chapter
12 Pages

Memoir on Adam Smith’s life

It is a great honour to be invited to speak to you here this evening about Smith’s time as a member of Balliol College. I will discuss some of his experiences at the personal level, and touch on what he made of them from an institutional point of view. In his latter days, according to the obituary of Smith published in the

St James’s Chronicle on 31 July 1790, just fourteen days after his death, he smiled when he saw beef smoking on his table. When asked to interpret his smile, he would always tell a story about the first day he dined at Balliol. Possibly this was 4 July 1740, when he was admitted to the College as a seventeen-year-old Snell Exhibitioner elected by Glasgow University. Succumbing to absence of mind, he neglected his food, and a servitor noticing this ‘desired him to fall to, for he had never seen such a piece of beef in Scotland’. Smith’s ‘smile’, I think, came from rueful recognition that he was, and had always been, an absent-minded fellow, even in the presence of food. Also, I think, it was a smile at the memory of the Englishman’s presumption that the food he served must be superior to Scottish fare. Enrolled at wealthy Oxford, Smith came to realize that its vaunted education fell noticeably short, at that time, of what could be obtained at a much poorer Glasgow. This judgment is reflected in the first letter we have from Smith at Balliol.

He is writing on 24 August 1740 to his cousin and guardian, William Smith, secretary and steward to that powerful but conflicted personality, the 2nd Duke of Argyll (Iain Ruadh nan Cath [Red John of the Battles]: 1678-1743). The address given is Bruton Street, where at No. 27 was to be found the Duke’s London house in the vicinity of Parliament. We may speculate that Adam Smith visited there when he came down from Oxford, and heard from his cousin about the exciting political news of the Duke’s opposition in his last years to Prime Minister Walpole. In the letter to hand, Adam thanks his cousin, obviously something of a father-figure, for his good advice. What did he advise, we wonder? Maybe something along these lines: ‘just smile at the delusions of the English about their effortless superiority, and get the best you can out of their Southern speech, conversation, ideas and publications, then maybe you’ll excel them as a thinker, teacher and writer’. The letter continues that the money William sent is most useful, because of the ‘extraordinary

and most extravagant fees’ demanded by the College and University at matriculation. Adam then permits himself a sharp comment on his situation: ‘It will be his own fault if anyone should endanger his health at Oxford by excessive Study, our only business here being to go to prayers twice a day, and to lectures twice a week’ (Smith 1987, Corr. Letter 1). Young Smith’s words about endangering health by excessive study at

Oxford came back to haunt him, as will be discussed. Regarding public prayers, it is likely he was already sceptical about their efficacy by the time he left Glasgow. Also, he seems to have been averse to preparing himself for ordination and a career in the Scottish Episcopalian ministry as the Snell foundation had originally required (Stones 1984: 190). As for the state of the ‘ancient universities’ of Europe, Smith claimed in 1774 he had looked carefully into the constitution and history of several of them, not excluding Oxford, and found the greater part sunk into ‘degradation and contempt’. The reasons, he thought, were high salaries given to professors ‘without regard to diligence and success in their professions’, and luring students with bursaries to enter universities to get degrees as passports to professions, whether the instruction on offer was or was not worth receiving (Corr. Letter 143). Smith was not opposed to high wages, just to drawing them without commensurate effort. Also, we can believe he thought universities providing bursaries to attract students should monitor their programmes responsibly. Recently, an economics professor and a dean of a business college in the

United States (Leathers and Raines 2007) have looked into the case Smith presents in the Wealth of Nations for what they call ‘market-based “reforms” of higher education’ (p.136), involving the prescription of fee income for university staff based on free student choice of their teachers, and have satisfied themselves that it is ‘weakened by contradictions, qualifications and incomplete attention to the institutional functions of universities’ (p.137). They believe that anecdotal evidence from Glasgow University, which Smith indicated was operating successfully under the right system, revealed faculty were paid ‘assured salaries’ and there was ‘relatively little student-consumer sovereignty’ (p.137). It may be, however, that these modern commentators are so focused on the issue of the compensation regime, that they lose track of its relationship with other sides of Smith’s argument about the university reforms needed at the Oxford of his time. They do not examine the evidence, for instance, about the pervasive weak teaching and publication record at Balliol (Jones 2005: ch. 13), on the one hand, and the likely causes being found in slack supervision, absence of fair competition for fellowships, and assurance of income without evidence of performance. At Glasgow, on the other hand, there was the notably strong instruction and innovative scholarly achievement of a significant number of the professors, whose ability was assessed for preferment, though patronage was certainly an element in the process, and whose assured income was small, but could be increased by the fees of students drawn to their lectures. To some extent, an academic marketplace analogy

holds here, not so much in terms of wages for the providers of higher education, perhaps, as in the competition among them for distinction in their fields. Most eighteenth-century Scottish students were constrained by economic opportunity, but they could, and did, vote with their feet about which of the five universities in their country (St Andrews, Glasgow, King’s College and Marischal at Aberdeen, and Edinburgh: each with low fees) they wished to attend, drawn by the fame of the teachers. Eminent professors vied for reputation based on performance in the lecture hall or in print, or both, and they trained effectively candidates for the professions, vocational careers, or business life needed in their country and abroad: teachers, ministers, lawyers, doctors, scientists, technologists, and a cadre mainly of the gentry, but sometimes not, who entered public life, or were commanders in the armed services, or became entrepreneurs and improvers of estates. Glasgow and the other Scottish universities drew students from England (and Ireland) in this era, on the basis of a judgment expressed by the MP, Sir Gilbert Elliot, in 1758: ‘I find every thinking man here [London] begins to discover the very absurd constitution of the English Universitys, without knowing what to do better’ (Corr. Letter 27). The institutions north of the Tweed, for all their faults, had some workable answers to this predicament. Smith mentions the educational weakness at Oxford University specifically

in the Wealth of Nations, in relation to his argument that it is in each man’s interest to live as much at ease as possible, and if someone’s rewards are the same whether he performs or does not perform an onerous duty, he will either neglect it or perform it as slackly as his superiors permit. If the superior authority resides in a college of which he is a member, and the other members are teachers, they will agree among themselves to overlook one man’s neglect of his duty, if each is allowed to neglect his own. Thus it came about, Smith reasoned, that ‘Oxford professors had given up even the pretence of teaching for many years’ (Smith 1976, WN V.i.f.7-8). Regarding the curriculum, it seems that Smith included Oxford among

the ‘learned societies’ that ‘have chosen to remain, for a very long time, the sanctuaries in which exploded systems and obsolete prejudices found shelter and protection, after they had been hunted out of every other corner of the world’ (WN V.i.f.34). The practice at his College of teaching the ‘exploded system’ of Aristotle’s physics and his scholastic commentators would strike Smith in retrospect as an intellectual swindle, and it continued long enough. The philosopher Sir William Hamilton was still complaining about it as a Snell Exhibitioner in 1809: