(7) Homegrown Genius: Educating John Stuart Mill Pt 1
My goal is to figure out the best way to educate my son, Walker, who for most of his life now has been stuck at home with me and his mother because of the pandemic. Approaching two years old, Walker is beginning his education at a time when conventional schooling has been turned on its head. God willing, COVID-19 will be long gone by the time he’s school age. But I wonder what lies ahead for him. Will education return to normal after this? Should it?
John Stuart Mill was one of the most influential British thinkers of the 19th century. He developed philosophical rationales for reforming law and society, was a leading proponent of women’s suffrage, and was a vigorous defender of the value of human individuality.
He was also, famously, a product of homeschooling. His autobiography describes how his father undertook all aspect of John’s education starting from age three. Mill’s account of the rigorous course of study his father put him through is fascinating; he’s honest, modest, and thoughtful about both what went right and what did more harm than good.
Mill was asked by his father to master an extraordinary volume of knowledge and to practice a high level of analytical thinking from a very young age. Mill assures his reader, though, that he had no special mental capacity; any boy or girl could learn as he did, he says.
As Mill turned out to be world-class thinker, as well as a decent bloke, it’s worth distilling the main lessons from his experience as I think about education options for Walker, including homeschooling. In this first post, I’ll give a snapshot of the content Mill mastered as he progressed in age. In the second, I’ll draw some principles from his father’s method of instruction and relay some of Mill’s evaluation of his own experience, both good and bad.
Mill’s dad started him learning Greek at age three. He gave the boy lists of common Greek words to memorize and wrote out their meanings in English on cards. (Mill doesn’t describe how he learned to read English.) In addition to vocabulary, wee John learned some basic Greek grammar and soon began translating Aesop’s Fables, which was the first Greek book he read. His second was Anabasis, by Xenophon, the account of a military expedition into Persia. By the time he was eight, John had read most of the well-known Greek prose writers -- well-known, that is, to educated Brits in the early 19th century.
Some of the readings, Mill confesses, were beyond him at this early age. “But in all his teachings,” he writes, “my father demanded of me not only the utmost that I could do but much that I could not possibly have done.”
Up to age eight, in addition to Greek, Mill learned arithmetic, receiving nightly lessons from his father, which he found “disagreeable.” He also read great numbers of books in English, some prescribed by his father, others chosen on his own. Mostly, he read histories—Greek, Roman, and English.
Given what I’ve learned about the importance of foundational knowledge to reading comprehension, it’s difficult to grasp how a child so young could understand what he was reading—leaving aside the fact that he frequently was reading in Greek and not his native English. What sense, after all, could a child so young make of mercenaries and military maneuvers and ancient political feuds?
Perhaps his father filled him up with the needed facts and information during their morning walks together. Most every day before breakfast, John and his father trounced through the English countryside, using the time for John’s schooling. John would give his father an account of what he had read the day before, often relying on notes. His father would ask him questions or else hold forth from his own considerable storehouse of knowledge. These walking dialogues were John’s primary means of direct instruction for most of his childhood.
From ages eight to twelve, Mill continued to read Greek but also studied Latin and began reading the great Roman writers. His father added to the classics the study of geometry, algebra, and calculus. Higher mathematics were eventually left to John to learn himself from books, since the subject began to outpace his father’s abilities. Mill also reports “devouring” treatises on chemistry. He enjoyed reading about experimental science but never attempted to practice it. His recreational reading was comparatively slight, but he does mention enjoying Robinson Crusoe, Don Quixote, and a few other works of fiction.
Mill began to write around age 11 or 12. That is, no longer simply translating or responding to his readings, he tried his hand at composing something original that (he says) he flattered himself in thinking was “serious.” His project was a history of Roman government, focused on the contest between the patricians and the plebians. His father encouraged him in this effort, saw it as a useful pastime, but never asked to read his work because he didn’t want his critical eye to dampen the boy’s enthusiasm. In the autobiography, Mill calls his early writings “childish.”
Mill’s father required him to write verse, believing that some things could be better expressed in poetry than in prose. Mill reports that he was miserable at it but nevertheless tried his hand at a book of verse extending Pope’s translation of the Iliad, among other efforts. Though he never acquired any skill at “versification,” the practice was worth the effort in Mill’s estimation, since it helped him develop a certain “readiness of expression,” that became useful to him later in life.
From age 12 on, Mill proceeded to what he considered a more advanced course of study, with two primary components: logic and political economy. His focus on “scholastic logic” equipped him for life with an ability to think with clarity and precision. He learned to analyze arguments, critique them, construct them, counter them, and express himself through all with utter exactness. “I know nothing in my education,” Mill writes, “to which I think myself more indebted for whatever capacity of thinking I have attained.”
John continued to read the Greeks and Romans, but now not merely to develop his language skills but to absorb and think about their content. He credits his study of the Roman Quintilian in these years with imparting valuable ideas on education and culture that he retained throughout his life. Plato likewise shaped him in a permanent way. “The Socratic method of which the Platonic dialogues are the chief example,” he says, “is unsurpassed as a discipline for correcting the errors and clearing up the confusions created by the intellect left to itself.” Any student who masters the works of the ancient rhetors will become, he writes, “exact thinkers who attach a precise meaning to words and propositions and are not imposed on by vague, loose, or ambiguous terms.” Further, such students “may become capable of disentangling the intricacies of confused and self-contradictory thought before their own thinking faculties are much advanced. “
The very aim of education, for Mill, was to form such potent thinkers. He saw in educated people the duty to bend their society toward greater fairness, liberty, and democracy. The means for doing so began with rigorous thought, precise language, and strong arguments—thus, the value he placed on intensive training in rhetoric.
Mill’s father, James, was connected to a circle of British intellectual luminaries that included Jeremy Bentham and David Ricardo, both of whom exerted a direct influence on young John. From Bentham, he learned to make “utilitarian” arguments supporting laws and public policies that might generate the most happiness for the most people. Ricardo’s recently published On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation became the cornerstone of a “complete course” in political economy that Mill’s father took him through in 1819, when he was 13.
There were no textbooks for learning economics at the time, so Mill’s dad began using their morning walks to deliver lectures on the topic. John was responsible each day for giving a written account of what he’d learned from this father’s lecture the day before. His father made him rewrite these accounts repeatedly, until they were “clear, precise, and tolerably complete.” By the end of this course in economics, John had generated through his daily reports an outline that his father then used to write his own book, Elements of Political Economy. Having learned what he needed of the science of economics, Mill began a close reading of Ricardo’s book, giving daily accounts of his studies, answering questions from his father and discussing collateral points as they arose.
Mill stopped receiving direct lessons from his father when he was 14. He had the opportunity at that point to travel to France, where he stayed for more than a year. In the mountains of Montpellier, he cultivated a lifelong love of nature. He learned French and read French literature. He attended courses at the Faculté des Sciences, hearing lectures on chemistry, zoology, metaphysics, and logic. A private tutor took him through a course of higher mathematics. But perhaps the most valuable thing he learned during his time in France was that the pinched, snobbish society he knew back in England wasn’t the only way to approach life. In France, Mill found a “free and genial atmosphere” that broadened his sense of possibilities for treating people amiably, defying social conventions, and conducting his life according to his own lights —which he eventually would do in his long, romantically ambiguous relationship with the married Harriet Taylor.
In the years after he returned from France, Mill began to study less like a student and more like a thinker formulating the themes and systems of thought that would guide his professional work. In particular he studied Benthamism, especially as translated on the Continent. The impact on Mill of a single book, Dumont’s Traitéde Législation, could not have been more profound; upon putting down the final volume, Mill writes, “I had become a different being.”
From thereon Mill gradually took charge of his own education, delving on his own into the “higher branches of analytic psychology.” He continued to produce abstracts for his father to review, but now with his own remarks and observations thrown in. It was a practice that Mill found “a great service to me, by compelling precision in conceiving and expressing psychological doctrines . . .”
Mill began in these years to write essays, a practice that he came to see as even more conducive than reading to his intellectual development. He wrote his first argumentative essay at 16, an attack on “aristocratic prejudice.” Though he made a stab at composing speeches, it was the essay form than took hold in him from that point. “I continued to write papers on subjects that were often far beyond my capacity,” he states, “but with great benefit from the exercise itself and from the discussions with my father that it led to.”
Young Mill had the further advantage of regular interactions with older, more learned men. He cites a number of people from his father’s circle, in addition to Bentham and Ricardo, who generously shared their knowledge and time with him. These mentors not only advanced his education but served as models for behaviors and values that Mill would carry forward into adulthood.
At age 20 Mill began working under his father at the East India Company, his place of employment for the next 35 years. The work gave him leeway for thinking and reading on his own, while also providing a paycheck. Mill established a political journal, began publishing essays, and from that point entered into the work that would earn him his stature as a great 19th-century philosopher. His books included A System of Logic (1843), Essays on Some Unsettled Questions of Political Economy (1844), On Liberty (1859), Utilitarianism (1863), and The Subjection of Women (1869).
In the next post, I’ll try to distill some lessons from Mill’s education. No homeschooling parent is likely to put their kid through such as a demanding and idiosyncratic course of study in this day and age. But it’s nonetheless interesting to consider how James Mill approached his task. Maybe there’s something of value there to glean as I think about Walker’s education.
He’ll be three in another year, and I don’t know a lick of Greek.