Friday, January 26, 2007

When Educators Need Educating

As if on cue, today’s press brings a particularly 'uneducated' summary of something Smith was supposed to have believed:

This doesn't mean that there isn't any value to it, just that this value is hard to quantify and not well served by a commodity model. Adam Smith, bedrock of capitalism, believed that education was best handled by the state (and church) because business would forever be short sighted in its ability to educate, whereas the interests of civil society required citizens who were sophisticated, literate and critical.”
(From Echo online: “Students seeking 'higher' ed should embrace EMU”)


That is not what Smith believed, nor is it how he expressed it. When Smith was writing, in the mid-18th century, the British university system was in a primitive state (the American colonies were even worse – Princeton was founded by a Scotsman). In Scotland there were the rudiments of a school system, based on local parishes, to which boys went if their parents could afford it, paid for partly by local taxes, subscriptions and nominal contributions from parents. In England (until 1707 a separate country), education to 14 was patchy, with private tutors and fee paying schools, supported by endowments, which meant mostly populated by middles and upwards sons.

There was no distinctive feature in England such as in Scotland, from which most schools most labourers’ boys could read and write, and the brightest of them, of all classes, could find the finance from scholarships, bursaries and such like, to go to University for their education from 14 onwards. It was meritocratic: birght boys went to university, financed by scholarships if they could not pay and sat in classes with sons of Lords and Knights). The English labouring class was barely literate (a couple of years of school), innumerate and positively uneducated. Nothing like this situation exists in the USA today across the whole country.

Smith discusses public education in Wealth of Nations. Basically, he advised extending the Scottish system across the whole of the United Kingdom, especially in England. That implied a massive increase in expenditure to educate all children at least up to minimal standards of ‘reading, writing and account’, and in view of the labourer’s needs to get gainful employment, he also suggested that Latin and Greek (minimal requirements to get to University), the schools should teach elementary mechanics and geometry (WN V.i.f.55: p 785). He did not expact a state to pay for it.

He considered the arrangements to teach people of ‘rank and fortune’ were tolerable but for the rest it was abysmal. For the others, the majority, the situation was serious enough to warrant, in addition to the bursaries, endowments, gifts and scholarships put up by relatively well-to-do people, the ‘publick’ also should be called upon to contribute. He did not specify how this should be done – there were no education departments in government, so you cannot assume in the 21st century that Smith meant his suggestion to be government financed, and through government run institutions, as so many modern American commentators often do – the conservative minded to denounce public expenditure and the trade unions and ‘progressives’ to praise public funded education (in the richest country in the world).

He wrote:

For a very small expence the publick can facilitate, can encourage, and can even impose upon the whole body of the people, the necessary means of acquiring those most essential parts of education.’ (WN V.i.f.54: p 785)

To assume that this means a national or state run monopoly of education provisions is a very large assumption indeed. Like sensible educators today, Smith believed in measuring educational outputs, not their inputs. If local parish arrangements (as in Scotland) worked, they should be copied into all parishes in England; if circumstances were appropriate in a larger town, this could be run by the town council imposing a levy; if private individuals wished to fund a local school they should do so; if parents wished to hire private tutors they should do so, and any combination of these funding arrangements could be arranged. The criterion is: does it work?

He most decidedly did not believe teachers at any level, including universities, should be guaranteed their incomes from the college; he did not believe in monopolies of local provision; he did not believe that existing syllabi were appropriate; he did no believe such a scheme could be workable if organised from the top of the state. What he favoured was that every parent, except the very poorest who could not pay as little as one penny, should contribute something; he believed that teachers should depend on part of their salary, if not all of it, on the choices made by students to attend his classes or go elsewhere (skeleton ‘voucher’ system?); he believed that incompetent teachers, who corruptly gain a living despite their abysmal performance should be replaced by competing rival staff and schools, and he believed that variety in experiments should be tried to find what works.

I doubt if much of this would be supported by US teachers’ Unions, or by dogmatic conservatives. I am less concerned with what would be appropriate for education in the UK and US today. However, I am concerned that Adam Smith is presented in a single sentence as having dismissed school investment by business (in his days these were small one- and two-man units, not multi-nationals, or even nationals), and his having a negative view ‘forever’ as to how businesses might respond.

In this and many other subjects for which Smith’s views have been interpreted, we find his stance was much more nuanced than even community members of the East Michigan University appear to appreciate. Is suggest EMU faculty and administrators in Ysiplanti, MI, US, should read Book V of Wealth of Nations from V.i.f.1-61: pp 758-788.


Post a Comment

<< Home