Battlepanda: Use it or lose it, circa 1776


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Use it or lose it, circa 1776

At the risk of sounding like old Betteridge in The Moonstone, who is always on hand with a quote from Robinson Crusoe, I really think that there must be a apropos quote from The Wealth of Nations for every occasion.

It seems that Old Adam has anticipated the work of scientists like Elizabeth Gould in his observations of how the poverty of environment and experience enervates the mind:

In the progress of the division of labour, the employment of
the far greater part of those who live by labour, that is, of the
great body of the people, comes to be confined to a few very
simple operations, frequently to one or two. But the
understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed
by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent
in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are
perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion
to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in
finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never
occur. 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 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.

The Adam Smithian solution? Public education!
[The common people] have little time to spare for education. Their parents can scarce afford to
maintain them even 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 labour 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. But though the common people cannot, in any civilised society, be so well instructed as people of some rank and fortune, the most essential parts of education, however, to read, write, and account, can be acquired at so early a period of life that the greater part even of those who are to be bred to the lowest occupations have time to acquire them before they can be employed in those occupations. For a very small expense the public can facilitate, can encourage, and can even impose upon almost the whole body of the people the necessity of acquiring those most essential parts of education.

File under "Why Adam Smith is right and the Adam Smithians are wrong".