Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

Columns

November 22, 2013

CECIL BOHANON: Adam Smith and the point of Indiana pre-kindergarten

Should we rely on public schools to teach self-control?

(Continued)

None of this would come as a surprise to the father of economics, Adam Smith. In fact, these conclusions are foreshadowed in Smith’s 1759 treatise “Theory of Moral Sentiments.” In this work, Smith heralds the role of self-control, which he calls self-command, in human interactions.

He sees self-command not only as cardinal virtue in itself but as adding “lustre” to all other virtues. He notes that “a very young child has no self-command” but when the child “enters into school” it “naturally wishes to gain the favour” of its schoolmates and in order to do so must “[moderate] not only its anger, but all its other passions.”

A free society requires its citizens practice self-control. The second verse of the hymn “America the Beautiful” calls on our nation to “confirm thy soul in self-control, thy Liberty in law.” The Russian Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn defined freedom as “self-restraint.”

So as Professor Smith suggested in 1759 and Professor Heckman confirms in 2013, the habits of self-control are established early on. It would seem straightforward that offering a well-defined pre-K program emphasizing habits of self-control is a good use of public resources.

Yet, we have reason to pause. All schools, public or private, strive to reinforce virtues. But a child’s education neither starts nor stops at the schoolroom. Self-control may be one of the virtues necessary for a free society. Nevertheless, it seems ironic to use the coercive mechanism of government (yes, taxes are coercion) to set up programs to teach self-control to groups social scientists tell us lack self-control.

We are left with this question: Public schooling may re-enforce habits of a free society but can we or should we rely on it to be the fount of those habits?

Cecil Bohanon, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is a professor of economics at Ball State University. Contact him at cbohanon@bsu.edu.

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