HISTORICAL CONTEXT MUST BE GRASPED BEFORE TRANSLATING SMITH INTO MODERN POLICES
David Hardman, posts 17 December HERE
“In The Wealth of Nations, the Tories’ favourite philosopher, Adam Smith, espoused a view of education that is distinctly at odds with modern Tory policy. For Smith, the education of ordinary people was more important than that of “people of some rank and fortune”. Education was a protection against the dulling effect of division of labour, and against the “delusions of enthusiasm and superstition” that led to disorder in more “ignorant” nations. In short, it made people better citizens.
It is with some concern, therefore, that I note the results of the Higher Education Academy’s UK Engagement Survey, in which “being an informed and active citizen” is listed as one of the weakest outcomes of higher education (“UK Engagement Survey: universities have limited impact on students’ ‘soft’ skill development”, News, 10 December). Noam Chomsky has written of how charging students for their education dulls their willingness to question the system that has co-opted them. Smith himself wrote that, because of education’s public benefits, the expense “may, therefore, without injustice, be defrayed by the general contribution of the whole society”.
Perhaps it is time to pay heed to the educational philosophy of the real Adam Smith, not the fictional one whom the Tories would have us believe in.
David Hardman, Secretary, University and College Union, London Region”
Most people, let alone Tories, haven’t a clue about Adam Smith’s education policy, as well as most of what else he wrote.
Moreover, when Smith was alive he was actively working in an education system widely different from modern societies.
Scotland had a more modern education system than existed in its larger neighbour, England. Since the 17th century, Scotland had local schools in almost every parish, to which all male children from 6 years old attended a local school, if only for a couple of years. Poverty was rife and local circumstances dictated how well the schools were managed and supplied with teachers. All male children were expected to be paid for by their parents (girls were left out of the arrangements) supplemented in some cases by local charties or charitable persons. In many areas some children attended until they went on to university. Smith was one such. He left Kirkcaldy Grammar School, aged 14, and enrolled at Glasgow University. Most children of poorer labouring families received a minimal education in reading, writing and arithmetic.
Smith recommended extending the Scottish system across England, though girls then were hardly provided for, in all but the middle and upper class familes, through to much later in the 19th century. His ambition was for there to be a school in every parish but this did not happen until the UK parliament legislated in the later 1860s. Meanwhile in Scotland talented boys could go into University at a young age, funded by charitable donations, one result of which was Scottish educated male children proved suitable for enlistment into the newer skilled jobs in engineering and science-based industries.
Clearly this suited the growing industialisation of the growing economy.
Smith also recommended that education was beneficial as an anti-dote to the mindless occasional riots and destructive disturbances caused by uneducated mobs bent on destructive outbursts. In WN he was writing for the attention of educated readers to see the need to support education of labouring-class boys to act as a barrier to the reception of ideas deterimental to long-term economic growth.
His readers’ self-interests should support some public provision for “little schools” on every parish, if only because raising the money from all the poorest parents would be insufficient to set up a comprehensive system (and because he judged without some even limited constribution, even if measured only in pennies, the middle-class and the upper-class would never support the scheme on such a vast scale. Noam Chomsky’s expressed views ignore the social realities of 18th century UK and his reference to “charging students for their education dulls their willingness to question the system that has co-opted them” is more relevant, perhaps, to modern times with its higher per capita incomes. Chomsky would benefit for a bit of history of the realities of pre-industrialised 18th century UK, which Smith addressed before the educational provision for all children, rich and poor.To assess the merits or otherwise of Smith’s limited aims, by modern standards, it is necessary to read some history of Smith’s times and tempers to understand what he was “banging on about”. Hence, Smith returned to education later on in his Wealth of Nations using argument that would persuade the rich to pay for most of it. His reference to the detrimental affects of labouring gave the rich an incentive to pay for his ambitious plans. Notably with the rich paying for educating the poorest children, the dulling affects of manufacturing labour did not cease for the poor. That consequence continued (and continues) but the rich paid for it. Notably, out of the factory system (and mining), the educated workmen and women formed the core of what became the organised labour movement throughout the 19th century and beyond.