The Ambivalent Mr Smith

Amy Willis for AdamSmithWorks

February 10, 2020


How can we ensure our youngest both learn the primary skills they need to navigate the world successfully and  maintain their sense of Wonder?
If you play a sort of word association game with regard to Adam Smith, two of the phrases most likely- and quickly- to be blurted out are "economics" and "division of labor." While these answers aren't wrong, it is- as so often the case with Smith- a bit more complicated.

Smith offers his famous account of a pin factory in Book I of the Wealth of Nations to illustrate the concepts of division of labor, and he is nothing but laudatory about its tremendous positive effects on productivity and, well, the wealth of nations. Indeed he makes his case of a "liberal system of free trade" based on the division of labor. Productivity gains in turn accrue benefits for the firm and the individual as well. These benefits are thoroughly discussed in Book I. But when we get to Book V, Chapter 1, Smith's adulation seems to turn to ambivalence.

While Smith focused on productivity in Book I, many argue his greater concern was with the individual worker. Smith first reminds us, "the understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments." Many would read this as affirmation of the common adage that one can choose to "work to live" rather than "live to work." In the same paragraph, Smith (in?)famously cautions that among the effects of the division of labor, the individual "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."

So what is the modern reader to make of this? As many others, I have generally read this, given that the above quotation is from the chapter pertaining to duties and expenses of the sovereign, as a plea for provision of some level of public education. We ask about this in Room Two of the Interative Pin Factory, and I'd love to hear your reaction to these prompts. For example,
Smith sees a role for education in support of human flourishing, for example. How do you think Smith would have this accomplished? Is this a role for the state? The firm? The individual?

Recently, I was struck by a passage in Smith's History of Astronomy that makes me think further about the above questions. Smith begins this essay with a discussion of wonder, surprise, and admiration. Of these he says, "What is new and singular, excites that sentiment which, in strict propriety, is called Wonder; what is unexpected, Surprise; and what is great or beautiful, Admiration." These sentiments, Smith suggests, are critical to how we view and interact with our world.

Several pages later in his discussion of "artizans" I am reminded anew of the pin factory. While Smith doesn't mention pins again, he describes a common reaction to seeing this sort of division of labor for the first time:
When we enter the work-houses of the most common artizans; such as dyers, brewers, distillers; we observe a number of appearances, which present themselves in an order that seems to us very strange and wonderful. Our thought cannot easily follow it, we feel an interval betwixt every two of them, and require some chain of intermediate events, to fill it up, and link them together...But the artizan himself, who has been for many years familiar with the consequences of all the operations of his art, feels no such interval. They fall in with what custom has made the natural movement of his imagination: they no longer excite his Wonder... [emphases added]

Is this, then, the real consequence of the division of labor- the eradication of the individuals's sense of Wonder? And if that's the case, what then does this imply about the role of education, and the sovereign's duty with regard to it? Smith seems (to this reader at least) to call for only a rudimentary level of education (the "three R's, if you will) in Wealth of Nations. But what does Astronomy tell us about what such an education should look like? How can we ensure our youngest both learn the primary skills they need to navigate the world successfully and  maintain their sense of Wonder? Does the state have some duty with regard to the nurture of Wonder, as a complement to or in addition to academic skills? And perhaps most interestingly to me, what would an education that nurtures Wonder (while still imparting academic skills) look like today? 



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