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Adam Smith - the philosopher who invented Economics

Adam Smith studied at both Glasgow and Oxford, loved one and despised the other. Here we look at the father of classical Economics in his student days.
BY Skendha Singh |   30-06-2017

Adam Smith, the father of classical Economics did not, in fact, study Economics. He studied Moral Philosophy instead. And, in spite of winning a scholarship to Oxford, he hated his time there.

Born in 1723, in the Scottish town of Kirkcaldy, Adam Smith was raised by his mother, Margaret Douglas. It was Smith’s mother who encouraged him to pursue his love for further studies. Throughout his life, the two remained incredibly close.

At the age of 6, Smith entered the Burgh School of Kirkcaldy, now known as the Kirkcaldy High School. Today, one of the school’s houses is also named after him. For the next eight years, Smith studied Latin, Maths, History and Writing - a broad spectrum of subjects. At this time, he had several schoolmates who went on to become well-known in their respective fields. One of them was Robert Adam, the architect who designed the London Adelphi, Portland Place and Edinburgh University. This is perhaps a testament to the quality of education in Scotland’s secondary schools.

According to Smith’s biographer, John Rae, Smith proved to be a distinguished student – he loved reading, had a sharp memory, and was devoted to his studies. In 1737, by the age of 14, he was advanced enough in Classics and Maths to be sent to Glasgow College (now the University of Glasgow). The age at which Smith entered university might seem astonishing but it was not unheard of in his time.

For an undergraduate of Adam Smith’s caliber, Scotland was an exciting place to live and study in. Not only was the Scottish Enlightenment transforming the intellectual climate, it had a significant impact on the education system as well.

In the 17th century, Scotland had four universities – St. Andrews, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh, compared to England’s two. These institutions were known all over Europe - not just for their excellent liberal arts curriculum, but also their medical education. The universities were also more accessible in terms of admissions and expenses. Therefore, their student bodies were more socially representative.

The intellectual culture was not limited to universities but defined the cities as well. Scottish cities of the time had not only universities but also reading libraries, societies, periodicals, and museums. And then there were clubs where scholars and men of letters met to discuss and debate the latest ideas and discoveries – very much like the French salons. So, when we read that Smith’s magnum opus, “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations,” a book that he said was based on 17 years of notes, conversations with leading economists, and 10 years of writing and rewriting – we can begin to imagine the rigorous intellectual culture of which Smith was a product.

As an undergraduate at Glasgow, Smith studied an expansive liberal arts curriculum. He had Latin, Greek, Maths and Moral Philosophy. Although he was a devoted student who stayed at university for three years, he did not graduate with a degree. But his time at Glasgow proved to have the profoundest influence on his development as a thinker and scholar.

A major part of his intellectual development can be credited to the scholars who were then teaching at Glasgow. These men were the leading academics of the day – Alexander Dunlop, who taught Greek, Robert Simson, professor of Mathematics, and Frances Hutcheson, who taught Moral Philosophy. Of the three, by Smith’s own account, Frances Hutcheson was the one he idolized. Until the end of his life, Smith spoke or wrote of him as, “the never-to-be-forgotten-Hutcheson.”

The college curriculum was delivered through lectures, and Hutcheson is remembered for being one of the most impressive lecturers of his time. He was the first professor in Glasgow who chose to lecture in English and not Latin, and he is said to have spoken without the help of notes, and with great energy and passion.

According to the biographer, Smith is likely to have attended Hutcheson’s classes on Moral Philosophy, as well as Natural Theology and Politics. It is interesting to note that Smith trained, not as an economist, but as a moral philosopher. His central concern as a student was therefore, “What is the best way for people to live?” A question that is fundamental to moral philosophy. And an idea which fundamentally informed Smith’s life and work.  It is thus an important perspective with which we can read his economics.  

In 1740, Smith was selected as a Snell Exhibitioner. This was a scholarship founded by a Glasgow alumnus, Sir John Snell, and offered Glasgow students an opportunity to study in Oxford. Although not originally specified by Snell, it had become customary for the exhibitioners to pursue further studies at Balliol College.

As was usual at the time, he travelled the entire way on horseback. What was significant about his journey was that the moment he crossed into England, as he was to tell his friend Samuel Rogers much later, he was struck by how green England was, and how rich it seemed in comparison to Scotland.

The shock did not end there for Smith. One of his biographers narrates an anecdote of the new student’s first dinner in the halls. Finding himself in a completely new environment, Smith lost himself in deep thought. After a long while, the servitor taunted him saying he had better start his dinner because he could never have had such beef in Scotland.

Unfortunately, being Scottish often inspired discrimination from the resident students and college authorities. And it is sad to note that Smith’s 6 years at Oxford – from June 1740 to August 1746, were far from enjoyable. His biographer says that Smith thought the lecturers there were “frivolous” and the debates “unintelligible”. For one, tutors at Oxford did not receive salary based on their workload. So they had no interest in, or incentive for, delivering quality education. In fact, tutors at the college received fees whether they did any tutoring or not. Smith also felt that Oxford was indifferent to new ideas and resisted improvement – in stark contrast to his alma mater, Glasgow. It led him to conclude that a faulty wage distribution system was to blame.

However, Smith did not let his time at the university go to waste. He read extensively. The Bodleian was not accessible, being open only to a limited number of graduates. So being at Balliol proved to be the next best thing. The college was  the same as any other in Oxford, but it had one of the best libraries. And Smith made the most of it!

In many ways, he was left alone for six years to read and read and think, with minimal interference from the conservative and lazy Oxford dons. And so, he read Latin, Greek, and French classics. He also read English and Italian poets. All through his life Smith impressed everyone with the accuracy of his quotations and his sharp memory.

In this wide range, there was one subject which was unavailable to Smith at Oxford – and that was modern rationalism. One day, when he was found reading David Hume’s ‘A Treatise of Human Nature,’ a book which suggests making practical experience the foundation of all sciences, Smith was severely reprimanded, and the copy was confiscated.

Another significant feature of Smith’s time at Oxford was the absence of any lasting friendships. This seems surprising because Smith is known for being friendly. For most of his life, he was surrounded by friends. And university is the best time for most of us to make friends for life. So the fact that Smith remained in touch with only Oxford contemporary after he left says a lot about the time he had there as a student.

In 1746, Smith returned to Scotland without completing a formal degree. He chose never to engage personally with Oxford again. And after he had published – ‘The Wealth of Nations,’ Oxford did not honour him with a doctorate either. While he called his time spent at Glasgow, first as a student and later as a lecturer, the best and most productive years of his life, he had no similar praise for Oxford.

30 years later, Smith went on to publish ‘The Wealth of Nations.’ By then he had lectured, travelled and read and discussed as widely. The book was ten years in the making. And it not only invented an entirely new discipline - it has remained central to the subject. In fact, for many economists, Smith remains the alpha and omega of economic science.

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