Resources on The Content and Method of Classical Tutoring

Henrik the Great asked me to dust off what I know about the curriculum and practice of private tutoring. While I don’t know much, I do know the basics and the big names.

I assume you read my excerpts from Jesuit educational ideals already. which offers some pointers.

For a detailed example of an entire curriculum see Jesuit Education: Its History and Principles (1904) which, while a lackluster book for several reasons, does include a detailed course of study which would be fairly standard not just among Catholic but also Anglican and Lutheran teachers during the 17th – 19th century. For example, John Stuart Mill’s early education was very much in the same vein.

Here are the big works on pedagogy and curriculum:

Aristotle (all, but especially)

On Rhetoric

Roman

Cicero, Ad Herrenium, which lays out the entire course rhetoric and persuasion for the next 1800 years. It is also the first place that the use of deep memory techniques is briefly discussed. 

Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, which reviews Cicero’s course and extends the ideas and practice.

Marcus Aurelius mentions in his meditations mentions the quality of teaching of many of his tutors, especially the method of writing dialogues on alternate positions. This method was popular enough that many early Christian writings are in dialogue form as well. 

Cassiodorus, Institutes of Secular Learning

Medieval

Peter Lombard’s Sentences were the standard method and textbook for 400 years.

Aquinas On the Teacher. Of course, Aquinas’s Summae tried to make a replacement for the sentences, but was not successful until well after his death (three centuries!).

John Buridan’s Summulae de Dialectica was a standard textbook on Logic and logical method for a couple hundred years.

I do not know of any medieval source who discussed and presented scholastic pedagogical method explicitly, although it was very influential. I need to check what would have been the standard reference.

Renaissance

Petrus Paulus Vergilius, De Ingenuis Moribus frequently translated as The New Education. Refocuses education on service to civic life.

Aeneas Silvius, On Education 

Erasmus De Ratione Studii, On the Method of Study, and Ciceronianus, which covers how he thinks schooling can excel beyond mere memorization and imitation.

I think it is easy to underestimate how much sway these older authors had on 17th-19th century education. They were giants.

I have some takeaways from these readings and my own experience being classically educated but am not yet able to fully articulate them.

Enlightenment

I am not well aware how tutoring curricula changed in the Enlightenment. I wouldn’t count the differences in method to be great, although the content certainly shifted to include more mathematics. The personal libraries of the great thinkers reflect remarkably little change from the interests of the Renaissance Humanists, as far as I know. Though, I am happy to be corrected.

March Reads

This month I wrote far more than normal. Three complete articles, two drafts, and comments on some papers. No dips and no devours; just some semi-weekly dives.

Dive

Utopia by Thomas More. Thomas’ in the Prologue of how difficult it is to find time for self-study and intellectual wandering was like a TUMS, calming my nerves.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Here are some choice cuts from this past week.

So strongly and metaphysically did I conceive of my situation then, that while earnestly watching his motions, I seemed distinctly to perceive that my own individuality was now merged in a joint stock company of two; that my free will had received a mortal wound; and that another’s mistake or misfortune might plunge innocent me into unmerited disaster and death. Therefore, I saw that here was a sort of interregnum in Providence; for its even-handed equity never could have so gross an injustice. And yet still further pondering—while I jerked him now and then from between the whale and ship, which would threaten to jam him—still further pondering, I say, I saw that this situation of mine was the precise situation of every mortal that breathes; only, in most cases, he, one way or other, has this Siamese connexion with a plurality of other mortals. If your banker breaks, you snap; if your apothecary by mistake sends you poison in your pills, you die. True, you may say that, by exceeding caution, you may possibly escape these and the multitudinous other evil chances of life.

Chapter 72 The Monkey rope

[The context is that the giant head of a sperm whale hangs attached to the side of the ship. The crew has killed a Right Whale, and plan on balancing it out with another head of a lesser Leviathan].

In good time, Flask’s saying proved true. As before, the Pequod steeply leaned over towards the sperm whale’s head, now, by the counterpoise of both heads, she regained her even keel; though sorely strained, you may well believe. So, when on one side you hoist in Locke’s head, you go over that way; but now, on the other side, hoist in Kant’s and you come back again; but in very poor plight. Thus, some minds for ever keep trimming boat. Oh, ye foolish! throw all these thunder-heads overboard, and then you will float light and right.

Chapter 73 Stubb and Flask kill a Right Whale; and Then Have a Talk over Him

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

February Reads

February

Devour

Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov

Keynes Hayek: The Clash that Defined Modern Economics by Nicholas Wapshott – This is a great introduction to these two men. Excellently written. The prose style creates tension and drama.

Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier by Edward Glaeser. I love Ed.

Economic Hierarchies by Gordon Tullock.

Dive

Alternatives in Assessment of Achievements, Learning Processes, and Prior Knowledge* Helpful in the discussion about how coherent a curriculum needs to be.

Dip

Keynes’ General Theory: Reports of Three Decades

The Land that Never Was: Sir Gregor MacGregor and the Most Audacious Fraud in History by David Sinclair. I hope to return to this and devour it.

Agency vs. Ambition: MothMinds

Here’s nice quote from the mothminds website. It is worth keeping.

From the outside, agency is often misinterpreted as ambition, but I learned through observing these two types of people that they are actually quite different. Ambition means you’re motivated to play games that others have already created in the world, while agency means you’re driven to play a game of your own. It quickly became clear to me that our world desperately needs more niche moth-like perspectives and in turn, interesting, actualized visions of the future.  What’s more, a moth’s natural inclination to camouflage is core to its success, but it also makes it illegible to the world — which means there’s no clear path to become a moth.

Molly

Quotes from Jesuit Educational Ideals

The following notes are from the book Ignatius’ Idea of a Jesuit University by Ganss 1957 without amendment, comment, or much formatting.

“Now we shall take up the advantages for the Society herself, for the extern students and for the nation or province where the college is situated. This is the utility which has been found through experience in colleges of this type. Even though part of this can be gathered from what has already been said:

  1. First of all, in the case of our own numbers, those who lecture gain profit for themselves and learn much by teaching others and become more confidently the masters of what they know.
  2. Our own members who hear their lectures gain profit to the care and continuous diligence which the teachers display in fulfilling their office.
  3. They profit not merely in regard to letters, but generally also in preaching, and the teaching of Christian doctrine. And they exercise themselves in the use of the means by which they must help their neighbors later on. And they are encouraged through seeing the fruit, which God our Lord allows them to see.
  4. Although no one may induce the students, especially when they are young to enter the Society. Nevertheless, they can win esteem for themselves by good example, conversation, and the Latin declamations about the virtues, which are delivered on Sundays, and they can gain many laborers in the vineyard of Christ, our Lord. These advantages are for the society itself.

The benefits for the extern students who come to profit from the lectures are the following:

  1. They’re occupied to a sufficient extent with their lessons. much care is taken that all learn through lectures disputations and compositions. Thus provisions are made for them to reap great fruit of letters.
  2. The poor who lack the means to pay the ordinary teachers or private tutors in the homes here find free, what they can only get with great cost and difficulty in their desire to become educated men.
  3. They provide profit in spiritual matters, through learning Christian doctrine and grasping from the sermons and customary exhortations, that which is conducive to their eternal salvation.
  4. They make progress in purity of conscience and consequently in all virtue, through confession every month and through the care taken, that they be decent in their speech and virtuous in their entire lives.
  5. In their studies, they draw much greater merit and fruits, since they’re accustomed to bring all persons to the service of God from the time when they begin to learn just as they are taught.

There are also the following benefits for the inhabitants of the country or province where these colleges are established.

  1. In temporal matters, parents relieved of the expensive of having teachers to instruct their children in letters and virtues.
  2. They keep their consciences free in the matter of instructing their children. Those who only with difficulty will find someone to whom they can entrust their children, even at their own expense. Will with all security find instructors in these colleges
  3. In addition to learning, they also have in the colleges, someone who can preach both among the people and within the monasteries, and who through administering the sacraments can very fruitfully supply great help, as is evident.
  4. They themselves and the members of their household will devote themselves to spiritual matters, with good example to their children. Likewise, they will grow fond of confessing more frequently and of living as Christians.
  5. They will have in our own members inhabitants of the country to inspire and aid them towards undertaking good works, such as hospitals, houses of reformed women, and such like matters. Their bestowing charity upon our members also entails their having a care of such good works.
  6. From among those who are at present merely students, in time, some will depart to play diverse roles, one to preach and carry on the care of souls, another to the government in the land and the administration of justice, and others to other occupations.
  7. Finally, since young boys become grown men, their good education in life and doctrine will be beneficial to many others, with the fruit expanding more widely every day.

I could elaborate this further, but this will suffice to set forth what is perceived here in regard to colleges of this common.

May Christ, the Eternal Life, guide us to serve him better. Amen.”

St. Ignatius to Father Antonio Araoz from Rome, December 1, 1551.

Pages 25 and 26.

The result which Ignatius aimed to produce in the students was manifestly, a carefully reasoned and therefore scientifically grounded Catholic outlook on life, which would enable and inspire them to contribute intelligently and effectively to the welfare of society. That outlook was the focal point towards which Ignatius directed all the branches in the curriculum, and all the elements his school contained. Since theology imparts whatever can be known from divine revelation about God and His creatures, especially man and his duties and destiny, it is the foremost indispensable source of this outlook. But obviously, it must be studied thoroughly and scientifically. So the student grasps the integration of its major sections and its subsidiary branches. Quite as one who has had a college major in physics must know all the principal phases of his subject.

PAGE 54.

Since schools have always been an extension of the home throughout their history, they too, no less than parents, have been concerned to teach something helpful towards a livelihood and towards satisfying intellectual curiosity. Their professors have noticed that their students are more strongly and spontaneously motivated to study hard a subject, which while being truly cultural, was simultaneously useful for living in a way characteristically and satisfyingly human and even for earning a livelihood.

PAGE 127.

Enthusiasm for Plato and for Aristotle, Cicero and Quintilian, and his successors, in whom many of his ideas reappeared with various modifications, was high among the Christian educators of the early Renaissance, such as Petrus Paulus Vergilius, Vittorino da Feltre, and Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini. Hence, they revived the ancient ideal of liberal education, Christianized it, and adapted it to their own age.

They conceived the aim of education to be that of producing the perfect man fitted to participate well in the activities of his day. As a means to train him, they worked into their theories of liberal education, numerous elements, the physical, the intellectual, the aesthetic, the literary with stress upon eloquence, the moral, the religious, and the social. As will be shown in greater detail, the ideals or models of education took the forms of the complete citizen and Christian gentlemen of Vitorrino da Feltre, the perfection of the man as a Christian citizen of Vagarius, the courtier of Castiglione, and in the northern countries of the Christian scholar of Erasmus. Other noteworthy ideals more or less outside the Christian current of the Renaissance were the prince of Machiavelli, the gentleman scholar of Thomas Eliot, Montaigne, and later on, after Ignatius’ death, of John Locke, still another ideal was the experimental scientist of Francis Bacon.

PAGE 140.

The means to produce this developed citizen are the liberal studies, which Vagarius defines as follows.

“We call those studies liberal which are worthy of a free man, those studies by which we attain and practice virtue in wisdom, that education which calls forth, trains, and develops those highest gifts of body and mind, which ennoble men and which are rightly judged to rank next in dignity to virtue only. For to the vulgar temper gain and pleasure are the one aim of existence, to the lofty nature, moral worth and fame.”

Vagarius lists the subjects which he thinks can properly be classified as liberal.

“Amongst these I record the first place to history, on grounds both of its attractiveness and of its utility. Qualities which appeal equally to the scholar and to the statesman. Next, in importance ranks moral philosophy, which indeed in a peculiar sense is a liberal art, in that its purpose is to teach men the secret of true freedom. History then gives us the concrete examples of the precepts inculcated by philosophy. The one shows what men should do. The other what men have said and done in the past, and what practical lessons may draw therefrom for the present day. I would indicate as the third main branch of study, eloquence, which indeed holds a place of distinction among the refined arts. By philosophy, we learn the essential truth of things, which by eloquence we saw exhibit in orderly adornment as to bring conviction to differing minds. And history provides the light of experience, a cumulative wisdom, but to supplement the force of reason, and the persuasion of eloquence. For we allow that soundness of judgment, wisdom of speech, integrity of conduct, are the marks of a truly liberal temper.”

Other studies which he regarded as liberal are letters, especially poetic art and rhetoric, which lead to eloquence, disputation, or logical argument, gymnastics, music, arithmetic and astronomy.

PAGE 141.

Although it may seem at first a paradox or even a contradiction, it is now certain that during the Renaissance, the humanists as a body regarded classical and liberal studies as eminently practical. These subjects were indeed cultural, but they were simultaneously as practical as curricula in engineering, journalism or commerce are today. The humanists went to the ancient authors to find guidance for practical everyday life. Vagarius envisaged a practical objective, the citizen taking capable part in the affairs of the day, training for practical life was the leading purpose of Vittorino da Feltre, who approved Cicero’s statement, Virtutis laus omnis in actione consistit. Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini. himself, a practical man of action and affairs, approvingly quoted the same statement, and pointed out from the examples of Demosthenes, Aristotle, Caesar and Pliny that the study of literature develops administrative capacity. The study of antiquity, completed by its final course of ancient philosophy, was regarded as the finest preparation for law, medicine, or theology.

The Latin language too was learned primarily for utilitarian purposes, as it was during the Middle Ages. Further even skill in producing stylistic elegance in Latin had its utilitarian and economic values for two functions, the handling of official correspondence and the writing of speeches on solemn occasions. The humanists are indispensable as Latin secretaries to the multitudinous princes, nobles and civil officials and republics, and to bishops, Cardinals and Popes. Hence proficiency in Latin was the means enabling anyone, no matter how poor or from how lowly a social class to obtain the most coveted, honored and lucrative employments of the day. As we saw above, on page 39, the highest salaries in the Papal University of Rome paid to the professors of medicine and of rhetoric, subjects then studied only in Latin. Also, the humanists of Florence deemed the learning of literature, the best preparation for a career as a merchant or banker.

Page 164.

We shall spare ourselves much time and useless twinges of conscience by a resolution which would run somewhat as follows. There is no possibility of completely divorcing a liberal education from material considerations. In the light of a record which goes back to antiquity, it would be undesirable to make the attempt, for if it succeeded, it would result in a dilettantism, which would be denial of what a liberal education aims to do.

From James Marshall Campbell, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences of the Catholic University of America

PAGE 171

The whole of the thought of the earlier humanistic educators is this that the people should be developed into the complete man those faculties trained to excellence or virtue in order that he may capably benefit the society of his day. The same central thought is present in Ignatius’ constitutions and procedures There is concern for the bodily health (this is gymnastic, at least in germ). There is training of the intellect through the whole curriculum of grammar, the arts, and theology. There is constant exercise in self-expression or eloquence and in disputation to meet the tastes and needs of the age. There is training of the aesthetic faculties and emotions through the study of ancient literature, including rhetoric, poetry, and history. If training in the vernacular languages and literatures had been part of the educational systems of the day from which Ignatius drew, he would no doubt have approved this training along with his other borrowings. It was not merely training of mind concomitantly acquired through mastering these studies but also through the crowning courses in philosophy and theology, the imparting of extensive body of knowledge which makes up a scientifically grounded theistic philosophy of life, a philosophy which gives true significance and worthwhile meaning to the life of man both in this world and the next.

There is constant encouragement of the student not only to moral and sacramental living, but also to the exercise of all the supernatural virtues which lead to the highest union with God. There’s constant insistence on the social purposes of education. There’s the equipping of the man not only to live as a Christian gentlemen, but also to earn his living in a way satisfying to himself and beneficial to society. For as we have seen the subjects taught in Ignatius’ curriculum in his day the surest road for a poor boy to achieve economic security and without such security even a highly trained man is little likely to function as a leader.

Page 176.

In this curriculum he made theology the most important and crowning branch and philosophy an aid to it, and the languages an aid to the learning and use of both. This last point was particularly true of Latin, but some attention was also given to Greek, Hebrew, and the vernaculars. Since the educated men of this period at a high admiration for Ciceronian Latin, Ignatius stressed practice and Ciceronian style. Since he wished the students to form their personal convictions, through much self-activity rather than through a passive absorbing of the professor’s views, and since his times were filled with public disputations in Latin, which Catholics held either with Protestants or among themselves, Ignatius stressed practice in declamation, disputations, and “circles” in which small groups of students held “repetitions.” Also in his curriculum, Ignatius did not limit the interests of his students in one area such as classical antiquity, or medieval culture, or the speculative genius of scholasticism, or the Renaissance, with its preoccupation with style and form. Rather, he widened the student’s vision to take in the hole of Christian culture. In his curriculum, there were not only Latin and Greek, and Aristotelian philosophy and Scholastic theology, but also scripture and positive theology, which included the Fathers of the Church. Hence his schools were a home in which the whole heritage of Christian culture was made an object of study, and was transmitted to future generations, with at least as much efficiency as in any other schools of the era. He was indeed eminently a practical organizer, choosing what was particularly useful to his end in his own times. All the elements in his system conspired to prepare the students to be and to do what they should to live well throughout this life and the next.

Page 178

  1. He regarded education as a means of attaining the end of his society, the salvation and perfection of the students in order that might promote the salvation and perfection of their fellow man, unless vigorously and intelligently loving the society with the spirit of the Kingdom of Christ. He hoped that students will learn how to live well, in this life and the next.
  2. In intellectual order, the end towards which Ignatius wished his curriculum to lead was a scientifically reasoned Catholic outlook on life. That is one which the student has thought through to his own personal conviction, in contrast to the memorized knowledge, which is characteristic of a child. That outlook was the focus of integration of all other elements in his system. It was what would enable as well as inspire the students to perfect themselves to contribute intelligently and effectively to the welfare of society.

Page 182

Questions about the Early Jesuits

Tyler is reading *The Jesuits: A History*:

Here is one passage that for obvious reasons caught his eye:

The Jesuits invested the lion’s share of their bureaucratic efforts in personnel planning.  We have already encountered the Society’s obsession with the quality, education, and development of its members several times — this passion was translated into bureaucratic procedures to an astounding degree.  Every Jesuit’s mental, spiritual, intellectual, and physical capacity was routinely evaluated.  The Society devised elaborate procedures for conducting such examinations.  Even the wording of these assessments was prescribed.  A kind of grading system with standard content was devised that was then used to answer about a dozen questions from each member.  Every three years, local and provincial superiors were required to prepare interviews of the staff under their authority, whom they were required to assess in table form.  These catalogues have justly been celebrated as an outstanding example of the bureaucratization of the modern period.

The 17th and 18th century Jesuits seem like a miracle of human capital formation.

Last year I read three books on the Jesuits for quite similar reasons. My thought was how did such a small organization create a culture of excellence that pushed the bounds of science, sociology, and politics so well (or did it? Maybe Jesuit mythos and reality are quite separate?), and what mistakes caused it to be suppressed?

The bureaucratic excellence might be one such reason. I am almost disturbed by the level of obedience these men had to superiors. The intense cultivation of ability combined with the “state capacity” to aim member’s abilities towards all manner of problems. That combination does seem frightening to anyone without such organizational competence. Don’t compete with this superhuman foe, the king and lords of Spain thought, shoot for suppression.

How much internal dissension was there? How was it dealt with? What were the most politically unwise or impolitic moves the Jesuits made in the 18th century? Who were the Jesuits enemies and why? How can we compare Jesuit accomplishments to the secular accomplishments of the day? What was the Jesuit role in the wars between the enlightenment secularism and the Catholic Church? Which Jesuits engaged with John Locke or Montesquieu?

I am not satisfied with any of the answers I have found, though I now know a fair deal more about Jesuit education. I need more nuts and bolts of Jesuit organization in the 17th – 18th century. I lust for more details.

Jesuits: a Multibiography (1997)

St. Ignatius’ Idea of a Jesuit University (1957)

Jesuit Education in Light of Modern Educational Problems (1904)

Saint Louis as New Rome: the social science of building a catholic city.

[Transcript of a talk I gave at Communio, St. Louis Young Adults. Great crowd and conversation.]

Thank you for the introduction. Events like these are a public service to the community. Those who put them together do not get the rewards of their effects. So any value we get from each other’s company tonight, we have Adam at the bar, Garrison for the mic, and Father Rennier for the invite to thank. One weird way to summarize my talk would be as a call for a lot more creative conviviality.

I spend my time deliberately studying economics, writing philosophy and poetry, and practicing math. I see my role as being as informed as possible about the dismal science of institutions, education, policy, and urban growth as well as literature, arts, and science, so that I can use and share this information with others as a Proud Dilettante.

In addition to running JPII, teaching high school classes, and being a husband and dad, I dream of a St. Louis Renaissance. St. Louis has been called The Rome of the West, and it was once-upon-a-time a first-rate city. It is a good city today, and I love it. It could be even better.

Now a lot of these ideas I am testing out. And so what I offer is not a clear answer: do this and Saint Louis will become great, all problems will disappear, and you will feel happy and fulfilled and no longer have bad breath. I don’t have an answer like that. But I do have several useful tools for thinking about metropolitan life that I think will be most useful to you. And allow us to have a very good discussion afterwards.

To start let’s talk about the city. What is the modern city all about?

You want the simple answer? culture and dating markets. If you are not interested in either of those, then the city isn’t for you. If you win in the dating market and don’t care about culture you will likely leave the city, broadly conceived, when children start coming along.

And maybe that’s your plan. You come to Communio, you go to lots of other events, meet people, eventually a spouse, maybe find a better job, and then you leave for the deepest reaches of Lincoln County. There’s nothing wrong with that. But in this talk I am going to provide an alternative vision for Saint Louis that emphasizes the need for creating a thriving cultural zone across the metropolitan area.

So keeping in mind culture and dating markets, I will present three key ideas from social science, primarily economics, about how to make a culturally vibrant Catholic city.

Those three ideas are Culture First, Agglomeration Effects, and Signaling.

1.  Culture First

 Cities today are about people first and commerce second.

Many people think that cities exist for jobs by which they mean big employers, like Boeing, Barnes, and Mercy. This is a fundamental mistake: successful American cities are places where businesses get made or move to to take advantage of the high skilled people who are already there. Holding skills constant, businesses, especially factories, will move to places where the cost of land and labor is lowest. Most modern American businesses are not huge enterprises that require lots of workers, rather they are small firms that need a reliable supply of skilled workers, like skilled machinists, programmers, mapping experts, nurses, biotech researchers, office organizers, and interinstitution coordinators to name but a few in demand jobs in the Saint Louis area.

In the 19th century cities were built around transportation costs. Saint Louis is on the river, Detroit was on the lakes. But as transportation costs fell, and land and labor costs went up, the businesses left the cities, first moving to the suburbs, then leaving all together… this left cities quite vulnerable.

Ed Glaeser economist at Harvard has this to say in Triumph of the City: “Cities thrive when they have many small firms and skilled citizens. Detroit was once a buzzing beehive of small-scale interconnected inventors—Henry Ford was just one among many gifted entrepreneurs. But the extravagant success of Ford’s big idea destroyed that older, more innovative city. Detroit’s twentieth-century growth brought hundreds of thousands of less-well-educated workers to vast factories, which became fortresses apart from the city and the world. While industrial diversity, entrepreneurship, and education lead to innovation, the Detroit model led to urban decline. The age of the industrial city is over.”

Today, geography counts for very little. To quote Dune, “Place is only place.” People are everything. So the question becomes what induces people to gather in one place? I see it as culture, beauty, fun, weather, desirable social ties, and yes, dating opportunities. Or as Californian poet Robinson Jeffers says, “Music and religion, honor and mirth, // renew life’s lost enchantments.”

If you build these, you attract young, energetic, quirky, intelligent people, yourselves. Firms will follow in your wake. If I am right, then the causal arrow is from culture to economic growth, meaning that the core units that makes for a successful city are community and creativity: economic growth, career opportunities, and, most importantly, more cultural investment follow from them.

Cities are about people first and commerce second. This brings us to the second economic idea:

2.   Agglomeration effects. Agglomeration is a very ugly word; sounds like an ingredient in Jello, but it means the effect of having an increasing amount of something.

The idea of agglomeration effects in economics is that thirty people are not merely thirty times as productive as one person. They are often many more times as productive, because the thirty people learn from and are encouraged by one another. Take the example of prayer from Saint Louis de Montfort in The Secret of the Rosary: “Somebody who says his Rosary alone only gains the merit of one Rosary, but if he says it together with thirty other people, he gains the merit of thirty Rosaries. This is the law of public prayer.”

This idea that grace is greater in public gatherings is a distinctly Catholic one. But it is also found in economics in the guise of agglomeration effects.

Alfred Marshall’s 1890 Principles of Economics describes agglomeration in loving detail:

When a [community] has thus chosen a locality for itself, it is likely to stay there long: so great are the advantages which people following the same [mode of existence] get from near neighbourhood to one another. The mysteries of the trade become no mysteries; but are as it were in the air, and children learn many of them unconsciously. 

The idea is that creative communities beget a creative, community-minded atmosphere, and trying deliberately to improve ourselves and each other through acts of community will make a great and desirable city. I think we could be doing a lot on this front.

Community is the opposite of the atomization and excessive individualization, which plagues modern American society. Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone outlines how American civil institutions and groups of the sort we need have progressively declined since the 1950s. The cities that are doing well today are benefiting from agglomeration effects, and those that will do well in the future will do so because they have found ways to foster the sorts of communities that create these effects.

But it does not take an army to reverse trends or change trajectory. Nassim Taleb, the pugnacious philosopher of economic uncertainty offers this note in his book Skin in the Game: “The entire growth of society, whether economic or moral, comes from a small number of people… Society doesn’t evolve by consensus, voting, majority, committees, verbose meeting, academic conferences, and polling; only a few people suffice to disproportionately move the needle.”

Renaissance Florence had a population of only 50,000 people; it only took a couple of committed workshops to initiate something special.

These people, people who move the needle, will be part of a network stubbornly committed to sharing and building culture and solving problems that arise when trying build a more substantial, beautiful, and creative Saint Louis.

Agglomeration effects create exponential creativity, which brings us to idea three.

3.       Don’t “sell” people on your creative ideas, signal your ideals.

If you are at all like me, selling people on stuff can seem kind of banal, venal, or inauthentic. What could be worse than cold call telemarketing? Trying to convince people who do not want or need what you have to offer is a waste of your time and theirs.  However, everyone wants to be delighted and to find their niche, so the problem is how to connect people to those for whom they have an affinity but don’t know it yet?

The key is signaling and selection effects.

Signaling Theory for economists is all about sacramentals. Those outward signs that ought to positively correlate with inner dispositions. A yellow-banded poison dart frog is jet black with neon yellow stripes; it looks poisonous because it is poisonous. It is sending out nature’s amphibious “Leave me alone” signal. On the other hand, at Urban Chestnut the plain, wooden, distraction-free, mead-hall benches, practically sing out “come, sit down, and have a conversation with friends.”

Groucho Marx once said, “I don’t want to be part of any club that’d have a guy like me as a member.” Groucho’s acceptance into the club would signal low enough club quality that he himself wouldn’t want to join.  Whatever it is you are trying to build, whatever peers you are trying to attract, making sure you are sending out the signals which will attract your people is the first step to overcoming alienation and atomization, and the first step to leveraging the interconnected urban environment to attract the people who will like what you have to offer. So first comes the signal. We fire off the bat-signal into the night sky and see who shows up, having faith that those who arrive are the ones God wanted to show up. 

A selection effect means that the people who are attracted to you and your creative group are not random but rather people who are inclined to what you have to offer, people compatible with your mission who had been stumbling along the edge of your social network, seeking just such an environment before they saw your bat-signal.

There are many ways to signal. The choices of how we construct our physical environment signals community values. A park with filled with children playing games doesn’t exist without local children, a safe neighborhood, and people who devote resources to upkeep. The art in our house, the design of our streets, our choice of public music, and the tabs on our computer, signal our priorities and reveal of our preferences.

The best signals are not loud the way a commercial is, but they are discoverable. Like how a Decemberists album shirt says more about you than if you simply said you liked the Decemberists. Even a shirt can lead to people approaching you because the external signals an interior disposition.

Self-selection requires a discoverable signal.

Discoverability is a technical term in social science, but it is like the “light hidden under a bushel principle.” It is a measure of the possibility for others to discover what you have to offer. If one builds the signals alongside the community, one creates discoverability. By sending off the right signals people will know who we are and what we are about. When they search online or even see St. Louis in the media, the same signals of a rich inner core may start to bleed through.

And that’s idea number three. Good signaling allows for self-selection.

Once a subculture’s signal and substance properly rub together, lightning strikes the frozen mountain of creativity; a cascade of graceful snow begins to descend. Agglomeration effects create an accelerating avalanche, and thus the signal becomes even stronger, so that even from many miles away the sight and sound of this cascade resonates through the valleys.

And those are the first three ideas which I think we can take with us for envisioning St. Louis as New Rome: 1. Culture comes first, 2. Agglomeration effects create exponential productivity, and 3. Signals allow for self-selection. Perhaps, next time, we will discuss where gladiator fights fit in to this New Rome idea.

One last takeaway is that a vibrant, distinctively Catholic culture in Saint Louis requires intentional effort. And we’ll talk more about how to do it in Q&A, though, as you know, I’m working on the school and education front. Thank you very much.

January Reads

This year I want to record my reading in a way that matches how I read. So I am dividing books into three general categories Dip, Dive, Devour based on some combination of energy, insight, and follow through.

Absolutely Devoured:

Foundation by Isaac Asimov

No comment needed. It’s better written and faster paced than I expected, a classic for a reason. My contrary reading is that the Encyclopedia actually did save civilization, and though this is obvious throughout the novel, none of the characters know it.

Knowledge Spaces: Application in Education

This is the first step in getting much more serious in thinking about assessment and useful tools in education. Thanks to Jimmy Koppel for the pointer. I am going to test out Aleks with some students in a month or so.

Took a Dive into:

In the Service of the Republic: the Art and Science of Economic Policy by Vijay Kelkar. This book feels more like an outline of ideas than a book, but the ideas are important and serious. Public choice and the realization that incentives only increase in importance over time are crucial insights for government.

Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman. More nuanced than I was expecting and more balanced than his enemies give him credit for. No surprise there. He is not some laissez-faire zealot and acknowledges from the beginning the tenuous link between democracy and the free market.

Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture by Anthony Esolen. I actually share a lot of aesthetic values with Anthony. Yet despite the shared love of group singing, traditional church music, and kids running in the streets, I find this mode of cultural critique to be blind and useless. He has to paint with a broad brush to compensate for his ignorance of flourishing subcultures. In his view, the world is a monoculture of either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ culture. Furthermore, most of the book lacked any notion of the causal forces behind aesthetic and cultural change; my library copy dutifully supplied one with a neatly written anti-Jewish comment in the margins of the penultimate chapter. Not recommended except for the literary style, which is why Tanner Greer recommended it to me in the first place.

Keynes: a very brief introduction by Robert Skidelsky. I didn’t know Keynes was so lively and such a florid writer. Had I known this earlier, I would have started imitating him sooner. Like Antony above, his ability to write invective and turn a colorful phrase makes true writers green with envy and makes economists blush for shame.

Took a Dip in:

Aquinas – always dipping
Talmud – just keep dipping
Critique of Pure Reason by Kant – down this road lies madness?
Human Action by Ludwig Mises – intrigued

Book Dump 2021

I dived into a lot of books in 2021, more than ever. But finished only a few. Here are my favorite and most recommended books from the year, followed up by a fairly complete and ridiculously long list of books I spent a substantial amount time with.

My favorite and most recommended books of 2021.

Pity the Beautiful by Dana Gioia. Poetry, modern. Excellent.
The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson. Fantasy, long. Worth it.
The Model Thinker by Scott E Page. Math and epistemology. Phenomenal.
An Aristotelian Realist Philosophy of Mathematics by James Franklin. Math and philosophy. Excellent.
Economy and Nature in the Fourteenth Century by Joel Kaye. Economics, medieval philosophy, history, and Latin. What could be better?
The Wars of the Roses by Gillingham. I checked out every book on The Wars of the Roses; this is one is clearly the best written, even if a little more out of date. When history is well written I fall in love again. Highly recommended.
The History of Chemistry by Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent and Isabelle Stengers. This is the best history of chemistry in print, and there is no coincidence that it is a translation from French.
Talmud: from Classics of Western Spirituality Series. The Classics of Western Spirituality is hit or miss frequently, but I am enjoying the the selections from the Talmud here.

Below are all the books from 2021 by category.

Fiction:

  1. Moby Dick by Herman Melville
  2. The Napoleon of Nottinghill by G.K. Chesterton
  3. The Ship of Theseus by V. Straka
  4. Pity the Beautiful by Dana Gioia
  5. Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler
  6. The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
  7. Cenodoxus by Jacob Bidermann
  8. The Golden Country by Shusako Endo
  9. Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Philosophy and Social Science

  1. The Model Thinker by Scott E Page
  2. On Commerce, by David Hume
  3. The Use of Knowledge in Society, F. Hayek
  4. The Wealth of Nations Book I by Adam Smith
  5. Protagoras by Plato
  6. Charter schools and their Enemies by Thomas Sowell.
  7. Universal Economics by Armen Alchian (incomplete)
  8. An Aristotelian Realist Philosophy of Mathematics by James Franklin
  9. Saint Ignatius’ Idea of a Jesuit University by Ganss
  10. Economy and Nature in the 14th Century by Joel Kaye
  11. The Interests and the Passions: Political Arguments for Capitalism before its Triumph by A. O. Hirschman
  12. Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman
  13. Open Borders: the Science and Ethics of Immigration by Bryan Caplan and Zach Wienersmith
  14. Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein
  15. The Cult of Smart: How our Broken Education System Perpetuates Injustice by Frederick deBoeur
  16. The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money by Bryan Caplan
  17. Jesuit Education in Light of Modern Educational Problems by Shwikerath
  18. 10% Less Democracy, Why You Should Trust Elites a Little More and the Masses a Little Less By Garett Jones.

History

  1. Viking-age War Fleets: Ship-Building, Resource Management in Maritime Warfare in 11th century Denmark by Morten Raven
  2. Qumran in Context reassessing in the archaeological evidence by Yizhar Hirschfeld
  3. The Wars of the Roses by Gillingham
  4. Book Wars: the Digital Revolution in Publishing by John B. Thompson
  5. Battlegrounds by H. R. McMaster
  6. Keaton by Tom Dardis
  7. The Letters of Alcuin by Rolph Barrows 1909
  8. Kissinger: The Idealist by Niall Ferguson 

STEM

  1. The History of Chemistry by Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent and Isabelle Stengers
  2. Calculus for the Applied, Life, and Social Sciences
  3. Introduction to Chemistry by John D. Mays
  4. The Richness of Life the Selected Writings of Stephen J. Gould
  5. The Double Helix: a Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA by James D Watson.
  6. Biotechnology 101 by Brian Robert Shmaefsky
  7. Vectors and their Applications by Anthony Pettifrezzo
  8. The Molecular Biology of the Cell by various authors (sc. Not all)

Religion

  1. Jesuits: A Multibiography
  2. Decreation the End of all Things by Paul Griffiths
  3. The Life of Brother Jordan of Saxony by anonymous
  4. Super Boethius de Trinitate by Thomas Aquinas
  5. The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola
  6. A Rabbi Talks With Jesus by Jacob Neusner  (incomplete)
  7. Talmud Classics of Western Spirituality Series


Towards More Popsicle Catapults: Statistics as a Branch of Logic

[This letter is part of the Little Letter Republic, a project whose purpose is to build community in St. Louis and beyond.]

Dear Sebastian,

I really enjoyed our discussion. In particular I’ve been thinking a lot about what you called statistics by logic or perhaps verbal statistics. When we spoke I noted that I’ve been thinking a lot about how computation has expanded the pedagogical frontier by allowing “learning by doing” for math & stats via scripting. More specifically I think discretization is an incredibly promising path for teaching a much wider population of students the core concepts of statistical thinking (and calculus and derivation, with statistics as the “practical application”). I’m not the only one thinking this way, see eg. Think Bayes, and of course this is precipitated by realizing that a tremendous amount of real-world computation is done via discretization and simulation.

However our conversation push me to think more broadly, not just about what could be taught effectively if a student learns a little scripting, but also what a student can learn simply through language and imagery.

I’m really coming around to the idea that the core basic ideas of statistical reasoning can be taught through discrete and empirical concepts such as histograms and empirical cumulative density functions. Not just univariate statistics, but multivariate statistics, which are critical for thinking about “real world” statistical modeling. Much of statistical modeling is about capturing the joint and conditional distributions of data, and what I call “F(X), g(F(X)), and F(g(F(X)))” – that is, distributions, functions of distributions, and distributions of functions of distributions (much of inference is about how functions of distributions are themselves distributed).

The more I think about it, the more I think that the foundational concepts for practical real-world statistical reasoning can be effectively taught to students with even a fairly low level of mathematical background, say addition/subtraction and multiplication/division.

To be clear I have in mind laying conceptual foundations, not teaching students how to prove results. The key to thinking about the world in statistical terms is the think about the world as full of potential counterfactuals, realizing that any such counterfactuals are inherently noisy, and understanding that ‘random’ doesn’t mean ‘hopelessly unknowable’ – rather we can (and do!) know quite a lot about randomness. The world shifts into probabilities, and decision-making shifts into “how much probability is needed before a decision can be made?”

The goal of this “conceptual foundations” instruction would be to ‘start with the why’ – “you’re going to be learning probability at some point (perhaps integration and derivation as well) – why?” The math of probability can be dry, the goal of this conceptual foundation would be to provide the motivation / inspiration to learn these.

I have in mind that ‘conceptual foundations’ could be something like a sequence, perhaps following the “F, g(F), F(g(F))” path – first basic distributional qualities (what a RV is, shapes of distributions, and percentiles, and concepts such as mean, median, variance, correlation + multivariate distributions), then functions of distributions (revisit mean, var, cov – ‘think back and notice – these are all functions!’, methods for capturing joint and conditional distributions {OLS, ML methods}), and then distributions of functions of distributions (all via resampling – revisit mean, var, cov, OLS, ML – “look, these are random themselves! what should we do about that? Well, go back to the beginning…”). Also, this naturally introduces the idea of counterfactual reasoning, though that could be introduced earlier and point to here.)

I really do think that a lot of these things can be taught at a conceptual level with discrete distributions and pictures. Depending on the amount of time available, I think some of these things can be directly illustrated by exercises – for example, by playing games or having contests (even ‘against nature’). I think practical interesting projects where groups of students determine eg. which random process has greater mean than another could be run (eg. build little Popsicle-stick catapults, then measure repeatedly what their ranges are, then determine if their ranges can be told apart statistically – then have a game where you use the little catapults; nothing focuses the mind like a little competition! … or even simpler variations on this theme, see the Appendix below for even simpler ideas)

There are other practical experiences that could be incorporated – ‘eyeballing’ data and seeing if something looks strange; making forecasts, both informally (eg. as part of expected-value reasoning in real life) and formally (and assessing forecast errors for example). There are a number of things that can be illustrated visually, and broken down into discrete steps, such that it is accessible much earlier than usual.

Many of these ideas are taught at the college or graduate level (or beyond) – I think these key concepts can be taught at the elementary level.

To be clear, the goal is to teach the reasoning from elementary concepts, to give students a vision of what is possible, give them a ‘why’ for all the perhaps drier math and stats that they will learn in more detail in later courses. I personally find it much easier to learn a hard thing when I know why I’m learning it, when I’ve had some of the inspiration of seeing the power of a tool put to use – I’ve been able to plough through much more difficult material when I know why I’m doing it.

Beyond that however, I’ve found statistical and counterfactual reasoning to be incredibly powerful tools in making my own life decisions and learning about what is happening in the world. Statistics and data are increasingly the languages of knowledge, and this will only increase as we move towards the future. We also need leaders who can think in statistical terms, and the earlier we can teach the concepts the better.

Finally, I think these foundations can be extended – to return to my earlier idea that scripting can greatly extend ones learning ability, if what I have described above is “foundational statistical concepts”, a follow-up sequence could be something like “foundational statistical computation”, which uses textbooks such as Think Bayes, Cosma Shalizi’s Advanced Data Analysis from an Elementary Point of View, and Efron and Hastie’s Computer Age Statistical Inference to implement many of the concepts explored in the “foundational concepts” sequence (and may only require spreadsheets as a minimum). But that is conversation for another time…

Best, Nate

Appendix A – Some Ideas for Basic Concepts

I wanted to jot down some ideas about teaching basic concepts quickly.

I really do think that statistics can be “taught backwards” in a sense – start from higher-level concepts and and big pictures and trace out the major ideas first via illustration. For example I think that the concept of a distribution can be illustrated quite naturally with histograms (discrete distributions), and this can almost immediately be used to illustrate variance and correlations (for example a 2-D distribution of eg. age and height). Or even start simpler with extremely simple games played with dice before progressing to real-life data. Dice alone could illustrate a the ideas of randomness (one die), histograms (2 dice), mean, variance, covariance, and broad shapes of distributions (skew vs non-skewed). Those concepts could be taught first with things like dice and framed as a binary choices, “compare playing a game with a die that is normal, 1,2,3,4,5,6, vs an opponent who gets to use 2,3,4,5,6,7. Which would you choose?” Varying the mean could be made very explicit and varying the variance could be made very explicit, eg. comparing a game played with 1,2,3,4,5,6 vs 1,1,1,1,1,6 (lower variance not always better) vs 1,1,1,1,1,16 (“if all you care about was the average, which dice would you choose to play a game, or indifferent?” “If you liked a game with higher variance which would you choose?” …etc). Single and multiple dice would provide natural ways to talk about shapes of distributions (PMF of 2 regular dice is a symmetric distributions, vs eg. 1 regular die and a 1,1,1,1,1,6 die would produce a skewed distribution).

Depending on the ages of people taught and the time set aside for learning, students could actually play common games, but beforehand choose which of the dice or combination of dice they’d like to use – get a visceral experience of a “same mean but high variance” die vs a “regular” die, or skewed distributions vs symmetric distributions.

This could lead naturally to discussions about more real-world distributions – eg. population data, with marginal and joint distributions of height, weight, age for example. I’ve already been using histograms and demographic examples to causally teach basics of mean, variance, correlation, etc to friends and family, and it works quite well.

On more sophisticated modeling of joint distributions:

At the end of the day a lot of statistical modeling is about capturing joint and conditional distributions of data. When statistics was invented the profession had to use incredibly clever analytical tricks to do this; thus OLS regression is the BLUE of the conditional mean of a joint distribution. But with modern computation we can capture many of these things directly. Part of the success of machine learning has been through exploiting various ways computation can directly capture these joint distributions, and the construction of these estimators are often simpler to learn than the analytics and assumptions needed for understanding OLS. (For example K-nearest neighbors directly captures the idea of the conditional mean by simply taking a local average, rather than working through the tooling of OLS. Of course this requires big data and big computation, but we’re getting more an more of those every day.)

Again, I’m not the only one thinking this way – Cosma Shalizi’s Advanced Data Analysis from an Elementary Point of View points this out explicitly in the first chapter, and Efron and Hastie’s Computer Age Statistical Inference can be seen as the simulation-driven version of this idea for inference.

These kinds of “looks to the future” are important for illustrating an idea to an aspiring student – the “concepts” course wouldn’t endeavor to teach these things, but rather when the questions arises, “wait can we take the average in a way that incorporates many things at once?” – one can answer, ’yes, that’s what regression does, and that is what ML concepts do …quick illustration… and you’ll learn about that in a lot more detail in the future if you’re interested! Good question!”

But again, I think the main ideas of nearly all of commonly used statistics and inference can be taught with addition/subtraction and multiplication/division. The only other concept I’d add is “resampling” which is also I think very straightforward to describe.

Finally, one critical skill is being able to formulate an idea as implying prediction that can be measured, put down probabilities, and then measuring the outcome and checking your ‘forecast error’ – a major role of forecasting is imply framing your ideas in a way you can measure and learn from, an important skill to learn at any stage.