An autobiographical moment: Adam Smith on university lecturers and travelling youth

Wealth of Nations really is a massive jumble of material, reading much like a compendium into which Adam Smith threw his opinions on the world, the universe, anything. I fail to see how mind-numbing and seemingly endless accounts of herring preservation, turnpikes on English roads and bridges, and the varying roles of the clergy since the Roman Empire, have anything much to do with what causes “wealth” among the nations. So too his reflections on the current state of universities:

If the teacher happens to be a man of sense, it must be an unpleasant thing to him to be conscious, while he is lecturing his students, that he is either speaking or reading nonsense, or what is very little better than nonsense. It must too be unpleasant to him to observe that the greater part of his students desert his lectures; or perhaps attend upon them with plain enough marks of neglect, contempt, and derision. (V.i.f.14)

An autobiographical moment perhaps, since he is, after all, a “man of sense.” As for a young man engaging in a bit of travel before studying:

he commonly returns home more conceited, more unprincipled, more dissipated, and more incapable of any serious application either to study or to business, then he could well have become in so short a time, had he lived at home. By travelling so very young, by spending in the most frivolous dissipation the most precious years of his life, at a distance from the inspection and controul of his parents and relations, every useful habit, which the earlier parts of his education might have had some tendency to form in him, instead of being rivetted and confirmed, is almost necessarily either weakened or effaced. Nothing but the discredit into which the universities are allowing themselves to fall, could ever have brought into repute so very absurd a practice as that of travelling at this early period of life. By sending his son abroad, a father delivers himself, at least for some time, from so disagreeable an object as that of a son unemployed, neglected, and going to ruin before his eyes. (V.i.f.36)

Smith was, by all accounts, a jealous and surly man given to sudden sudden bouts of extreme anger.


3 thoughts on “An autobiographical moment: Adam Smith on university lecturers and travelling youth

  1. Slightly off topic: Aside from Marx himself, who are the best theorists to read regarding the view that liberal-democracy is analogous to the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie? I’m wanting to explore it as more than just as an assertion (or a tenant of faith), but you know… backed up with some good evidence and critical discussion, etc.

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