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The Economics of Adam Smith

The Economics of Adam Smith - I Introduction Adam Smith in...

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I. Introduction Adam Smith in his famous An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations asks, “Ought the public… give not attention… to the education of the people? Or if it ought to give any, what are the different parts of the education which it ought to attend to in the different orders of the people? And in what manner ought it to attend to them?” 1 Smith himself answers these questions, not succinctly, but throughout Book V Section I of Wealth of Nations. However, prior to investigating Smith’s views on education, it is beneficial to understand the state of education in 18 th century England, the period in which Smith lived. Eighteenth century England had no state run public education system 2 . Education as a whole was funded either by the church, or by philanthropists concerned with bettering the society as a whole. The overall quality of education in England was lacking during this period. Richardson refers to the eighteenth century as a degenerate period in English education “when the education in England generally reached its lowest level of decline.” 3 The nation’s top Universities, Oxford and Cambridge, were not exempt from this decline either, as poor administrative oversight policies had led to the point where Smith notes that some instructors had given up lecturing all together. Public institutions had ambiguous incentive structures at best, the number of free-lance instructors was on the rise, and amongst this disjointed system there were no universal standards which a student had to meet in order to graduate. The one positive note is that the philanthropy of the Tudor and Stuart periods was increasing access to grammar school, college and university education for lower classes, but the endowments were not structured well. These inefficiencies, along with others, were observed by Smith, and he addresses most of them in Wealth of Nations . 1
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II. On the Need for Basic Education As for childhood education, Smith asserts that it is necessary and should be provided for by the state, at least in part, and offered to all classes. He specifically addresses the poor, and the explicit and opportunity costs faced by common families in educating their children, “[Common people] have little time to spare for education. Their parents can scarce afford to maintain them in infancy. As soon as they are able to work they must apply to some trade by which they can earn their subsistence. That trade, too, is generally so simple and uniform as to give little exercise to the understanding while, at the same time, their labor is both so constant and so severe, that it leaves them little leisure and less inclination to apply to, or even to think of anything else. 1
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