So Said Adam Smith

Apr 28, 2011 by

It has been said that a new joke is an old joke that you haven’t heard before. The observation applies equally to ideas, such as that parents should be the primary decision makers regarding the education of their children, generally referred to as school choice. There are those who oppose such programs as new, radical, untried or even an idea which ‘has failed everywhere it has been tried.” Whether advanced as a personal belief or as a deliberate distortion, we are surrounded by evidence to the contrary.

The common experience with higher education is totally one of personal choice. There are nearly 4,000 institutions of higher education in this country. Whether public or private, secular or sectarian, each institution lacks the power to either tax the students or compel attendance to enroll in them. And billions of dollars in student aid are made available each year so students can exercise choice.
Another example is the G.I. Bill in its various variations since World War II. Some 16,000,000 veterans of that war were entitled to take advantage of the program and nearly 8,000,000 did so. The only requirement to qualify was honorable military service during a specified time period. Nor was the program restricted to college attendance. In fact, more veterans used it to complete high school, or to attend a trade school, as I did, later obtaining undergraduate and graduate degrees. The WWII GI Bill even included a monthly stipend.

Not only that, this “new” idea is literally older than United States.

In 1642 the General Court of Massachusetts passed a law calling for the establishment of schools to educate the youngsters of the fledgling colony. Ironically, in light of the long debate of the First Amendment and separation of church and state, settled by the U..S, Supreme Court in 2002 when it upheld Ohio’s voucher program in Cleveland, and, in April 2011, it similarly ruled in favor of a tuition tax credit program in Arizona, the reason for the Massachusetts law was primarily to teach children to be literate so they could read the Bible.

Not only was enforcement of the law largely absent, nothing approaching a school “system” emerged. The view of the Bay State colonials was that the providing for this education, and the paying for it, was the obligation of the parents, not the government. It was more than a century and a quarter later before the connection was made between parents paying for their children’s education and their ability to do so.
This suggestion was first made by Adam Smith, with his 1776 work, The Wealth of Nations, generally regarded as the foundation for a free-market capitalistic economic system, but rarely for the educational insights he also provided.

Smith argued that teachers, like other persons, would be most responsive to those who paid for their services, and if that source should be government, Government oversight would tend to be “arbitrary and discretionary, and the persons who exercise it, neither attending upon the lectures of the teacher themselves, nor perhaps understanding the sciences which it is his business to teach, are seldom capable of exercising it with judgment.”

On the other hand, “If the authority to which (the teacher) is subject resides in the body …of which he himself is a member, and in which the greater part of the other members are, like himself..they are likely to make a common cause, to be all very indulgent to one another, and every man to consent that his neighbor may neglect his duty, provided he himself is allowed to neglect his own.” What is more, “The person subject to such jurisdiction is necessarily degraded by it, and, instead of being one of he most respectable, is rendered one of the meanest and most contemptible persons in the society.” community respect for teachers will suffer since anyone under such governmental control “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.”

Smith foresaw the view of teachers as Ichabod Cranes, and expressions such as “those who can, do; and those who can’t, teach.” He added that “Those parts of education, it is observed, for the teaching of which there are no publick (sic) institutions are generally the best taught,”3 .
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(Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of The Wealth of Nations, Book V, Chapter 2d, pp 716-740, “Of the Expense of the Institutions for the Education of Youth,” NY: The Modern Library, 1937 (1776)
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