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David Kirkpatrick

History of School Choice

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

Last week's essay was based on Book V, Chapter 2d, pp 716-740, "Of the Expense of the Institutions for the Education of Youth, in Adam Smith's, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of The Wealth of Nations,," NY: The Modern Library, 1937 (1776), the original source for the contemporary educational debate over direct funding of students rather than direct funding of the institutions they attend, especially when such attendance is mandatory.

That commentary is the first of several which will look at this issue in historic sequence from 1776 to the present. Because Smith's views are so provocative, go well beyond student funding and choice to address the possible results of funding options, and, at 25 pages too long for this format, what follows are Smith's own words.

As one example of his prescience, note the last paragraph below and his warning , 235 years ago of possible consequences should teachers be subject to the authority of "extraneous persons" (school boards? - dwk.) who, with the best intentions could neither observe enough, or be knowledgeable enough to be up to the task. The result: a teacher "subject to such jurisdiction is necessarily degraded by it." In brief, however unintentional it may be, disrespect for teachers is built into the present system and will last as long as the system.

"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.,"

"The endowments of schools and colleges have necessarily diminished more o r 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."

"In other universities the teacher is prohibited from receiving any honorary or fee from his pupils, and his salary constitutes the whole of 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, wether he does, or does not perform some very laborious duty, it is certainly in his interest...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 s manner as that authority will permit."

"If the authority to which he is subject resides, not so much in the body corporate of which he is a member, as in some other extraneous persons...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 to 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. In its nature it is arbitrary and discretionary, and the persons who exercise it, neither attending upon the lectures of the teachers themselves, nor perhaps understanding the sciences which it is his business to teach, are seldom capable of exercising it with judgment. From the insolence of office too they are frequently indifferent how they exercise it, and are very apt to censure or deprive him of his office wantonly, and without just cause. 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.

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