Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Inappropriate Quotations

Populist blogging is a feature of Blogland and it is all the richer for it. Sometimes the populists stray into territories with which they are not familiar. One such example is the 'Nerd Family. Pro-Nerd. Pro-Family Blog' (HERE:)

"Adam Smith on Public School

‘…NerdDad found a great book. It is P. J. O'Rourke's On The Wealth of Nations (Books That Changed the World) . Now we here in the Nerd Family are huge P.J. O'Rourke fans, and we can speak of his greatness further in the future, so NerdDad checked it out and found that Adam Smith had his opinions on school and how it should work.

Adam Smith was only a tepid fan of public education. As he went on to explain in book 5 of Wealth, he thought that some government subsidy of education was needed so that "even the common labourer may afford it." Teachers, however, should be "partly, but not wholly paid" by the state. "In modern times the diligence of public teachers is more or less corrupted by the circumstances, which render them more or less independent of their success and reputation," wrote Smith, making his modern times sound like ours. And Smith believed that certain very prestigious institutions of higher learning were teaching "a mere useless and pedantic heap of sophistry and nonsense." Was UC Berkeley even around back then?"

I have no idea of who forms the ‘Nerd Family’ (it must be a local joke), nor am I convinced that P. J. O’Rourke is the best guide to Wealth Of Nations; he managed to dumb down its ideas for an already dumbed-down generation of self-proclaimed Nerds.

The issue facing Adam Smith was not how to reform an existing education system, but how to persuade legislators and those who influenced them to initiate some elementary education for a largely illiterate and innumerate (and mono-lingual speaking) generation.

For the majority of youngsters there was no or very little education. Girls tended not to be educated at all, except in the middle and upper-class households and then only in how to be ‘ladies’. Among boys, education lasted a year or two before they were put to work to earn pennies to supplement the weekly family earnings.

Of those ‘schools’ that functioned, most were paid for by local communities, bequests and charities. England had only two universities and these were financed by endowments, scholarships and private funding and mainly trained boys (14-17) for the church ministries.

The picture is Scotland was somewhat different to that of England and Wales. Scotland had four universities (Edinburgh, Glasgow, St Andrews and Aberdeen) and they took boys who completed schools education from 6 or 8 to 14 years old. Every Church parish had a school with the paid teacher and took boys of all classes to teach them the basics of reading, writing, and account (arithmetic), plus a smattering of Latin and Greek.

For those who showed promise, charitable funds were available to keep them at school without having to leave to work at round 8 to salve the dreadful poverty of their families. Those that went on to university went on scholarships, again without burden on their families. This route to upward mobility was an important feature of Scottish education, as was the whole education apparatus, partly funded by local public charges and charities, and by even miniscule payments by all but the very poorest families. Many visitors were surprised at the literacy levels among common labourers in Scotland.

It was this system that Smith presented in Wealth Of Nations for emulation across the United Kingdom. I am not sure just how qualified P. J. O’Rourke, or Nerd daddy is to pontificate about Smith’s modest proposals or to assert that he was ‘only a tepid fan of public education’. I think the education debate in the 21st-century USA on ‘public education’ is a long, long way from the problem that Smith addressed.

Once again it comes down to context, of which the Nerd Family may well not be aware of. You should not drag in Adam Smith to boost one side or another of a fractious ‘debate’ (mere like a ranting scream) in modern America, especially as it includes organised teachers unions, public authorities and parents of varying degrees of measured understanding of the issues, and almost certainly a complete lack of knowledge of Book V of Wealth Of Nations and
18th-century realities.


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