Ruminations on Humanity #2: Why Adam Smith Would Have a Heart Attack
A Little History and Economics
I'm going to start out with some economic principals. Actually, never, mind, I'll start with world history. So, due to the magic of archeology and science, we know that our hairy ancestors were self-sufficient. This, for those of us who slept our way through middle school, means that they produced everything that they needed for themselves. They didn't rely on supermarkets for apples or malls for a coat. It was a trip to the old orchard and some fashionable mammoth skins instead of Stop and Shop or Northface. Simple enough right? So, let's get a little more complicated and move on to economics.
Adam Smith was an economist back in the day, not the 60s, but way back in the day, AKA the 1700's. He is the champion of many economic principals hailed by all as the foundations of market economies like the laissez-faire and invisible-hand concepts. As Karl Marx is to communism, Adam Smith is to capitalism. So old Adam wrote a book, a book that has been quoted time and time again, and will be probably forever. No, I am not talking about the Bible, so don't get your panties in a bunch, I'm talking about The Wealth of Nations.
This book of literary history starts out with the description of a pin factory, I'll call it Pin Co. from now on. It takes about twenty distinct operations to make a pin, one job is cutting the wire, another is sharpening it, another is putting the pins in the box and so on. All the workers at Pin Co. together can produce thousands of pins in one day. However, Smith proves that one worker performing all the tasks could make no more than twenty pins by himself, some not even one. This is the principal of specialization, the principal of the oh so glamorous assembly line. In short, production is higher when people do one task that they are good at instead of doing a little bit of every task. The more someone performs a task, the better they become both in quality and efficiency of their work. So why the mini lesson plan, you may be asking yourself.
Back to Today: High School and College
Well, here is a description of the college process today. Students must have good grades to get into a good school. Students must play sports. They must be the president of a club, they must volunteer, they must play an instrument have work experience, and of course have good SAT scores. This is not to mention the time management skills, interviewing skills, writing skills, money, research, and proactiveness all required by the college process. But isn't this going against Adam Smith's example of the pin factory?
If all high school students were in a giant Pin Co., and their production was being measured, then our high-school community would be one of the most inefficient economies in the history of the world. Everyone would be trying to make a complete pin by themselves. Some would make a lot, others a little, just like Adam Smith said. Let's say Molly can make twenty pins because she can do all the tasks involved, she’s a great sharpener, fantastic at cutting the wires, and has super-fast fingers, she makes twenty pins by herself that day. But Joe, another student can't sharpen the pins. His hands are, let's say, too large and clumsy to perform the exact movement of using the file. Because Joe can't sharpen like Molly, he can't even finish one pin, the whole day, even though he's great at all the other tasks. In an efficient economy, Molly would be the one sharpening all the pins because she can do it well, and Joe would be doing some other task which he is also good at. So why should Joe, back in the college context, be forced to, say, play a musical instrument if he's not good at it? Molly is fantastic at the violin, but Joe struggles with trumpet, however is a phenomenal writer. Molly should not have to spend her time doing other things like soccer when she could be doing what she loves, and Joe shouldn’t have to spend time playing the trumpet, instead of focusing on publishing a poem.
Molly would have a better chance of getting into the college of her choice simply because she has played in violin competitions and won, where as Joe has not played in any trumpet competitions. We are asking our high school students to do everything and excel at everything, but in reality, no one is equally adept at all tasks. Some are more inclined to the arts, others to academics, but very few to both at the same level. People rave on about how test scores are going down, and high school dropout rates are going up, but how can a student keep up with all the expectations of colleges today? If you are really good in school, spend all your time doing homework and studying for tests, Harvard won't accept you, not unless you are also first string in orchestra, captain of varsity Volley Ball, and secretary of Red Cross club. The gap in expectations to now from only twenty years ago is astounding. Even in the 90’s, students were not expected to have done everything all in their high school careers. How is it reasonable to expect a single human to have time for an after school job, practices for band, practices and games for soft-ball, and meetings of student government? Where does homework and studying come in?
So why does it matter?
The result of these superfluous expectations is that quality of production goes down. In trying to balance everything, a student can let their grades slip, or their performance in basketball goes down because they're so exhausted. If there were infinite hours in the day, then of course, this wouldn't be a problem, but time is a scarce resource. In economics, if a resource is scarce, meaning there is a finite supply, then there is automatically demand for it. Using that time to do something always comes at a cost. I'm not talking about costs like bus fair to get to the games and prices of uniforms, I'm talking about opportunity costs, meaning the things you give up to do that task. In choosing to go to your Red Cross meeting, you are not only spending effort and money getting to the venue, but you're giving up rehearsing for your solo in band and studying for your calculus test. Everything is only worth what you're giving up to have it, so life for the high school student becomes a constant economic evaluation. Would I get more out of studying for my history final or making agenda for the next meeting? Would I get more out of trying my scales some more or rehearsing speech for student council? Often times, things that should be important, like eating a healthy dinner or getting enough sleep get written off as not important enough to give other opportunities up for. I'm not saying that this is the sole reason for obesity, but how much easier is it to pop a bagel in the toaster and eat it on the way to practice than to take the time to make a salad? Moreover, it is a known scientific fact that lack of sleep inflames your fat cells, stomach cells in particular. The three basic needs of the body are food, sleep, and water, and when someone is not giving their body a good, healthy supply of one, the brain tells that person to compensate with another need. That's why a lot of the time lack of sleep or not drinking enough water can often lead to the allusion of hunger, leading to overeating, and junk eating.
To Address the Critics...
But wait critics, sit back down, I know exactly what you're thinking.
A college admissions process is not an economy. High school students aren't laborers in factories. It's not fair to treat them like an economic model and apply Smithy’s old division of labor trick. But, in essence, it is like an economy. Colleges are the demanders, high school students are the suppliers. Those are the bare bones of a market economy. Also, I know there are those who say it's great that colleges are asking this of our youth because it makes them try everything and learn what they're good at. I agree; it's great the people are encouraged to try new things and go out of their comfort zone, whether that means performing in public or giving speeches, but people should not be penalized for not pursuing all aspects of extracurricular activities. Joe tried sharpening the pin, spent all day trying, and yet is still expected to do it the next day, even though he really can't excel at it. Of course we should be encouraged to not give up and continue to try things even though we don't first succeed, but if you love music, who are college admissions people to tell you that you have to do soccer instead of practicing? We shouldn't be telling students what to pursue. College is the time in which you branch out and try things that you haven't tried before, it should be the time in which you discover what you want to spend the rest of your life doing. High school is not supposed to be a nightmarish, stressful experience of getting things on your resume. You shouldn't be volunteering at the library because you need volunteer hours for school. You shouldn't be interning at a law firm because you want a good recommendation. The unreal expectations of colleges have caused a diminishing in the quality of things that high school students do, as well as a decline in their health and their motives. We are promoting, and glorifying, and inefficient market the likes of which we have never seen before. And that is exactly why, if he were here today, Adam Smith would have a heart-attack.