Saturday, June 24, 2006

The Great School of Self-Command

Greg Mankiw asks on his Blog: "Self-Control and Academic Success "

Australian reports:

A child's capacity for self-discipline was about twice as important as his or her IQ when it came to predicting academic success.

I can believe that. But I wonder: To what extent is the capacity for self-control something we learn and to what extent is it something in our genes?


Gavin Kennedy said...

Adam Smith wrote about something similar in Theory of Moral Sentiments. He called a child's transfer from home to school the point where the child enters the 'Great School of Self Command'.

No longer sheltered from others by parents and the family, whose loving embrace tends to be indulgent towards the child's self-centredness, the child's school fellows are not so indulgent and the child has to 'get along', as we say now, by 'getting along' with other children, and by modifying self-indulgence with some concerns of the needs of others (the Impartial Spectator).Those that do this well, do better at school.

Smith was brought up by his widowed mother and went to school at 8, and before was taught at home (possibly because of his sickly infancy). His mother totally ‘indulged’ him according the Dugald Stewart, who heard this from his relatives and others in Kirkcaldy (many of his male relatives had served in the military, no doubt colouring their judgement – everybody is an expert at bringing up other people’s children, in my experience). School was a bit of a shock if the above comments on the Greta School of Self-Command represent his experience on his first days at Kirkcaldy Burgh School. Whatever happened in the play ground, Smith certainly established a reputation for studiousness while at school (his mother and cousins worried about him over-indulging in aademic work whenever he got close to books).

His self-command (aka self disciplne) paid off, because he was approved for Glasgow University at age 14 by his school master, John Millar, evidently already knowing a bit more than a bit of Greek and Latin, sufficient to attend university lectures, which in those days in Scotland were given entirely in Latin by the Professors, so Latin competence was an entrance qualification.

Fortunately, his Professor, the ‘never-to-be-forgotten’ Francis Hutcheson, broke tradition and started delivering lectures in Moral Philosophy in English. However, Smith did not need this help and went on to Balliol College, Oxford University on a competitive Snell Exhibition, where he continued his classical studies.

From there on, the rest is history.


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