Thursday, July 12, 2007

Why Blame the Enlightenment for Modern Criminality?

I have problems with references to Adam Smith and the Scottish Enlightenment and Lee Harris linking them to the recent terrorist incidents in London and Paisely [NOT Glasgow].

I am not trying to be smarty pedantic, but Lee Harris makes a case about a serious criminal action in the 21st century and links it to some alleged disappointments about the Enlightenment in the 18th century. This surely is a highly tenuous string of weak links and stretched speculation?

Here is what Lee Harris writes in his article in City Journal (New York – or should I write Newark?), 11 July:

Mad Scientists’: The disturbing lessons of the Doctors’ Plot’

Such, at least, has been the faith of the intellectual movement called the Enlightenment—a movement that owes much to the city in Scotland that was one of the sites of the failed terror attacks.

“It was at the University of Glasgow that the great Adam Smith taught. Like the other members of the Scottish Enlightenment, Smith believed in the power of education to free men and to improve human prospects. In his masterpiece, The Wealth of Nations, Smith argued that the state should educate the working classes not simply because it was the right thing to do, but also because it was prudent. For Smith’s close friend, the philosopher David Hume, an ignorant multitude was a dangerous multitude, because ignorance bred both superstition and fanaticism. A practical, universal education, grounded in the scientific or experimental point of view, was the best means of assuring the peace and stability essential to a nation’s prosperity and security. Those educated in science could learn to live in harmony with one another.

This Enlightenment model, which has worked quite effectively in Europe and the United States, as well as in other parts of the world, has always relied on an advanced elite that brings learning to the masses through universal secular education. Many have hoped that Muslim nations would adopt the same model, with the same results.

‘Glasgow’ airport is near the town of Paisley (2 miles) and 8 miles from Glasgow. The original ‘Glasgow’ airport was at Abbotsinch and was re-sited to its present location in the 1960s and kept its name, Glasgow Airport (a highly controversial affair at the time).

Its connection to the City of Glasgow by name does not mean that alleged ** terrorists are linked somehow, spiritually or otherwise to the Glasgow of the Enlightenment. The alleged perpetrators worked in Paisley at the hospital there and not in Glasgow.

At the time that Smith lived and worked in Glasgow in the 18th century it was a small town with a population of about 23,000; Paisley was a village, one of many in the surrounding country. Edinburgh was larger at over 50,000.

To the tenuous geographical detail, Lee adds speculation about the hopes of Enlightenment through education. I am not convinced that this is a fruitful line of thinking. Lee writes:

The Wealth of Nations, Smith argued that the state should educate the working classes not simply because it was the right thing to do, but also because it was prudent.’

Which is correct at one level and not at another. Adam Smith argues in Book V of Wealth Of Nations that the division of labour in the new work processes could make labourers ‘as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become’ (WN V.i.f.52: p 782). He did not make these points when extolling the virtues of the division of labour in Book I (chapters i-iii); he raised this issue in his chapter on the need for government to participate in a national education programme to provide a school in every village.

His rhetorical flourishes in this later chapter are directed at the influential readers in and around government who were already anxious about the violent events in the American colonies and were concerned about such unrest spreading to the motherland, especially among the ‘ignorant’ lower orders (whom privately were seen as of similar status to those the ‘colonials’ had rallied to rebellion against the King; people always see the worst in their enemies).

Knowing these people well, Smith directed his case along lines that would find sympathy among them. In modern terms, we would call it ‘spin’. Scotland already had ‘village schools’ in every parish, unlike England (it also had four universities to England’s two). But if legislators were not convinced by good arguments for education, then a tad amount of argument by ‘fear’ might be called for.

I think the less said about education being a harmonizing force the better. Leaders, legislators and political agitators (‘men of system’, Smith called them) in government from Smith’s time to this, most of them educated too, have a lot to answer for in their conduct, much of it falling well short of the standards expected by the Enlightenment. I can think immediately of the French-educated leaders of the Kymer Rouge in Cambodia, Dr Goebbels in Nazi Germany, on the left and right extremes; scores more in the democratic politics of the US, Britain, France, and South Africa, whose capacity for false doctrines, often contrary to good sense, is a norm not an exception.

That some medical students from the Middle-East, some of whom appear not to be well qualified, may have been associated with criminal events in for them a foreign country, has absolutely nothing to do with the Scottish Enlightenment, David Hume (whom we know visited Glasgow and its hinterlands in 1752), or Adam Smith, who taught there between 1751-64) and was a regular visitor afterwards.

It is also a bit impertinent to think that ‘Muslim Nations’ are lacking a secular education to make them – what? – ‘normal’. When more than half of educated US citizens believe in ‘creationism’ and versions of the earth being only 6,000 years old, reject evolution in terms of utter repulsion, and want to impose their creeds on schools (!) and government, I am not sure that Lee Harris has much of a case to argue for or much firm ground to preach to the ‘Muslim Nations’ about education as an antidote for ignorance.

** British law is rightly fussy about making judgments about criminal trials and people in them before the process has begun and been settled by verdicts. I live in Scotland and I am held to account for such action.


Blogger Ryan Lanham said...

Professor Kennedy:

Thought you might like to see this post...

3:38 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Thank you Ryan

I am pleased to ne quoted exactly and to find Smith's words intact. The mis-reading of Smith in Book V on charteed trading companies is remarkable as it should be clear to anyone what he was talking about.

Thank again


12:45 pm  

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