ADAM SMITH's REALISTIC ASSESSMENT OF BALLIOL COLEGE, OXFORD
Timothy Taylor posts (29 August) on his Blog, Conversible Economist HERE
Adam Smith on Teaching and Incentives
“Let's start with some characteristically realistic (or even cynical?) comments from Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations, from his discussion "Of the Expense of Institutions for the Education of Youth" (Book V, Ch. 1, Part III, Art. II).
Smith argues that when teachers don't have incentives to work on their teaching, then teachers will either "neglect it altogether, or ... perform it in as careless and slovenly a manner as that authority will permit." Moveover, if all the teachers come together in a college or university, they will support each other in their disdain for teaching: "In the university of Oxford, the greater part of the public professors have, for these many years, given up altogether even the pretence of teaching." Smith further argues that all the discipline at colleges and universities is aimed at students, not teachers, and includes this comment: "Where the masters, however, really perform their duty, there are no examples, I believe, that the greater part of the students ever neglect theirs. No discipline is ever requisite to force attendance upon lectures which are really worth the attending, as is well known wherever any such lectures are given."
Here are the extended passages from which these snippets are drawn:
"In other universities the teacher is prohibited from receiving any honorary or fee from his pupils, and his salary constitutes the whole of the revenue which he derives from his office. His interest is, in this case, set as directly in opposition to his duty as it is possible to set it. It is the interest of every many to live as much as his ease as he can; and if his emoluments are to be precisely the same, whether he does, or does not perform some very laborious duty, it is certainly his interest, at least as interest is vulgarly understood, either to neglect it altogether, or, if he is subject to some authority which will not suffer him to do this, to perform it in as careless and slovenly a manner as that authority will permit. If he is naturally active and a lover of labour, it is his interest to employ that activity in any way, from which he can derive some advantage, rather than in the performance of his duty, from which he can derive none.
"If the authority to which he is subject resides in the body corporate, the college, or university, of which he himself is a member, and in which the greater part of the other members are, like himself persons who either are, or ought to be teachers; they are likely to make a common cause, to be all very indulgent to one another, and every may to consent that his neighbour may neglect his duty, provided he himself is allowed to neglect his own. In the university of Oxford, the greater part of the public professors have, for these many years, given up altogether even the pretence of teaching. ...
"The discipline of colleges and universities is in general contrived, not for the benefit of the students, but for the interest, or more properly speaking, for the ease of the masters. Its object is, in all cases, to maintain the authority of the master, and whether he neglects or performs his duty, to oblige the students in all cases to behave to him as if he performed it with the greatest diligence and ability. It seems to presume perfect wisdom and virtue in the one order, and the greatest weakness and folly in the other. Where the masters, however, really perform their duty, there are no examples, I believe, that the greater part of the students ever neglect theirs. No discipline is ever requisite to force attendance upon lectures which are really worth the attending, as is well known wherever any such lectures are given.”
Timothy’s excellent above quotes are from Smith’s Wealth of Nations and are an interesting view of a most painful period (1740-6) in Smith’s life as a student at Balliol College, Oxford (WN V.i.f.Article 2:. 4-8, 14-18 pp 758-64). His treatment by the Balliol academic authorities was quite disgusting. After he became a renowned authority, Oxford scrambled to include Smith’s name as a graduate of Oxford, a gesture they slovenly ommtted while he was on campus.
Smith left Balliol in disgust with the lack of even a tolerable quality in the academic offerings by the so-called professors. His standard of comparison in scholastic diligence was Professor Hutcheson’s moral philosopy class at Glasgow University, where he was a student from 1737-40. Admittedly Hutcheson set a high bar in quality, which Balliol’s slovernly professorial corruption was in sharp contrast.
I discuss this issue, among others, in my new book I am writing.