Once More on Adam Smith and the Education of the Young
Jeff Wattrick writes for DEADLINE DETROIT April 24Th, 2013, HERE
“Why Adam Smith Is Right And Mike Flanagan Is Wrong About Public Education”
… Michigan Superintendent Mike Flanagan simply does not care for education as its own end. …
… In contrast, a strictly vocational education tracks students into paths of labor based on their family's financial and/or social status. Such a system could deprive society of innovators and surgeons and entrepreneurs who were pre-ordained to dig ditches by an educational bureaucrat.
A public education system that eschews education for education's sake no longer serves the public interest. Instead, it becomes a Chamber of Commerce subsidy that is ripe for corruption. …
… What Flanagan said that bothered me so much was this. “Most of us in education have grown up with an ethic that was something like this: Education for Education’s Sake. That’s just silly.”
Well, excuse me, Dr. Flanagan, but no, it’s not silly. There’s nothing wrong with education for education’s sake—if that means teaching people how to think, and how to learn.” …
“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."
Jeff Wattrick, I am pleased to report, writes good sense on Adam Smith’s views on education and I agree with much of what Jeff writes. I also have some comments which I hope would be treated as helpful both to him and his readers.
Jeff has obviously read Smith’s account “on the education of youth” in Book V of Wealth Of Nations and noted the important aspect of it that is often missed (specifically by some of Chomsky’s readers who have written to Lost Legacy), namely its educational purpose: “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”,
Jeff’s elaboration of this theme is absolutely critical to correct as is his understanding Adam Smith’s broader purpose in this chapter:
“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.” And from this Smith was not proposing education for education’s sake.” (See the rest of Jeff’s article by following the link above).
The education of youth in Scotland from the late 16th century was quite different from England and Smith in the 18th century considered that the Scottish model would be good for England to adopt. He advocated the setting up of “Little schools” in every parish in England, as existed in Scotland. He suggested that the curricular consist of classes in “writing, reading and account” for a reward so moderate, that even the common labourer may afford it” (WN V.i.f.55: 785).
In Scotland “parish schools” had “taught almost the whole common people to read”, many of them “write and “account”. In contrast, in England, charity schools had not had the same effect “universally”. Instead of a “little Latin” which was “scarce of ever be of any use to them” they should be taught the “elementary parts of geometry and mechanics”. This would be useful, suggested Smith, because “There is scarce a common trade which does not afford some opportunities of applying to it the principles of geometry and mechanicks, and which would not therefore gradually exercise and improve the common people in those principles, the necessary introduction to the most sublime as well as to the most useful sciences.”
Smith was under no illusions about the problems of enrolling the (male) children of the “common people” because their parents needed them to be put to work for a pittance for them to contribute to the cost of their maintenance”. Usually that meant they would be working long hours in “simple and uniform” work. That is why even at very young ages for “a very small expence the publick 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”.
It is here that Smith’s most important message follows which is aimed at making the case among the “the attention of the publick more than that of people of some rank and fortune”, namely those who would benefit and those who could be expected to pay the small costs involved – the latter group held the levers of power in government – to make the “little school” proposal a general solution to the limited provision of education among (male) children in England, most of them destined for life as “common labourers”. He achieved this in his last paragraph of this section of WN:
“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” (WNV.i.f.61:788).
I consider that this is the most important paragraph in Smith’s account of the education of the male youths (at the time girls were not educated right across all social classes, unless by private tutors). Some (including Chomsky) mistakenly jump on it as showing Smith’s disillusion with the division of labour and he sought to have the Government take some pains to prevent its disagreeable effects on the minds of labourers of those "whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects too 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.f.50: 782).
Running the two paragraphs I have quoted together highlights Smith’s real intentions. It boils down to what is the problem, what is its cause and what is the remedy unless the “government take some pains to prevent it"?
I suggest from reading the whole chapter that Smith identifies a problem and suggests a remedy. The problem is the lack of education at any level for the vast bulk of the “labouring poor” whose children are put to work out of serious poverty across society (note: this is long before the spread and dominance of the effects of the “Industrial Revoluntion”, which made the problem worse). The division of labour highlighted the problem starkly – mindless work “performing a few simple operations” damaged further the ignorance of those affected by it. The remedy was NOT “preventing” further divisions of labour (a hopeless quest anyway). It was in taking the trouble and the “small expense” of elementary “little school in every parish” in England as had existed in Scotland for a couple of centuries.
Only politically mischievous minds can fail to see what Adam Smith was writing and credulous readers who do not check the references in Wealth Of Nations can possibly mislead by Smith’s intentions as to his meaning.
I congratulate Jeff Wattrick for understanding Adam Smith's meaning and intentions.