Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Adam Smith on Education

E. D. Kain writes in the indiepundit Blog HERE:
29 December:

the engine of the republic”

“Indeed, the controversy over public schools is as old as the tradition of public school itself. Adam Smith was the first to argue in favor of school vouchers, a cause taken up later by Milton Friedman, and many of Friedman's students and successors. It has now become a mainstay of the modern conservative movement, with little room for debate.

Smith and Friedman argued that the public school system should follow the rules of the free market, and that the best way to do this would be to put the public schools in direct competition with their private counterparts. Conservative theorists today argue that taxpayers who choose not to send their children to public school ought to receive a tax subsidy, or voucher, to help pay for the private school of their choice. The voucher would be paid to the school of the taxpayer's choice, rather than directly into the public school system. This creates a very immediate competitive dynamic between the public and private spheres, as the funding of one is entirely dependent upon the funding of the other

Let me say, first of all, I agree broadly with the substance of E. D. Kain’s views on school vouchers as a means of improving the school system in the UK, which is failing broadly across the country, dominated as it is by a vast education bureaucracy, financed by taxpayers and managed by civil servants from the centre, operated through local education bodies and local schools, and ‘ran’ by state-paid employees (teachers and administrators) and their (several different) trade unions.

However, that is not my main interest in the above paragraphs.

Adam Smith was the first to argue in favor of school vouchers.” I find this statement surprising and would respectfully ask where in Wealth Of Nations is this claim substantiated?

The situation which Adam Smith addressed is quite different from the educational circumstances of education provision in the developed countries today. Smith addressed another, more severe problem. It wasn’t that educational provision for children was deficient from what it could be, as now, but the fact that educational provision was almost completely absent for most children – girls, for a start, followed by most boys beyond a notional few years.

Smith knew that in Scotland, the situation was better than in England. He advocated in Book V, Article II, ‘Of the Expense of the Institution for the Education of Youth’ (WN V.i.f: pp 758-88; Canaan, ed. 1937. pp 716-40) the setting up – by government – of ‘little schools’ on the Scotch model, to which boys would be expected to attend to ‘read’, to ‘write’, and ‘account’ (p 785).

Moreover, he felt parents should contribute to a minimal education of their children via taxes and ‘moderate fees’:

For a very small expence the public can facilitate, can encourage, and can even impose upon almost the whole body of the people the necessity of acquiring those most essential parts of education.”

And in these ‘little schools’ in every parish (there were about 60,000 parishes in England and Wales) “children may be taught for a reward so moderate that even a common labourer may afford it; the master being partly, but not wholly, paid by the public, because, if he was wholly, or even principally, paid by it, he would soon learn to neglect his business.”

The background was Smith’s (at least rhetorical) exposition of the dangers to society of failing to educate the majority of children who were destined for a life of drudgery and toil in mind-numbing employment (his famous and much misunderstood passage at page 782) against the consequences of the division of labour, much approved from a productivity point of view in Book I, Chapter 1 of Wealth Of Nations), but dangerous in Book V.

Thus, he warns readers that the ‘stupid and ignorant’ could become socially dangerous, “unless government takes some pains to prevent it” (which meant the richer minority should support public education instead of ignoring it).

Adam Smith was making a case for reform of the UK education system to deal with 18th century problems. It is somewhat disingenuous to apply it word-for-word to the 21st century, where educational vouchers would serve a completely different purpose by addressing the problems arising from the gigantic waste and expense of low quality publicly-funded provision for children from 5-18, and the lack of initiative and performance becuase they are dominated by militant trade unions and government bureaucrats.

Thomas Jefferson, quoted by E. D. Kain in his post, was familiar with Wealth Of Nations and was influenced by Adam Smith’s authoritative views on education from primary through to the (dreadful) state of the English universities (Smith excepted the four Scottish Universities from his assessments of the two English universities).

Jefferson favoured government attention to the ‘rudimentary education’ of the US population, clearly influenced by Smith’s account and the state of education provision in the new republic.

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Blogger Trevo Smith said...

So he was arguing for public education?

I'm a little confused here.

1:50 am  

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