I teach a couple of courses in our mostly “Great Books” core curriculum. One of our canonical authors—encountered by all sophomores—is Adam Smith. When I teach his works—and, indeed, any of the others in the curriculum—I look for ways to make them speak to my students. Thus I always mine my texts for nuggets about higher education and liberal education, an example of which you can read here.
Earlier this week—before we were so rudely interrupted, once again, by the weather—I called their attention to a passage in the Wealth of Nations where Smith discusses the role of education in remedying the defects that flow from narrowly specialized participation in the division of labor (which, of course, is the principal source of the wealth of nations). The worker in the division of labor
generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him, not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. Of the great and extensive interests of his country, he is altogether incapable of judging; and unless very particular pains have been taken to render him otherwise, he is equally incapable of defending his country in war.
If we take this passage as an indication of the role publicly supported education may be able to play, we see nothing about economic development and international competitiveness, but a lot about our humanity and citizenship.
While our political leaders—Democrats and Republicans alike—say a lot about the former, they say comparatively little about the latter. Perhaps they should go back to school and think about what the purposes of economic prosperity are. No one—least of all, Adam Smith—is arguing that we shouldn’t concern ourselves with prosperity, though Smith does suggest that the principal role politicians should play in that regard is to stay out of the way as people naturally pursue their own economic interests. What does need attention, what “business” won’t take care of on its own, is the cultivation of our humanity, which will enable us to use well the wealth we so avidly pursue and create.
I think John Adams got it pretty nearly right when he said “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”