Thursday, March 08, 2012

Adam Smith on Education

D. Lewis posts (27 February) on Prolusion Six HERE

“Would Adam Smith Occupy Wall Street?”

While many point to his passages praising the productive power of the division of labor in Book I, it is easy to forget that in Book V, Smith is worried about the deadening effect that comes from performing the same operations over and over again which not only can make life a bore, but could undermine the moral fabric of society.

Smith believed the government should prevent such mental torpor through universal, public education, even for adults, so that their minds can stay sharp despite their monotonous labor. Smith’s drew a distinction – an important one, for advocates of Smithian economics – between government intervention into the market economy and other government services, and supporting the former does not have to come at the expense of the latter.

There is a common enough misleading interpretation of Smith’s account of the benefits to the social-economic application of the division of labour to manufacturing and to exchange, in Book I, Chapter 1,”Of the Division of Labour’ and some apparently contrary views expressed in Book V, Article II, ‘Of the Expence of the Institutions for the Education of Youth’. Many readers of Wealth Of Nations, even of such seniority as Chomsky, whom I have commented upon on Lost Legacy, just miss the point that Smith makes. I think they are misled by quotation hunting, instead, of interesting themselves in Smith’s methods of inquiry.

The section Book 5 in which he makes the apparently critical comments addresses specific questions: “ought the publick, therefore, to give attention … to the education of the people. Of if it ought to give any, what are the different parts of education which it ought to attend to in the different order of the people? And in what manner ought it to attend to them?” (WN V.i.f.48). Then follows the well-quoted paragraph about the consequences of “performing a few simple operations” (WN V.i.f.50).

This is the paragraph which D. Lewis, and many others, focus upon, and most others completely miss its significance. Given that Smith considered the division of labour as a most important – indeed the crucial – aspect of a future increase in the opulence of the ‘people’, particularly the poorest labourers, plus those unemployed, in the lower orders, and those most in need of waged employment, and given that basic education was usually non-existent for them in 18th-century England, manifestly there was a major problem, that was not addressed by the upper orders. Remember, Smith was not agitating against the upper orders; he was trying to persuade them to partly fund from government, plus contributory charges among families, a major programme of education to be initiated, along the lines of the existing ‘little schools’ operating over much of Scotland since the 17th century, which provided classes from 6 to 8 years, with the brightest, and the better off, staying until 14 years. The best went on to university, funded by local charitable grants and scholarships.

Smith was savvy enough to know that the ‘upper orders’ in England were unlikely to initiate the necessary education reforms without them perceiving a special need for themselves to do so. England had only two universities, Oxford and Cambridge, (compared to Scotland’s four universities, Edinburgh, Glasgow, St Andrews and Aberdeen) and only well-off male children had any formal education provision at all (funded by parental fees and charitable grants); girls were educated at home, but not at all. The children of labourers had no education at all, and were generally illiterate, uncultured, innumerate, and “generally [became] as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become”.

With the spread of commerce and manufacturing in conditions suitable for increasing division of labour, these problems of ignorance and stupidity were likely to spread and deepen: “in every improved and civilized society” the “great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless the government takes some pains to prevent it”.

He concludes his argument with an appeal, not to reverse the facts of the division of labour (a misleading conclusion by the likes of Chomsky), but to be aware of the political consequences and dangers of the leaving the children of the labouring lower orders uneducated:

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).

Smith’s warning is clear: the government (which meant the landed interests who dominated it, and merchants and manufacturers, and church dignitaries, should act, by supporting government spending on educational provision, to prevent existing craven stupidity worsening, or risk the consequences of the ignorant lower orders listening and being moved by “the delusions of enthusiasm and superstition, which, among ignorant nations, frequently occasion the most dreadful disorders”.

It was not the division of labour that was the problem (that division partly constituted the solution); it was the existing and continuing lack of education among the poor in the basic skills of “reading, writing and account” that threatened everything. It took a century before universal education was initiated in Britain.

D. Lewis appears partly to understand Smith’s point. If others also understood it, they would be better informed of what Adam Smith meant.

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