Friday, November 25, 2005

Smith's Unhappy Years at Oxford

Business Week (online) 5 December carries a feature on the University of Oxford, apparently in turmoil as faculty reacts to administration’s attempts to get it to move into the 21st century:

Shaking Up Oxford Businessman John Hood plans to reinvent the university. And the dons are fighting back.

With Oxford remaining one of the two most prestigious universities in Britain, many wonder why there's any hurry to change, and some doubt that a seeming nobody from the University of Auckland has anything to teach them. Cambridge bests Oxford in some surveys, but few think any Continental European institution can touch Oxford. Admission slots at the university that has educated some 25 British Prime Ministers, including Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher, as well as titans like Adam Smith and Christopher Wren, are in greater demand than ever. An Oxford education is still the best ticket to the upper reaches of British government and business. The individually tailored tutoring that goes on in the colleges is superb

It is not my place to comment on the current internal affairs of another British University. My comments are directed at lumping the modern excellence of Oxford with what it did for Adam Smith between 1740 and 1746. If Smith was a titan, he owed very little to it of education at the then university (Balliol College), where he spent six unhappy years and, frankly, had to teach and tutor himself.

Smith attended Glasgow College (the university) from 1737-40 and taught there from 1751-63. The contrast is remarkable between the two institutions. At Glasgow the faculty taught many hours per week (from 7.30 am to just after 1.30 pm). The public classes contained about 100 students, some younger than 14 (the age that Smith left Kirkcaldy for Glasgow). They were ‘examined’ by their tutors each day in subjects associated with their classes, for which they wrote essays.

At Oxford there were two lectures a week and twice daily prayers (the faculty were ordained ministers of the Church of England). Beyond that students were left to their own devices. Years later Smith wrote in “Wealth of Nations”:

In the university of Oxford, the grater part of the publick professors have, for these many years, given up altogether even the pretence of teaching’ (WN V.i.f.8: page 461).

He also referred in tones that showed irreconcilable contempt for English universities, several of which has become “sanctuaries in which exploded systems and obsolete prejudices found shelter and protection, after they had been hunted out of every other corner of the world” (WN V.i.f.34, page 772).

Smith went to Oxford without taking his MA at Glasgow (which was a condition of obtaining the £40 a year Snell Exhibition – a handsome sum that a frugal person like Smith could live on), but on leaving before his nine years were completed (six for his MA ; he abandoned the 3 for his ordination when he decided not to proceed to be ordained into the Church), Oxford awarded him its “AM” (now MA) in 1746, carefully recorded in Glasgow’s records when he was nominated for a Chair in 1751. It is this recorded statement that created the myth that Glasgow had awarded him his MA in 1740, a point missed by some of his biographers.

So badly were Adam Smith and the seven other Scotch students treated at Oxford that he wrote of it with contempt and anger, even 30 years later, and he never returned to Oxford, though he journeyed near the area. Balliol was a centre of Tory belief in the divinity of kings, while Smith was a Hanoverian, like his father, and he became a target for bullying from some pro-Jacobite English students and Masters (1745-6 were the years of the Scotch rebellion in favour of restoring a deposed monarch, an adventure with which young Smith firmly disagreed).

So to claim Adam Smith for Oxford as an example of its undoubted modern educational qualities today is a bit much.


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