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David Kirkpatrick

Adam Smith on Education

by David W. Kirkpatrick,
Senior Education Fellow, US Freedom Foundation

In 1776 The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith was published. Termed
"The first truly scientific argument for the principles of political
economy," Smith's work also contains original ideas on education, such as the
importance of funding students rather than institutions, only now beginning to
be adopted.

The following are from Book V, Chapter I, Article 2d, Of the Expence
(sic) of the Institutions for the Education of Youth, pp 716-740, Adam
Smith, The Wealth of Nations, NY The Modern Library, 1937

"The institutions for the education of the youth may...furnish a
revenue sufficient for defraying their own expence (sic). The fee or honorary
which the scholar pays to the master naturally constitutes a revenue of this
kind. "Even where the reward of the master does not arise altogether from this
natural revenue, it still is not necessary that it should be derived from
that general revenue of the society..." p. 716

"In every profession, the exertion of the greater part of those who
exercise it, is always in proportion to the necessity they are under of
making that exertion. This necessity is greatest with those to whom the
emoluments of their profession are the only source from which they expect their fortune, or even their ordinary revenue and subsistence." p. 717

"The endowments of schools and colleges have necessarily diminished
more or less the necessity of application in the teachers. Their
subsistence, so far as it arises from their salaries, is evidently derived from a fund altogether independent of their success and reputation in their
particular professions." p. 717

"In other universities the teacher is prohibited from receiving any
honorary or fee from his pupils, and his salary constitutes the whole of the
revenue which he derives from his office. His interest is, in this case,
set as directly in opposition to his duty as it is possible to set it. It
is in the interest of every man to live as much at his ease as he can; and
if his emoluments are to be precisely the same, whether he does or does
not perform some very laborious duty, it is certainly his interest. at least
as interest is vulgarly understood, either to neglect it altogether, or,
if he is subject to some authority which will not suffer him to do this, to
perform it in as careless and slovenly a manner as that authority will
permit." pp 717-8

(In the following paragraphs, Smith in 1776 described public
education in 2010. - DWK)

"If the authority to which he is subject resides in the body
corporate, the college, or university, of which he himself is a member, and in
which the greater part of the other members are, like himself, persons who
either are, or ought to be teachers; they are likely to make a common cause, to be all very indulgent to one another, and every man to consent that his
neighbour (sic) may neglect his duty, provided he himself is allowed to
neglect his own... "If the authority to which he is subject some other extraneous persons... perhaps, in some minister of state; it is not indeed in this case very likely that he will be suffered to neglect his duty altogether.

All that such superiors, however, can force him to do, is to attend upon his
pupils a certain number of hours, that is, to give a certain number of
lectures in the week or in the year. What those lectures shall be, must still
depend upon the diligence of the teacher; and that diligence is likely to
be proportioned to the motives which he has for exerting it. An extraneous
jurisdiction of this kind, besides, is liable to be exercised both
ignorantly and capriciously...The person subject to such jurisdiction is
necessarily degraded by it and, instead of being one of the most respectable, is rendered one of the meanest and most contemptible persons in the society" pp 718-719

"Whatever forces a certain number of students to any college or
university, independent of the merit or reputation of the teachers, tends more
or less to diminish the necessity of that merit or reputation." p 719

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