AdamSmithWorks Teaching Resources
Back to School with Professor Smith
For thirteen years, Adam Smith was a professor at Glasgow University, a time he later remembered as "by far the happiest and most honourable" years in his life. A well-paid tutoring job ended this career path and took him to mainland Europe where he began work on what many consider his magnum opus, The Wealth of Nations (1776).
In Book V of The Wealth of Nations, Smith described his disappointing Oxford Education as a place where fellow students were less than studious and professors had “given up on altogether even the pretence of teaching”. He landed his first teaching assignment as a professor of Logic. A year later his title transitioned to Professor of Moral Philosophy. We learn from letters and class notes from students that Professor Smith was an outstanding lecturer who frequently taught without notes and admonished those that needed to write things down! Students traveled from across the channel to attend his popular lectures.
Both his student and teaching experience must have shaped his views on education. While his audience at Glasgow was young men, many preparing for future service to the Church as clergy, Smith believed strongly that education should reach everyone. He was concerned that alongside its myriad advantages, the repetitive jobs spawned by the division of labor harmed workers’ intellectual capacities. He believed education should be accessible for all workers, as well as for women, though he observed that practical household vocational skills were the correct emphasis for female students. Long before public education was widespread, Adam Smith believed that education was key to a prosperous society.
Smith's views on the role of government in education can seem confusing. He writes at length about the merits of families paying for education (as well as the incentive this provides for strong teacher performance).
“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, of which the application is in most countries, assigned to the executive power”. WoN BkV.i.f 2
“Have those publik endowments...directed the course of education towards objects more useful, both to the individual and to the publik, than those to which it would naturally have gone of its own accord?” WoN BkV.i.f 3
Over 200 years later, prominent free market economist Milton Friedman (1912-2006) advocated for free (unfettered) markets in such areas as banking, pharmaceuticals, and education. Influenced by Adam Smith and the classical economists of the 18th and early 19th centuries, Friedman appealed to popular audiences about the harm of government regulation. He proposed a voucher system for parents to have access to public funds to use at their discretion. He believed that competition would enable many families to opt out of “government schools” to choose educational institutions that aligned with family values, including religious schooling. Limiting the role of government in schools was a way to augment the roles for teachers, entrepreneurs and parents in the education of children.
After the past extraordinarily unusual school year, reflecting on the nature, role, and delivery of education seems timely. Whether home delivered, public, private, or self-acquired, what is the role of government in children’s education? How can the ideas of Adam Smith as well as the more modern ideas of Milton Friedman augment discussion about education today? More aptly put by Adam Smith,
“Ought the publik, therefore, to give no attention, it may be asked, to the education of the people? Or if it ought to give any, what are the different parts of education which it ought to attend to in the different orders of the people? And in what manner ought it to attend to them?” WoN V.i.f 48
We educators here at AdamSmithWorks hope you might explore resources shared below that include Friedman’s essay on The Role of Government in Education, excerpts from Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, and more. As always, we would love to hear from you. We wish you a happy end to the school year (if you are on the U.S. calendar) and some well-deserved rest and rejuvenation before Fall.
Until next month, stay curious and stay well,
The AdamSmithWorks Team