Friday, April 21, 2006

Just a Thought

A Canadian Econoview: ‘What Would Adam Smith Say?”

BSF quotes from “Wealth of Nations” (book V) in the course of an excellent article:

The teacher, instead of explaining to his pupils himself, the science in which he proposes to instruct them, may read some book upon it; and if this book is written in a foreign and dead language, by interpreting it to them into their own; or, what would give him still less trouble, by making them interpret it to him, and by now and then making an occasional remark upon it, he may flatter himself that he is giving a lecture. The slightest degree of knowledge and application will enable him to do this without exposing himself to contempt or derision, or saying anything that is really foolish, absurd, or ridiculous.” (WN V.i.f.14)

BSF concludes (tongue in cheek I presume):

Smith thought that the system at Glasgow, where professors were paid directly from the fees paid by students who took their courses, created a much stronger incentive to diligence in teaching than the system at Oxford, where professors were essentially tenured and on salary. He would have preferred all universities be organized along the lines of Glasgow.It's not often I say this about Adam Smith, but on this point I thank God that nobody listened to him.”

I comment on only one aspect of Econoview’s contribution.

First, Smith was contrasting the appalling state of England’s two universities which, at the time he wrote in the 18th century, were Oxford and Cambridge, in comparison to the practices of Scotland’s four universities.

He also drew attention to other defects in the provision of education for boys; girls were not formally taught but were put to work for pennies, or to learn from their female seniors about modesty, chastity and household management.

The sons of the very rich left school after six or more years schooling and went on a tutor-guided tour of the Continent, which Smith considered turned the worst of them into wastrels. A few of them went to university and a few of these attended Glasgow College, and Smith attended diligently to the education of several aristocratic sons destined for careers in government.

For all his criticism of Continental tutor-led tours, Smith, of course, resigned his professorship in 1764 to take the 15 year-old Duke of Buccleugh to France on his tour (1764-66) and we must assume that none of his structures about the effect of these tours applied to the young duke.

However, I think there is another important consequence of the quoted paragraph. I have long suspected the educational credibility of the British habit of including the writing of dissertations in management degrees, undergraduate and in many MBAs, comes within Smith’s strictures about reading from books instead of lecturing. These ‘projects’ give lecturers ‘still less trouble’ than the above practices at Oxford in the 18th century.

By requiring students to conceive of a ‘project’ and to research (also known as plagiarise, or at least ‘to Google it’) and write it up, saves lecturers from yet more lecture hours, while charging them tuition fees for it too! Their students do not see them assessing it, so they cannot judge if they approach the task with a modicum of diligence.

Moreover, given the obsession of ranking systems with the criterion of the proportion of ‘completions’ in expensive MBA degrees programmes, these ‘projects’ are a useful safety-valve to maximise examination passes. Top-graded students do not need to do well in the ‘project’ to pass; failing students can be eased through to a 'pass' by upping the grade awarded for their ‘projects’ whether they deserve it or not (who's to know?).

Different centuries, but the motivation is the same; poor teaching accommodates to the easier life (and so-called tenure does not make it easier to cut-out the dull-wood) of faculty, who, as Smith explained, choose to neglect their students’ interests, where they conflict with what is 'vulgarly' their own.


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