Friday, July 07, 2017


Eamonn Butler, Director of the Adam Smith Society, London, posts (7 July): on the Adam Smith Institute Blog HERE
“Universites and Incentives”
Eamonn uses the case of Adam Smith’s somewhat disappointing experiences of his four years at Balliol College as a Snell Exhibitioner (1740-1744) to illustrate the close negative linkage between performance and reward.
If people receive their income irrespective of their performance there will be slacking off in their performance, and even a complete evasion of any performance at all.
The latter consequence is used by Eamonn Butler to illustrate the appalling treatment by Balliol College of Adam Smith, which at that time had lost any pretentions to be “one of the most distinguished centres of learning in the world”.  It took a long time for Balliol to re-deserve that accolade, which today it truly deserves.
The Snell Exhibition was worth £40 a year, which at the time was a lot of money, (day labourers at the time earned less than half that per year), out of which he paid for his subsistence, for college services and his fees. The small remainder was for his own use. Moreover, Balliol’s general financial position was a cause for concern among the faculty and, while they treated the Snell Exhibitioners poorly, they valued their fees highly.
Smith reacted to the absence of tutorial support negatively. Balliol’s so-called ‘lectures’ were a total and disgraceful sham, which Smith details in his surviving correspondence. There were two sessions of prayers a day and two sham, non-lectures, a week, in which if faculty attended they said nothing at all, or told a student to read aloud from a textbook.
Smith spent two years arranging to leave Balliol on compassionate leave for him to return to Kirkcaldy to comfort his widowed mother during the 1745-46 Jacobite rebellion. (Smith’s politics were Hanovarian and not Jacobite). Eventually Smith and Balliol College came to an agreement - he could return on leave, as long as Balliol continued to receive his annual £40 Exhibition.
Smith arrived in Kirkcaldy and consulted his official Guardians as to his future. Eventually, an agreement was reached that young Smith would deliver a series of public lectures in Edinburgh on Rhetoric and, later also on Jurisprudence, from which he earned £100 a year, a princely sum indeed, similar to a university professor’s salary. From this public demonstrations of his academic abilities (ignored at Balliol) he was appointed a Professor at Glasgow, and the rest, as they say, is history.
One other important biographical fact. Adam Smith, as a junior Exhibitioner, never had access to “everything that the great Baliiol library” contained within it walls. Admission was confined to graduates only, and Smith never graduated from Oxford. Decades later, somewhat cynically, Oxford University “graduated” the, by then, world-famous Adam Smith with the degree they withheld from him while he was there as a student.
We can see what the Balliol faculty missed while Smith was among them because a long Essay that he researched and compiled alone at Balliol was kept by him in his bedroom cabinet all his life, and he ordered his Literary Executors to publish it after his death, which they did and it is available today as:  “The Principles which Lead and Direct Philosophical Enquiries; Illustrated by the History of Astronomy” (1795) [Oxford University Press, 1980]

This essay shows what Balliol Faculty missed by their appalling treatment of Adam Smith.
(Disclosure: I am  Fellow of the Adam Smith Society)


Post a Comment

<< Home