Part 3v of Chapter 1 of Book 5 of The Wealth of Nations Simplified

Education for the Poor Icon

August 1, 2021

181 The common people have little time to spare for education.

Their parents cannot afford to maintain them even in infancy. As soon as they are able to work, they must get employment to earn their subsistence.

That employment is generally so simple and uniform. It gives little exercise to the understanding. Their labour is so constant and so severe.

It leaves them little leisure and less inclination to think of anything else.

182 The most essential parts of education are to:

  • Read
  • Write
  • Compute

Common people cannot be so well instructed as rich people.

However, this essential education can be acquired so early in life. Most of those bred to the lowest occupations can acquire them before they are employed. For a very small cost, the public can facilitate, encourage, and impose essential education on the people.

183 The public can facilitate this by establishing a little school in every district where children may be taught for a very small fee that even a common labourer can afford.

The teacher is partly paid by the public. If he was wholly or principally paid by the public, he would soon neglect teaching. In Scotland, such schools has taught almost all common people to read and many of them to write and compute.

In England, charity schools have the same effect though not so universally, because charity schools are not so universal.

The literary education of children would perhaps be complete if, in those little schools= the books for little children were more instructive, and they were taught basic geometry and mechanics instead of useless Latin. Almost all common trades require geometry and mechanics Those trades gradually exercise and improve the common people in those very sublime and useful sciences.

184 The public can encourage basic education by giving small premiums and little badges of distinction to excellent children.

185 The public can impose basic education on people by obliging every man to undergo an exam before he can be allowed to set up any trade.

186 Similarly, the Greeks and Romans maintained their martial spirit by encouraging and even imposing the need for military and gymnastic exercises.

They appointed a place for learning and practising those exercises. They allowed teachers to give training in that place. Those teachers did not have salaries nor any exclusive privileges. Their whole reward came from their scholars. A citizen trained in the public Gymnasia had no legal advantage over one who trained privately as long as the private learner trained equally well.

Those republics encouraged those exercises by bestowing little premiums and badges of distinction on those who excelled in them. The prize in the Olympic games gave honour to the winner and his family. Every citizen was obliged to serve a number of years in the army. It imposed the need for learning those exercises, without which he could not be fit for the army.

187 Modern Europe proves that in the progress of improvement, military exercises and the martial spirit of the people gradually decays unless the government supports it.

The security of every society must always depend on the people’s martial spirit. Presently, that martial spirit alone, without a standing army, would be insufficient to defend any society.

But where every citizen had the spirit of a soldier, a smaller standing army would be needed. That spirit would very much reduce the dangers to liberty commonly seen from a standing army. It would very much help that army’s operations against a foreign invader. It would likewise obstruct them if they were directed against the state.

186 The ancient institutions of Greece and Rome were much more effective in maintaining the people’s martial spirit than the establishment of modern militias.

Those ancient institutions were much more simple. After their establishment, they executed themselves. It required little from government to maintain them in perfect shape. On the other hand, modern militias require the continual and painful attention of the government to maintain.

The influence of the ancient institutions was much more universal. They completely instructed the people in the use of arms. Whereas only a very small part of them can ever be so instructed by the regulations of any modern militia, except that of Switzerland. But a coward is as mutilated and deformed in his mind as a disabled person is deformed in his body.

A coward is more wretched and miserable than a disabled person, because happiness and misery reside in the mind. He must depend more on the state of the mind than the state of the body. The people’s martial spirit prevents that mental mutilation, deformity, and wretchedness which cowardice brings.

The martial spirit prevents that mental deformity from spreading through the people. It deserves the most serious attention of government even if it provides no physical defence. This is the same way that leprosy or any loathsome disease must be prevented by government from spreading, even if preventing its spread did not bring any other benefit.

189 The same thing may be said of the gross ignorance and stupidity in a civilized society.

It frequently benumbs the understandings of all inferior people. A man with no human intelligence is more contemptible than even a coward. He seems more mutilated and deformed in his mind.

Government must pay attention that such people should be instructed, even if the country derives no advantage from their instruction.

The more they are instructed, the less liable they are to the delusions of enthusiasm and superstition. These cause the most dreadful disorders among ignorant nations. An instructed and intelligent people, are always more decent and orderly than an ignorant and stupid one.

Each person feels more respectable to his superior. Each person is therefore more disposed to respect his superiors.

They can better examine the interested complaints of faction and sedition. They are less apt to be misled into any wanton or unnecessary opposition to government. In free countries, the safety of government depends very much on the favourable judgement from its people.

They must not judge rashly or capriciously concerning it.


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