Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Smith on Education Funding Misunderstood

Ralph Martire (4 February) writes a contentious piece in the Chicago-Sun Times on private v public schools and the comparable education they provide for their students. I have no comment to make on the US education system as I know little about it, but I do know something about Adam Smith, so when Ralph Martire brings Smith into his article to support public over private provision which is clearly misleading , I am drawn into replying on Smith's behalf about being called as an expert witness in a debate taking place in 2006, of which Smith can hardly be called ‘expert’.

Martire writes:

“Ironically, this [public schools better than private schools] was predicted by Adam Smith, the father of capitalism. In his seminal work, The Wealth of Nations, Smith called for the public sector to assume responsibility for educating the general public. In Smith's words, ''The education of common people requires, in a civilized and commercial society, the attention of the state.'' Smith supported public education for ''common'' folks because they couldn't afford private schools. He contrasted that with the position of individuals of ''rank and fortune,'' because their parents are ''willing enough to lay out the expense necessary'' to educate them.

The data show that Smith was right. When it comes to educating the public, nothing works better than public schools.”

Sounds convincing. However, Ralph Martire is disingenuous. By changing a single word, he changes Smith’s meaning and builds his case for his last sentence on a shallow prospectus.

Compare Martire’s version of ‘Smith’s words: “'The education of common people requires, in a civilized and commercial society, the attention of the state.'' Note the last word ‘state’ and note particularly the last part of that sentence which Martire leaves out, though it is relevant.

This is what Smith actually wrote:

The education of the common people requires, perhaps, in a civilized and commercial society, the attention of the publick, more than that of people of some rank and fortune” (WN V.i.f. 15, page 784).

Where did, and why did, Martire substitute Smith’s word ‘publick’ (18th century spelling of the word ‘public’) with the word ‘state’. If Smith had intended to use the word state he would have used it – he was always most careful with his wording, reportedly writing and rewriting six or more times until he was satisfied.

The situation in the last quarter of the 18th century in Britain was not one where there was a choice between state or private education for the mass of the common people. There was practically no education at all for the common people (except to a limited extent in Scotland’s little schools in every village, largely established by the Church since the 16th century). Proper education, from 6 or 8 to 18-19 was only available for the sons of the rich(incidentally, no daughters were educated even in rich families to anything like the extent to which rich boys were educated) .

For the sons of middle class parents there were local grammar schools funded by endowments, local donations and fees paid by parents. Smith’s mother sent him to Kirkcaldy Grammar school from 9 to 13 (1732-37) and then to Glasgow College or University (1737-40). This was paid for by his guardian tutors as directed in his late father’s will and family funds.

Children were sent to work at 6 years was the norm for the common labourers (they got the wages of a pittance, but such was family poverty it did make a difference; and for many there was no schooling at all (particularly in England). This was the situation Smith addressed in this part of ‘Wealth of Nations’.

He did not advocate that teachers should be rewarded by the public revenue, for if they were they would become slovenly teachers, not caring if they taught properly or gave up the pretence altogether. (Read Smith: Of the Expence of the Institutions for the Education of Youth, WN V.f. pages 758-88) He suggested for ‘every parish or district a little school, where children may be taught for a reward so moderate, that even a common labourer may afford it; the master being paid partly, but not wholly paid by the publick; because if he was wholly, or principally paid by it, he would soon learn to neglect his business” (WN i.f.55: page 785).

It took nearly a century, 1860, before Britain adopted universal education. And the past 146 years of publicly funded education for all children from 5 – 15 (later 16) has produced vast amount of data on the efficacious mix to get the best results. In short, publicly funded schools under the management of the state have not produced an enviable record.

Nobody should pretend that state-funded provision has removed the need for a wider debate on whether public education has achieved those goals Smith and others considered to be attainable even in the moderate circumstances of the 18th and 19th centuries.


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