Watch out the legacy of a Smith is about

6th July 2007 at 01:00
You will find quite a lot of Smiths in the classroom. They're as common as muck (if that's not too politically incorrect to remark these days). There was always at least one in my class. Three at one point, more than the two MacLeans and they were twins.

It's also probably the most mentioned name in the staffroom thanks, I guess, to Ronnie Smith, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland. He'd probably like that.

There is, to my mind, however, not enough talk of Smith in the classroom; the name should be on the tip of every teacher's tongue. I write, of course, about that other person from Kirkcaldy not a Brown, but a Smith Adam Smith.

I've just had reason to read a new book, eminently suitable for any classroom, called Adam Smith: A Primer, by my good friend Eamonn Butler, who is also about to have a statue erected in Smith's memory on the Royal Mile. Now, most of us know and accept that in his book, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith not only laid out the foundations for what we now call economics but, in further writings, he did a great deal more. Smith's writings show him to be an objective scholar, who deserves to be read and discussed in every Scottish classroom.

Just as I found that Rabbie Burns was used very cleverly by my teachers to discuss history (Bannockburn), our place in the natural world (Tae a Mouse), or love (need I list them all?) in a manner that had us singing, reading poetry and speaking Scots, so too can Adam Smith be used to introduce our children in an entertaining way to many subjects that are often hard going.

Smith's story of the pin-makers in Kirkcaldy and how, by dividing their labour, they could each make 48,000 pins a day instead of about 200 if they did all the stages themselves, could be used in maths as well as economics.

Obviously his observations could be used in history and modern studies too. He has much to say that is relevant to today's experience of globalisation and might have approved of fair trade because it is at least meant to help the poorest, instead of welfare. And, despite what his critics might think, he did not approve of selfishness, for he believed that hoarding money (mercantilism) was inferior to allowing people to be free to better themselves.

There's also a place for Smith in classroom discussions of morality and philosophy. In his book, Eamonnn Butler shows just how objective and discursive Smith was. With such a range of subjects, researched to such a high degree of authority, he must be ranked a Scot of real intellectual gift if not a genius.

Smith even covered the development of language and how we ended up with different ones: former Latin teacher Ronnie Smith would probably like that.

And Adam Smith was not in fact an advocate of laissez faire: he believed that government had a role, albeit a small one. He believed, in particular, that education, for all ages, was hugely important and thought that infrastructure should be provided by government too.

But there is a downside for teachers. After an instructive education in Kirkcaldy and Glasgow, he won a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford, where experience taught him that the lecturers were lazy because they were salaried. In Glasgow, the students paid per lecture and the tutors were consequently harder-working. Smith thought schools could benefit from the same approach. I don't think Ronnie Smith would have liked that. Pupils, and especially parents, might get the wrong idea.

Brian Monteith is a former MSP

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