Nothing Useless, Absurd, or Fantastical: Adam Smith on Women's Education

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Sarah Skwire for AdamSmithWorks
When great thinkers gets things right as often as Adam Smith does, it is often particularly interesting and instructive to think hard about the things they get wrong. Doing this isn’t about downgrading that thinker’s status, catching him in errors that will allow us to “cancel” or “deplatform” him, or proving that we are smarter. Rather, thinking hard about why someone makes the errors that they do can often help reveal to us something about the way that they think, what their priorities are, and what they may have overlooked in their pursuit of their priorities. In other words, a great thinker’s errors can be just as important as their most accurate observations.

One of these moments of error occurs in Book Five of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, when Smith comments on women’s education. He writes:
There are no public institutions for the education of women, and there is accordingly nothing useless, absurd, or fantastical in the common course of their education. They are taught what their parents or guardians judge it necessary of useful for them to learn; and they are taught nothing else. ...In every part of her life a woman feels some conveniency of advantage from every part of her education.
For Smith, women’s education in the 18th century is the model of what education should be: private, personalized, and practical.

The first several times I read this passage, I was flabbergasted. A mere 16 years after Smith published WN, Mary Wollstonecraft would publish her vicious indictment of women’s education, A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Speaking from her own experience of the state of women’s education, and from thorough research into the books written about women’s education, Wollstonecraft writes in her introduction of a “false system of education” designed by men who:
...have been more anxious to make [women] alluring mistresses than affectionate wives and rational mothers; and the understanding of the sex has been so bubbled by this specious homage, that the civilized women of the present century, with a few exceptions, are only anxious to inspire love, when they ought to cherish a nobler ambition, and by their abilities and virtues exact respect. 
As a result, she continues, “the instruction which women have hitherto received has only tended, with the constitution of civil society to render them insignificant objects of desire--mere propagators of fools!”  

Given that Wollstonecraft was educated in the way and at the time about which Smith was writing, her voice must be taken seriously as a critique, from the inside, of the kind of education that Smith praises. However, Smith never had the opportunity to read her work. That does not mean, though, that no serious critiques of women’s education were available to Smith.
Mary Astell’s A Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of Their True and Greatest Interest was published in 1697 and, like Wollstonecraft’s Vindication  focuses on the way that the limited education offered to women of the time made them frivolous, immoral, and ignorant--precisely the failings for which they were most often criticized. As Astell noted, the state of women’s education was such that “Women are from their very infancy debarred those Advantages with the want of which they are afterwards reproached.” With so little education--moral or otherwise--it was not a surprise, but rather a predictable result, that women should be so easily tempted to sins like vanity, pride, and lust. 
Seeing it is ignorance, either habitual or actual, which is the cause of all Sin, how are they like to escape this, who are bred up in that?  That therefore women are unprofitable to most, and a plague and dishonour to some Men is not much to be regretted on account of the Men, because 'tis the product of their own folly, in denying them the benefits of an ingenuous and liberal Education.
Eliza Haywood’s The Female Spectator, published in 1744-46 as a woman-focused analogue to Addison and Steele’s Spectator (which Smith did know and read), also spent time arguing against the current state of women’s education. Haywood tells her readers that, “if we took but half the Care of embellishing our intellectual Part as we do of setting off our Persons, both would appear to much more Advantage.”

 With critiques like Astell’s and Haywood’s available to be read, and experiences like Wollstonecraft’s surely surrounding him in Glasgow, why does Smith give so much praise to a form of education that was clearly not satisfying its recipients? 

While Smith clearly thought that women were most appropriately educated in order to be good wives and mothers, I don’t think that he was a misogynist, or thought that women had limited capacities and weren’t capable of intelligence. I think, instead, that his world--as a bachelor academic--was one that was primarily involved with the minds and the education of men. He simply didn’t think all that much about women. He had little interaction with them in the general run of his life. This lack of attention is, to be sure, a failing for a philosopher. But no one--not even Adam Smith--can know everything. And one of the things Smith seems not to have known was the lives and experiences of women.

This lack of knowledge peeks through in various places in Smith’s works. At one point in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, for example, Smith considers the question of male and female generosity. He notes that: “Humanity is the virtue of a woman, generosity of a man. The fair sex, who have commonly much more tenderness than ours, have seldom so much generosity. That women rarely make considerable donations is an observation of the civil law.” While marital property laws in Scotland at the time were somewhat more contested than those in England, it seems markedly blinkered of Smith to make such a comment at a time when most women were not allowed to own property. Perhaps their history of not making “considerable donations” had more to do with having nothing to give away than it does with a lack of generosity?

But it is in his praise of women’s education that Smith’s lack of knowledge about women’s lives is most apparent and leads him to his most interesting error. Immediately before his praise of women’s education, Smith has been engaging in an attack on the current state of public education. He argues that public school teachers are paid regardless of their “success and reputations in their particular professions.” This sinecure corrupts their work ethic and discourages excellence. Their virtual monopoly on the provision of education also means that private teachers are pushed out of the market. And the status conveyed by degrees from public institutions further degrades private tutoring. The current state of public education is such, argues Smith, that men can go through “the most complete course of education, which the circumstances of the times were supposed to afford” and yet they still “‘come into the world completely ignorant of everything which is the common subject of conversation among gentlemen and men of the world.”

It is immediately after this attack on public education that Smith makes his remarks on women’s education. He begins it, we have to remember, by noting that “There are no public institutions for the education of women.”  Smith, in other words, isn’t discussing women’s education in order to discuss women’s education. He is discussing it as a contrast to male education, and specifically as a private system contrasted to a public one. Because he is persuaded that public education is hopelessly corrupt and that private education must be better, he is led to make foolish assumptions and generalizations about the excellence and utility of women’s education, merely because it is private. Had he read Astell, or Eliza Haywood’s The Female Spectator or spoken with other bright and capable women who were active in 18th century intellectual circles, he might have found his vision of public and private education made richer, more complicated, and more interesting. He might have even found that he agreed.

He didn’t do that. Instead, he allows his desire to argue against public education to overwhelm his responsibility to research the facts about the private system he holds up in contrast. This doesn’t mean Smith can or should be dismissed. It does mean that Smith scholars should do two things in response. First, we should take the responsibility to do what Smith did not do, and learn about women’s education at the time he was writing. We should read Astell and Haywood and Wollstonecraft and others to discover what women thought of the education they were receiving. We should not assume that because Smith is so right about so many other things, he is right about this as well.

But perhaps more importantly, we should use Smith’s error as a warning for our own work. In his desire to criticize something he dislikes, Smith is led to give whole-hearted praise to something about which he knows little, and about which--it turns out--he was wrong. It’s fine to argue that in general, private institutions are superior to public ones. I agree with Smith that they are. But we all have to remember that  “better than” doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing as “good.” So before we praise any specific private institution, we need to be sure we know its particular details. We cannot simply praise something because it is the opposite of something we dislike. We need to be sure it’s something praiseworthy on its own.