Adam Smith On Education and the Division of Labour
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Michael Robbins writes in digital emunction (“I refer to largesse in thought HERE:
“Best books of the year. A mug, a game. Benjamin Schwarz predictably plumps for biographies & Alice Munro, while Amazon readers appear to be, in Adam Smith’s words, “as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become . . . not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life.”
To which I was about to leap in and place Smith’s assertion in context by providing the full paragraph from Wealth Of Nations:
“In the progress of the division of labour, the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labour, that is, of the great body of the people, comes to be confined to a few very simple operations, frequently to one or two. But the understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. Of the great and extensive interests of his country he is altogether incapable of judging, and unless very particular pains have been taken to render him otherwise, he is equally incapable of defending his country in war. The uniformity of his stationary life naturally corrupts the courage of his mind, and makes him regard with abhorrence the irregular, uncertain, and adventurous life of a soldier. It corrupts even the activity of his body, and renders him incapable of exerting his strength with vigour and perseverance in any other employment than that to which he has been bred. His dexterity at his own particular trade seems, in this manner, to be acquired at the expence of his intellectual, social, and martial virtues. But in every improved and civilized society this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it” ((WN V.i.e.50: 782).
Moreover, to understand what Smith was up to it is necessary to see his comments on the effects of the division of labour as in reality as part of his belief in the importance of education provision, especially of the children of the poor majority of the families of labourers and their wives. So many speedy readers of Wealth Of Nations, searching for ammunition against the division of labour and commercial society, link the above paragraph directly to the division of labour and assert that Smith had reservations about the phenomenon of the division of labour that had raised living standards and technology well above those experienced by the remaining peoples in the Americas, Africa, and parts of Asia, who were limited to living of the fruits of the forest and small animals that lived there. But read this paragraph from the summary of the need for a nationwide programme on education:
“The same thing may be said of the gross ignorance and stupidity which, in a civilized society, seem so frequently to benumb the understandings of all the inferior ranks of people. A man without the proper use of the intellectual faculties of a man, is, if possible, more contemptible than even a coward, and seems to be mutilated and deformed in a still more essential part of the character of human nature. Though the state was to derive no advantage from the instruction of the inferior ranks of people, it would still deserve its attention that they should not be altogether uninstructed. The state, however, derives no inconsiderable advantage from their instruction. The more they are instructed the less liable they are to the delusions of enthusiasm and superstition, which, among ignorant nations, frequently occasion the most dreadful disorders. An instructed and intelligent people, besides, are always more decent and orderly than an ignorant and stupid one. They feel themselves, each individually, more respectable and more likely to obtain the respect of their lawful superiors, and they are therefore more disposed to respect those superiors. They are more disposed to examine, and more capable of seeing through, the interested complaints of faction and sedition, and they are, upon that account, less apt to be misled into any wanton or unnecessary opposition to the measures of government. In free countries, where the safety of government depends very much upon the favourable judgment which the people may form of its conduct, it must surely be of the highest importance that they should not be disposed to judge rashly or capriciously concerning it” (WN V.i.f.61: 788).
In this light, Smith addresses his readers – the educated minority in 18th-century Britain, mainly in the ‘middling’ and ‘superior’ ranks of society – with, in effect, a final reason if they remain unconvinced of the case he has made on its own merits, for which the government would have to udnertake substantial expenditure, with a final reason for agreeing to action now:
‘your safety in turbulent times depends on your having provided for the education of the ‘inferior’ ranks as a barrier to these people being led astray by ‘enthusiasts’ and malcontents.’
However, I casually read the comments below Michael Robbins’ post and found, first, this comment from “Henry”:
“I take it the Adam Smith quote is something of a joke. But why does the discussion of what people read so often have to start off on this note of snobbery & disdain? It turns me off immediately, so that I no longer care what you like to read.”
Plus a correct response from Michael Robbins:
“Well, now, Henry, if you’d read the Smith in question, you’d know he’s not being snobbish at all, but denouncing the conditions that lead to such ignorance. I don’t see how regretting that people read Dan Brown & Glenn Beck is snobbish, either: it simply is a regrettable fact, objectively.”
To which I can only say: it pays to read the whole article and any associated comments, before assuming that their authors have got it wrong!
Michael Robbins hasn’t got it wrong. He was using his selection from Smith’s quotation to provoke a post like that of “Henry”, which worked.
Well done, Michael!.
[I hope my additional selection from Wealth Of Nations added some value to Lost Legacy readers.)