for recognition out of the vast teams that are often involved in fundamental research. Grad and post grad assistants might get their names on the papers, but are not likely to get a call from Sweden. You can see why the scientifically illiterate would imagine Newton in his room rather than 50 people in a lab when the prizes are awarded.
  4. Our worry over sexual abuse of children is the final nail in the coffin of true friendship between teacher and student.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

6 thoughts on “Modern Schooling and the Lone Genius”

  1. It reminds me a bit of Plato’s dialogue, Gorgias, in which one of the secondary themes is something very like this contrast between the Lone Genius approach to education and the friendship approach to education, and the extremely toxic character of the former, if carried out consistently.

    1. Cool. The Gorgias is my favorite Platonic dialogue – I was just discussing it with my son the other day, in fact – but I don’t recall that theme, or am failing to make the connection. I’ll reread it, which is always a pleasure. Thanks!

      1. It’s not as obvious a theme as some of the others, but the dialogue discusses justice in part by contrasting Gorgias’ and Socrates’ approaches to education.

        The Gorgias is my favorite Platonic dialogue as well.

  2. It seems obvious to me that the owner of a property gets to set the rules for usage. If we accept that the government is ‘ours’, then we just get down to arguing how ‘we’ will regulate the government in its rule-making.

    1. Sure. There has got to be a dozen ways to argue in favor of speeding laws. It remains to be seen if there’s a rational way to argue against them. I’m not holding my breath

      1. I suppose you could argue on a utilitarian basis, maybe that the costs of traffic laws are greater than the costs of not having them…
        For a libertarian, I can’t think of a valid rights-based argument that makes sense, unless you want to go all the way back and argue that the establishment of the government itself was invalid. That might work in a dictatorship, but I can’t see it in the US context.

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