Sunday, January 26, 2020

Smith (1723-90) – searing attack on Higher Education...

Adam Smith spent most of his life teaching, as a Professor and private tutor. Very much a product of the Calvinist push for universal schooling, Scotland had one of the highest literacy rates in the world. He was friends with fellow Scots David Hume, James Watt, James Hutton and James Black, a group of extraordinary minds who were all foundational in their fields and all the products of a renowned Scottish education system. But it was Smith that wrote most about education, with a searing attack on Higher Education. Literally reframing economics as the business of trade, rather than profit and bullion, he saw education as oiling the wheels of commerce.

Smith’s economic theories and his view in education are grounded in his philosophy. Indeed he saw himself not as an economist but philosopher. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, where his theory of human nature claims that we are fundamentally driven by self-interest but also have sympathy, from which comes justice, even benevolence. We use our imagination to better ourselves by imagining ourselves in better circumstances and can learn to apply moral sentiments. Reason and self-control can all be learnt as can beneficial social values. Parents have an essential role here as have friends and formal education.

His Wealth of Nations was written the same year as the US Declaration of Independence and his influence greater. The world has largely adopted variants of free-trade capitalism, where “it is not through the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our own dinner but from their regard for their own interest.” In this book he devoted a section to education preferring a combination of a modest private contribution and public support.

Basic education

In favour of learners paying teachers directly, he also realised that this was impractical for the poor, for whom a basic education should be supported at public expense, albeit retaining an element of direct payment for the masters. Note that he did not mean payment from tax revenue but from other sources such as land rental and philanthropy. 

Higher Education

He was in favour of teachers having to rely on their skills and reputation, with students paying for access and was highly critical of the University of Oxford and European Universities, of which he had some experience, as their large salaries encouraged them to disparage and even abandon teaching. “In the university of Oxford, the greater part of the publick professors have, for these many years, given up altogether even the pretence of teaching.” Student fees, by comparison,  were paid directly to professors in Scotland. In a rather prophetic passage he states that “the richest and best endowed universities have been the slowest in adopting those improvements, and the most averse to permit any considerable change in the established plan of education.”


He was detailed in his criticism of ‘sham-lectures’ where the Professor simply extemporized on an ancient text. “It is the interest of every man to live as much at his ease as he can” says Smith, which is why teachers and Professors need to be renumerated directly by their learners or they will teach what they want rather than what the learners need.


Smith’s influence on economics and politics has been immense, as has his influence on education and training.  He is not a free-market ideologue in education. He favours a system that mixed personal contributions with public support. Many would agree that tenured academics have abandoned much teaching to adjuncts and abandon teaching whenever the opportunity arises. Many also agree that students who benefit from the University education should pay for that privilege. In the current debate around Higher Education, many countries have opted for variants of Smith’s recommendations.


Smith, A., 2010. The theory of moral sentiments. Penguin.
Adam, S., 2016. The wealth of nations. Aegitas.

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