Adam Smith on compulsory attendance in the classroom (1776)

Adam Smith

Here Adam Smith (1723-1790) argues that the use of compulsion in schools is used primarily for the benefit of the teacher and the administration, not the students. Good lectures are usually well attended:

The discipline of colleges and universities is in general contrived, not for the benefit of the students, but for the interest, or more properly speaking, for the ease of the masters. Its object is, in all cases, to maintain the authority of the master, and whether he neglects or performs his duty, to oblige the students in all cases to behave to him as if he performed it with the greatest diligence and ability. It seems to presume perfect wisdom and virtue in the one order, and the greatest weakness and folly in the other. Where the masters, however, really perform their duty, there are no examples, I believe, that the greater part of the students ever neglect theirs. No discipline is ever requisite to force attendance upon lectures which are really worth the attending, as is well known wherever any such lectures are given.

Adam Smith has some sharp words to say on the matter of compulsory attendance at school. The “force and restraint” which is common for schools to use to require attendance in the classroom is, in his view, primarily for the benefit of the “master” and is designed to “pardon a great deal of incorrectness in the performance of his duty” and “to conceal from the publick a good deal of gross negligence.” As an experienced teacher himself, he knows that the best way to encourage attendance is to give good lectures. The only exception to this principle are those children aged less than 13 who might require additional “incentives” to attend classes.