Old Home Economics

With the coronapocalypse of 2020 my old way of life, together with entrenched mid-life values and priorities, have been washed away. For several months, and with no end in sight, my abode and professional work space has been a home-boarding school with office annex. In these crowded conditions, with personal space a premium, we are lucky to have a garden and wide open space at the end of our street. As my wife has been working full time upstairs, I’ve found myself downstairs home-schooling our three sons while overseeing the self-education of their sister, who will have a second birthday in July.

Now updating, after the birthday, the twos are indeed terrible. But ten and twelve is not great either, with too much sun and community transmission; nor really are any of our other ages. Naturally, when I look around I hear only the voices of those who have decided they will live as they used to because ‘one cannot surrender to fear’ and a life without X is inconceivable. So perish a generation. If I had capital to invest I would look to two generations of guilt in the face of a lost generation of parents and grandparents. Any case, it is bad in society at this moment, many Xs cannot be turned down if food is to appear on the table; and those Xs may kill you or, worse, someone you love. By any stretch of the imagination, a fairly dramatic domestic reboot is required for a household to survive the next decade without too many scars and yet, in the macho political order that is Israel, this domestic revolution is the very place nobody is willing to look. Woman are better leaders in these times. You really do need to readjust your life, revise what is necessary. Grandparents will choose to see their grandchildren given the risks to their lives, and no doubt cogently given the meaning these children give to them, but they will leave the guilt for their illnesses on your shoulders.

As luck would have it, we took out a large loan about six months ago with the idea of funding an extended family holiday around the world for several months. I am looking at our house as a Harry Potter tent stuck in one place, working out how the situation looks when the temporary is revealed as permanent.


Necessity points the way. Each of the three boys were assigned a variety of tasks for each day, including reading and mathematics and the like, but including also two 45-minute sessions chaperoning their sister. Ethel dictates the primary daily necessary labour of the household,in addition to cooking and cleaning – which are given to the children, but only a lockdown after looking after their baby sister. Ethel is a vampire of time who (in truth) gives back to her chaperone far more than he ever could dream of, and without her presence our house would have blown up long ago.

With the temporary lockdown becoming a long-term home-schooling regime I’ve made the inference from Ethel that necessary labour invigorates the soul and that, in general, learning to live better is the essence of what was once called a ‘liberal education’.

The last weeks have seen a continual practical drift in my ideal schooling. Last week three boys and I began on how to clean a toilet (3 stages: floor, bowl, lids) and next week I advance with B. to learning how to cook. The way here has been paved by my oldest, C., who took to heart the scarcity of eggs in the first month of the lockdown and has now constructed a chicken coup and organized four baby chicks (collectively named Lister). Now we are building an ornamental fish pond and planning a tandori oven.

  • And now the basics of both are done. But the inner pots of the oven have cracked and one of the four baby chicks became a rooster who, for the sake of peace on our road, we ate.

Yet home education, as a mark of civilization, must revolve around some body of texts, and a discipline of reading them.

Here I am guided by a hope of resolving some old questions that have long interested yet always alluded me. For example, the following dialogue has puzzled my mind for over four decades, since it was first read aloud to me as a child aged seven.

“Good morning!” said Bilbo, and he meant it…

But Gandalf looked at him from under long bushy eyebrows that stuck out further than the brim of his shady hat. “What do you mean?” he said. “Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?”

I was impressed by this and the surrounding story way back, but still today I have a hard time understanding what is going on with these words. J.R.R. Tolkien seems able to work word magic before our eyes. The first texts that I wish to teach my children bear on understanding Tolkien’s word magic, and make use of, among other studies, the sequel.

The sequel takes a sinister turn yet provides vital commentary on the very idea of a modern education. We must adapt the counsels of the wizards to the reality dawning before our eyes, and here I am looking specifically at the perpetual surveillance machinery the virus has already drawn out of the Leviathan. My home-schooling thesis, if you will, is that the much maligned  Eye in the Dark Tower is but a blueprint of one, overreaching educational project – a project, to boot, necessary in the home given our constant supervision of the youngest. Let others search for Galadriel’s Mirror, oversight from the hidden tower will be our aim, my children unwittingly conscripted to build a domestic Barad-dûr, which we shall name Ethel’s tower.

Ethel may one day use her long hair to escape from her tower but that is only after she discovers that she wants to escape. In the first instance, her tower will appear a paradise in comparison to the educational projects of the English past.

Bentham’s design for Barad-dûr, above, and below two portraits of school life from inside at the top a century or more later.

These may have been my father’s family’s but were hardly my experience of education, by the way – for which I direct you to a comprehensive view of a school in north London.

This Madness video, which coalesces with long ago memories, might seem to you far away from anything in Middle-earth, but for many years I was unable to picture the stair of Cirith Ungol as anything but the ‘South Wing’ of my school.

Now I have the chance to escape all these – great and failed – English educational experiments and draw  on long years reading the literature of the two ancient English universities to return to a question that somehow sounded in my mind before I ever saw the South Wing. As I go along I intend to write up our own text book of home schooling, replete with an introduction and three chapters and titled:

Building your own Dark Tower

By S.J. Cook.

  • Introduction to Victorian Logic
  • 1. Organization
  • 2. Domestic Economy
  • 3. Dark Tower 


Victorian Logic

Let’s start with a practical taste of building a tower by turning to a hard fact, my youngest son, who I call A. Today a boy of 10 summers who is far too loud for my own good, A. is expected by his school to distance-learn learn fractions, which arduous task I tried to escape by turning to chess.

Not only is it very hard to teach A (or anyone) how to add a/b to b/c but I also deem chess highly appropriate training in the symbolic algebras that work our modern world. A keen eye for the balance of malice is a valuable skill for those to be enlisted in the army of Mordor. My flight from the duty of fractions was aided by A, who takes to chess for all the right reasons. We began by looking on Amazon for a book about chess, and he selected (and insisted on paying for himself) How To Beat Your Dad at Chess.

My own bad character then bit me. Having joined Chess.com so A could play online games of chess, I started playing games myself on his account, driving the skill level way up while polishing my own rusty practice so when we played I won with ease. Quite rightly, A now refuses to play chess.

While I have had to admit temporary defeat and open the school (distance-learning) exercises on fractions, I’m resolved that when we get through them we will turn to Lewis Carroll’s Game of Logic, an astonishingly wonderful book that I have already taught to each of A’s older brothers, who I will here call B and C. By the by, this video on the same author’s letter register, was undertaken as preparation for springing The Game of Logic on B.

Since making this video with C, I’ve taught the book to C as well as B. For myself, I’m planning on doing the counters with A when we learn together because I still don’t really get what Charles Dodgson is doing. If you think on this, though, it seems a perfect illustration of the art of Lewis Carroll – his book has allowed a rare success at education, with the students rather than the teacher doing the hard thinking.

Stepping from chess to Alice through the Looking-glass completely changes the initial perspective. To work on the art of the most noble and venerable game of chess is to take a step in an apprenticeship on the dark symbolic operations required to erect our own Tower of Barad-dûr. The autobiography of Charles Babbage reveals chess a model for his analysis.

Lewis Carroll, the celibate Anglican Oxford don whose proper name was Charles Dodgson, shows the view from the Brandywine – a vista that knows no Dark Tower. The Game of Logic teaches you to make propositions and arguments by placing counters on a board of squares. A proposition, explains Dodgson, is a sentence that employs the copula ‘is’ to predicate one kind of name (adjective, naming attribute) on another (noun, the substantive). In this world, grammar is a first step into logic and logic teaches us to talk clearly about things.

Already a great mystery can be unfolded before our eyes. Around the same time as Dodgson at Oxford was polishing visual presentation of the Aristotelian syllogism in his The Game of Logic in Cambridge John Venn was adopting Euler’s circles to represent the new symbolic calculus of George Boole.

Oxford squares and Cambridge circles represent two distinct kinds of logic, and where Lewis Carroll’s squares and counters capture a Victorian understanding of the act of predication, John Venn’s circular diagrams are modern pictures of sentences.

A will restart his education, swapping the chess board for croquet and a flamingo in an unreformed Oxford college garden, a fantasy, at least, of the best of all possible academic beginnings. But Lewis Carroll’s interpretation of the word is as the basic glue of a sentence will come unstuck when we advance to modern logic, a dark science of obscure symbols and queer signs that provides the technical vocabulary of those who seek to build a dark tower…


Just like The Hobbit, there should be nothing that is not immediately credible in our education program. But we are already getting into the magic of it. The modern world requires “skill, dexterity, and judgment,” as Smith puts it, and while these are no doubt in part natural blessings we may also expect a good education to promote what used to be called good characterBut in practice, education is a battle with energetic trolls, who cannot do what they are told. The ideal battles with necessity, the law must win!

In practice, then, I need to offer a set of readings that allows that discipline that is the basis of science, and so harness the energies of minds that do think, only in strange and half-baked ways… And the discipline learned must be that discipline which, as a moment’s reflection among the students would reveal, gives the blue print of our own dark tower.

So, let us take a first step into applied logic…


Lesson 1: Origin of Organization

I turn to the two older brothers of A, who we may call B and C. Both B and C have now worked through The Game of Logic and it is time to introduce them to the science of domestic economy by way of Adam Smith and Charles Babbage. Adam Smith addresses the wealth of a nation, but we may learn from his science the art of reading our own domestic commonwealth. 

Adam Smith begins the Wealth of Nations (1776):

The annual labour of every nation is the fund which originally supplies it with all the necessaries and conveniencies of life which it annually consumes, and which consist always either in the immediate produce of that labour, or in what is purchased with that produce from other nations.

According therefore, as this produce, or what is purchased with it, bears a greater or smaller proportion to the number of those who are to consume it, the nation will be better or worse supplied with all the necessaries and conveniencies for which it has occasion.

But this proportion must in every nation be regulated by two different circumstances; first by the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which its labour is generally applied; and, secondly, by the proportion between the number of those who are employed in useful labour, and that of those who are not so employed.

Commentary: what Smith says in 1776 about the wealth of a nation applies, mutatis mutandis, to the wealth of a home. My own household consists of productive hands and unproductive mouths, the hands make food and clean the toilets and earn an income that pays the bills, the mouths contribute to the bills by eating.

Tolkien reminds us that the mouth is also the organ of speech, which serves the mind as the instrument of education and organization. The mystery of an economy – domestic or political – is that the really productive labour is performed by the breath and the mouth and, in my own house, it is my 23-month-old-daughter who each day works the hardest and learns the deepest. (Charles Darwin was asked in which three years of a man’s life he learns the most, to which he replied ‘the first’.)

Adam Smith does not in the first instance address this mysterious role of speech and belles lettres in the commercial life of society, for his foundation in all that follows is a simple explanation of the vast inequalities of wealth between different nations observable already in the second half of the eighteenth century.  As a matter of fact, he soon observes, the accommodation of an industrious and frugal European peasant around 1770 “exceeds that of many an African king, the absolute master of the lives and liberties of ten thousand naked savages.” And this, he has no doubt, is because of the nature of European production, in which several individuals contribute but one part of the making of a product. The modern way of organizing production, Smith reckons, vastly increases the collective harvest, the wealth of the nation.

What Smith says, on the individual level, is that the modern division of labour entails great diversity in “skill, dexterity, and judgment” among the workforce, with many niches for those with particular training or education. He acknowledges the (North American) patriots who see modern citizens as emasculated compared to their ancient counterparts, but explains that slavery is not an economic option in the modern world. Adam Smith counters the evils of the modern division of labour with an indirect ancient counterpart, namely an idea of a liberal education that teaches a young mind to survey the whole, undivided. The Wealth of Nations presents a view precisely the opposite of its chief phenomena – an overview of the historical and political significance of the division of labour in a modern commercial society.

In a nutshell, Adam Smith is the founder of political economy because he understands an ancient ideal of education – embodied in his science of the legislator, his study of the wealth of nations, is the only possible counterweight to the organization of the modern machine.

Education is the other door of Smith’s opening remarks on the role of the division of labour in the wealth of nations. In a world relentlessly driven by the demand for economy, we become increasingly the slaves of the ever-improved systems imposed upon us. And short of setting up communes growing organic tomatoes, we are all workers that are so worked – our selves divided, remorselessly. Yet those who would get a handle on what is going on in the world around them must follow the way of Smith and look with an undivided eye.

As Galadriel and Sauron must both know, to see with a keen eye requires looking with an undivided gaze. This is the ideal to which our mortal education aspires.


Here the ugly spectre of Karl Marx raises its head and we hear the word necessity, despised in ancient Greece as the very nature of the household and the very opposite of the good life. It is all very well reading a dialogue of Lewis Carroll and instituting our own academy in the garden, but the mess is piling up around me and the bathrooms used by my three sons would put a Parisian urinal to shame. And o my gosh do they eat! When we step from the fairy-tale land of Mordor to practical reality we have no choice, eventually, but gaze at the kitchen and sniff the bathrooms.

As a matter of practical urgency, extended lockdown – or life with the coronavirus – demands an organization of ‘socially necessary labour’ that, at the bare minimum, will prevent additional diseases ravishing our household and may even make our house look nice. Given our household numbers, ages, and income-earning roles, this economic foundation of our educational regime generates a curious gender division in our house.

Two of the six mouths around the table are female. The older presently brings home the bacon (income, y) while the younger is utterly occupied mastering two languages (and making a lot of mess, despite her constant chaperone).

My educational regime is invented by a man for three growing lads. Before we can build our dark tower, it turns out, we must first do the dishes and the washing up and the laundry and the bathroom. And before this necessary labour can be performed, instruction is necessary.

And here is the foundation stone of home economics: cleaning the toilets.

Necessary labour is not natural work. Yesterday I explained cleaning a toilet to three boys as a work of three steps:  (i) floor around, (ii) white bowl, (iii) lids and box. They are naturally made so that pee splashes over i – iii, but the toilet is an artifact and there is art to cleaning its parts. The way of the economist is to systematize all the necessary work in this way and institute the relevant training, which I’ve now begun (dividing household work into categories and assigning a daily group of each to A, B, and C). And for the next week or so, hands on training is the order of the day.

Each day is different and becomes what it is, unless a Dark Tower is already active. To build such a tower we must first make sure the food is cooked and the dishes cleaned and that the water and the sewage are flowing.

Now we may ask, what tending a young mind requires?

My answer is an educational diet in which the main elements both denote and connote. By denote, I mean that what we read must speak cogently about some aspect of the world. By connote, I mean that what we so read also – if obliquely – pertains to the system of domestic economy by which we live. Such an educational diet teaches in the first instance about the world but fosters reflection on one’s own home.


Charles Babbage, Passages (1864).

(1) Chapter XXXIV, The Author’s Further Contributions to Human Knowledge, ‘Games of skill,’ pp. 465-71.

(2) Chapter V, Difference Engine, ‘Explanation of the Difference Engine,’ pp. 49-57,  ‘Of the Mechanical Arrangements necessary for Computing Tables by the Method of Differences’, pp. 57-63.

(3) Chapter VIII, Of the Analytical Engine, 116-41.


Lesson 2: Organization of the domestic economy


Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, Book 1, ‘Of the Causes of Improvement in the productive Powers of Labour, and of the Order according to which its Produce is naturally distributed among the different Ranks of the People’, Chapter 1, ‘Of the Division of Labour’,

Charles Babbage, Passages, Political Economy, ‘Division of Labour’, pp. 436-7.

—– On the Economy of Machinery (1832), Chapter XIX, On the Division of Labour, Chapter XX, On the Division of Mental Labour.


Lesson 3: Dark Tower


J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (1954-5).

A man found some old stones and built a tower from which he could look out to sea. When he turned round and looked inland he saw a monstrous tower of Necromany, in which he felt an Eye looking for him.