Adam Smith On the Education of the Poorer Classes
“Why Adam Smith Is Right And Mike Flanagan Is Wrong About Public Education”
“Smith's Practical Vision”
“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.