What follows is the seventh installment in a series explaining the context and deeper meaning of all eight songs on my band’s album all about Adam Smith “Silent Revolution.”  Listen to the entire album with audio commentary/explanation here. This song is inspired by text found in Part 5, Chapter 3 of Wealth of Nations.

One of the biggest misconceptions of Adam Smith is the idea that he believed unregulated free markets were perfect and ideal. While he believed the market system to be the best way to fight poverty and increase the produce of a nation, he knew that market economies were not without their faults. Specifically, Smith observed that the specialization from division of labor, while allowing the flourishing he saw in Northwest Europe at the time, has the inevitable consequence of intellectual atrophy. From this, he justified a public provision of education to promote a well-informed electorate and prevent superstitious ignorant beliefs.

The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects, too are perhaps always the same, or very nearly same, has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention…He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become…the uniformity of his stationary life naturally corrupts the courage of his mind, and makes him regard, with abhorrence, the irregular, uncertain, and adventurous life of a soldier.

The worker whose entire life is devoted to one tiny task in the pin factory will cease to exercise the vast majority of his or her brain. This mind-numbing life is accompanied by a decrease in “marital spirit” – the desire to go to war for one’s country. Smith contrasts all of this with the people in less economically developed societies.

It is otherwise in the barbarous societies…of hunters and shepherds…invention is kept alive, and the mind is not suffered to fall into that drowsy stupidity, which, in a civilized society, seems to benumb the understanding of almost all the inferior ranks of people. In those barbarous societies, as they are called, every man, it has already been observed, is a warrior.

These societies that have yet to reach commercialization and industrialization require every person to be a jack-of-all-trades, stimulating the parts of their brain required for war, cooking, navigation, etc. It is by necessity that these people lead well-rounded lives and are always ready for battle.

In addition to the decrease in martial spirit, Smith noticed the harm this intellectual atrophy would have on society. The population would be prone to superstition and ignorance, with detrimental effects on civil institutions.

The more they are instructed, the less liable they are to the delusions of enthusiasm and superstition, which, among ignorant nations frequently occasion the most dreadful disorders. An instructed and intelligent people, besides, are always more decent and orderly than an ignorant and stupid one.

A base level of education is necessary to mitigate the dumbing effects of division of labor. (though his idea of public education is a little different than how we imagine it today). Marx even picked up on this in his description of the alienation of labor.

The complete lyrics to The Dumb Specialist:

Through division of labor, so improved and refined
With so much variety of goods I can try
And all that specialization at the cost of my mind
A few operations take all my time

And from this mindless employment, I’ll avoid and abhor
The life of a soldier, I won’t go to war

Will I forget how to read? My intellect atrophies
I’m drawn to superstition from the routine of my trade

For the hunters and shepherds, though their state is so rude
Every man is a warrior, industrious too
And all that specialization at the cost of my mind
A few operations take all my time

Mental invigoration, can I be saved? Ten years of education, I’ll be ok

 

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If there is anyone left who thinks the only problem with education in America is lack of money, I feel sorry for you.

Some aspects of education may be underfunded, but that’s because there’s an institutional problem with how public schools allocate money, not taxpayers being stingy.

Alex Tabarrock, also known as “that other guy who blogs at Marginal Revolution”, notes the alarmingly high rate of teacher absences in US public schools:

On a typical school day, 5-6% of teachers are absent, i.e. equivalent to an absence once every 20 days!

Bearing in mind that the typical school year is 180 days, add absences to all the school holidays, teacher workdays, staff development days (btw, ever seen a Walmart shutdown for a staff development day?), and other non-teaching days (e.g. in Fairfax, Mondays are half-days) and the number of days of true teachng greatly diminishes.

Teachers probably do get sick more often than other workers but teacher absence rates are three times higher than for managers and professional employees in the private sector. Moreover, are you surprised to learn that teacher absences are most frequent on Mondays and Fridays or that teacher absences are of a duration just short of that requiring medical certification of illness?

That’s moral hazard for you! As someone who was a student in an American public school until a few years ago, this isn’t at all surprising. I remember how frustrating it was to waste entire blocks of class time with a substitute teacher while watching pointless movies or doing busywork. Teaching is an especially bad profession for high employee absence rates because (1) a large number of people are directly affected, since it’s almost impossible for class time to be productive for students if the teacher is gone; and (2) a wasted school day really is gone forever, since there’s no way to make up instruction time by working a little later the next few days like you can in a lot of other jobs. If teachers are missing about 1 day out of 20, that means that the average teacher accumulates about 9 absences during a typical 180 day school year. The parents of student who is absent that often are likely to get a concerned call from the principal. We should be holding our teachers to a higher standard.