Smith Is Right And Mike Flanagan Is Wrong About Public Education”
“This is what Adam Smith
believed about education. When he wrote "Wealth of Nations" at the
dawn of the industrial revolution, he didn't think England required a public
education system to train youth in the practical arts of farm labor or industrial
weaving. He advocated the opposite.
The Wealth Of
Nations: In Scotland the establishment of such parish schools has
taught almost the whole common people to read, and a very great proportion of
them to write and account. In England the establishment of charity schools has
had an effect of the same kind, though not so universally, because the
establishment is not so universal.
Smith's educational vision
was practical as well as Liberal. He did not, as an 18th Century Mike Flanagan
may have preferred, advocate for courses like "Geometry for Coal Mines:
The Science of Small Spaces." Perhaps a mill hand would find
practical science useful in his job, or perhaps he'd use that knowledge to
create an innovative device in his spare time.
The Wealth Of
Nations: If in those little schools the books, by which the children
are taught to read, were a little more instructive than they commonly are, and
if...they were instructed in the elementary parts of geometry and mechanics,
the literary education of this rank of people would perhaps be as complete as
it can be.
The goal wasn't
"workforce development." It was to provide enough education so that
every citizen could be intellectually self-sufficient. Learn to read and write,
acquire an understanding of basic mathematics and science, and you can obtain
(as Will Hunting famously observed) an Ivy League education for "a buck
fifty in late charges at the public library."
Yes, American schools have
always offered what might be deemed vocational courses--home ec, shop class,
photography, etc. Most students in an auto shop class are unlikely to become
ASE-certified mechanics. For most, these vocational classes are about learning
general skills that translate to many facets of life--teamwork, problem
solving, a sense of accomplishment that comes from doing a job correctly.
Education for education's
sake serves the individual--but more importantly, it serves the general public.
It's an intellectual foundation that liberates a person of even the most humble
origins to rise above his/her station and allows them, if they so choose, to
reach his/her intellectual potential.”
Adam Smith strongly
supported the “little schools in every Parish” policy that had existed in Scotland since
the 16th century.
England did not have the same or a similar policy. The “little schools” in Scotland were open to all
children of all ranks in Scotland and by the 1700s, Scotland had a
comparatively good record in spreading elementary literacy and numeracy across
the adult population, paid for, partly by parental donations, partly by
charitable contributions, and partly by local state-funding. It also permitted a large pool of
educated youth to be drawn upon for university classes at the four Scottish
universities (Glasgow, Edinburgh, St Andrews and two rival colleges in
Aberdeen), compared to England,
where university classes were in its (only) two universities, Oxford and Cambridge.
Scots, still today, remain proud of its
universities, where all students pay no fees to attend, compared to England.
Scotland was also first in
extending university-level technical education to skilled artisans in the 19th
century. For example, my own
university, Heriot-Watt, began as a School of Arts (by which was meant the
manufacturing “arts” of mechanics, chemistry, mathematics and engineering), its
buildings located until 1966 across the road in the same street as the magnificent
Georgian buildings of Edinburgh University. Many of its lectures in the 19th century were delivered part-time by Edinburgh University academics. In time, this new type of
mechanical arts institutes were to spread across Scotland and, later, into England,
for the skilled and artisan classes, required for industrialisation.
Smith, however, was
concerned about the general ignorance of working people across the United
Kingdom, many of whom were not exposed to education at all. He considered this state of affairs a
threat to social stability, a condition in his view for growth. He
writes on this problem in Book V of Wealth Of Nations and seeks to persuade
educated peoples, normally not in contact with the rapidly changing industrial
developments common in his times.
Some (like Chomsky, for
example), mistakenly, argue that Smith had doubts about the future of division
of labour and they quote some paragraphs from Book V of Wealth Of Nations to undermine Smith’s
famous praises for the division of labour in Book I. I think they are mistaken
from a too hasty reading of his statements out of context.
Smith’s Book V remarks are
in a chapter on the education of youth, which in England was particularly
deficient compared to Scotland.
The outcome of this neglect was a dangerously ignorant adult population
in respect of political stability (a necessary condition for opulence), who
were liable to bouts of “enthusiasm” (an occasional set of excited behaviours incited by
ignorant demagogues – and religious fanatics – that Smith claimed easily misled
illiterate poor people into pointless troubles). As his readers were by definition liable to be targets of
these disorders, he was trying to persuade them to act to counter-act such
potential mobs by paying small amounts to have all children educated in “little schools” in
every parish in England on the Scottish model, all 60,000 of them.
It took another 100 years
for Parliament to pass an Education Act to establish a schooling system paid
for from taxation, similar to the two-hundred years of the “little
schools” in Scotland, only better funded.