Sunday, October 09, 2005

Adam Smith College Latest

Latest news on the tepid fracas at Adam Smith College in Kirkcaldy (birth place of Adam Smith), where thirty students out of 20,000 in the third largest UK college voted to change the name of the students’ association to the “Jennie Lee Students’ Association”, is quite good.

My letter on the subject was published in Monday’s Scotsman, among other things challenging the student leader to list the views of Adam Smith which, allegedly, were contrary to students’ ‘values’. So far there is total ‘silence’ from Mr Muirhead.

In today’s Scotland on Sunday three other students have their letters published. A paragraph from each letter makes happy reading about the level of understanding of Adam Smith’s excellent values:

“If Murdo MacLeod [the SOS writer of the story] had spoken to any other students he would have realised that many were not even aware of the changing of the name of the association and would have objected if given the chance” (Stephanie Manthrop).

Methinks, Mr Muirhead and his co-thinkers will face a stormy time in future for taking such important decisions without consulting the student body. As a former Senior Union Vice-President of Students Association at the University of Strathclyde, I would advise Mr Muirhead, if he intends to continue to lead students, he should never get too far ahead of their opinions so as to open himself to the accusation of taking their support for granted.

“The minority who voted against Adam Smith seem oblivious to the philanthropic nature of the economist, known for funding schools for the impoverished children in the town of his birth, and instead focus intently on the Thatcherite propaganda that tarnished Smith’s reputation. They are ridiculously uninformed” (Kate Melville).

Adam Smith was so concerned about the lack of education of poor children that he advocated a national schools’ system – a school in every village – funded mainly by the State, as was operating, imperfectly, in Scotland.

“A group of 30 students from the student’s union voted to change the name of the union from Adam Smith to Jennie Lee – their reasons being that they felt Adam Smith was a capitalist and too rightwing to represent the union.

If they had studied their history they would have realised that Adam Smith, in fact, strove hard to make life better for everyone from all walks of life” (Christine Wright).

If these views are representative of the students of Adam Smith College, then my earlier hopes that the opening of the newly merged college under his name presages an increase in awareness in Fife of Adam Smith’s true legacy.

Katie Grant, writing in the Sunday Times (Scotland) on the subject says:

“We live in dumb and dumber times. It is almost wilfully forgotten these days that one of Smith’s most important contributions to society was his ability to articulate the notion that “sympathy” — a full consciousness of others — underpins morality and that a society without morality is not really a society at all.

Smith did not think of this sympathy as some kind of wishy-washy “I feel your pain” soundbite. In his eyes, sympathy was only valuable when generated in the heart of an “impartial and well-informed spectator”. That such spectators were, inevitably, ideal rather than real gave rise both to his warnings about the cost to society of human selfishness and to his theories as to how it could be harnessed to the public good.

I wonder what the revolting students find objectionable about that. Perhaps Smith’s suggestion that people should be well informed annoyed them? Whatever it is, too many people also don’t bother to discover that the full title of Smith’s most famous book is An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. It was written as an enlightened investigation, not in praise of wealth as the students seem to assume.”

That a journalist is so well informed about Smith’s moral philosophy is extremely encouraging when so many professional economists remain uninformed of his political economy, let alone completely uninformed of his “Moral Sentiments”.

To the extent that student readers of the Sunday Times follow up on the “impartial spectator”, then our thanks go to the ignorant gesture politics of the thirty student activists (maybe even some of them will investigate the real views of the real Adam Smith?) for unintentionally provoking this reaction.


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