Thursday, February 08, 2007

Adam Smith was Not, and Never Claimed to be, the Discoverer of the Division of Labour

A interesting and thoughtful piece about the education of children includes the following paragraphs, which may have merit in what is proposed, but there is not enough detail to make that judgement.

I think the greatest development of the last few centuries was the concept of division of labour. For every productive part of human society, one needs to specialize as much as possible and have people focus on specifics aspects of the operation.

This may sound a bit philosophical, but something as simple as creating a pin is still a very complicated task. And creating a plane is a much more complicated task. I think educating a child is an equally challenging task. But in the case of the pins and the airplane, management has ruthlessly applied the concept of division of labour. This has not been true in education. But the same principle of division of labour applies. Adam Smith on the pin factory: [the famous quote from Wealth of Nations follows

I would need details of what exactly is proposed in ‘ruthlessly’ applying ‘the concept of the division of labour’ to the education of a child before judging the merits of what is being suggested by the author, Nitin Julka, an MBA student at Columbia, ‘who is very interested in education policy, politics, and current events’.

However, I feel obliged to observe, in the interests of consistency, that while Adam Smith placed an enormous emphasis rightly on the role of the division of labour, and not just in pin factories and the making of a labourer’s woollen coat, but also in the history of the social-evolution of society from ‘rude’ society in pre-history, he was by no means the first to draw attention to the concepts. Plato, Petty, Mandeville, Harris, the authors of Diderot's Encyclopeadia, and Turgot, also wrote about the division of labour too.

At Lost Legacy, Smith’s genius and creativity as a thinker is often remarked upon, but as he made clear himself, the division of labour in the trade of the pin-maker ‘has been very often taken notice of’, and we do not enhance Smith’s reputation by ascribing to him ‘priority’ when it is undeserved because it belongs to others before him and to one contemporary.


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