The principles laid out in Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (commonly referred to as simply “The Wealth of Nations”) provide valuable insights regarding public universities. While useful in any university setting, they are particularly sensible when fitting a regional university into a strong cultural context, such as the one associated with West Texas A&M University and the Texas Panhandle. Some ideas and thoughts follow from a talk delivered in Seoul, South Korea on December 10, 2014.
The creative economy, the creative class and the role of the university in helping to generate and implement powerful economies are well intended, and many powerful ideas can be traced back to principles articulated by Adam Smith. The simplicity of this pronouncement is disarming, but does not diminish its truthfulness. Principles articulated by Smith are coincident with the current concepts behind creative economies, particularly as they relate to regional universities. Each of the principles has policy implications, and I believe that every program at an energized university—from the most practically minded studies to theoretical excursions into theology, literature or mathematics—will ultimately be judged by “the market.”
Effective universities teach critical thinking and problem solving skills along with the fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic.
All else at institutions of higher learning is luxuriously unnecessary. Florida and others, in the important study, The University and the Creative Economy, address the three T’s of economic development: technology, talent and tolerance. These are interesting observations to be sure, and all are necessary to promote economic activity; however, two legs of the triangle—talent and tolerance—do not in and of themselves flow from the process of creating something or the art of invention. Smith, on the other hand, in a harsh phrasing and brutally honest appraisal of the issue, clarifies the nucleus of all successful opportunity:
The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.
― Adam Smith
Inventive production of anything offered in a marketplace will eventually allow value, and possibly demand the assignment of value to every human act of work. Whether creating a sermon or a theory of physics, producing a bushel of corn or a cow, writing a newspaper story or a novel, cooking a hamburger or a steak—every act of creation requires insight and action. Mindlessness in the repetitive production of anything weakens economic development rather than strengthens it. Even in seemingly repetitive tasks, an enlightened approach allows a constant assessment of approach and worth of execution that creates differences in value outcomes.
The apparently simple and mundane act of digging a ditch is not the same when executed by a novice or by a professional. In the first case, a hole in the ground appears. In the second case, a work of Euclidian precision is the result of thoughtful application of experience and skill.
This is true in every nation and is blatantly so in too many regions of our nation where industriousness and willingness to work hard have been overpowered by a lack of appreciation for the simple adage penned by Philip Stanhope to his son in 1746, “If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” Certain kinds of work may appear menial for the characteristic of being repetitive, not by the task but by the attitude of those who execute it and, more importantly, by those who passively and ignorantly observe it.
Invention, more than any aspect of human capacity, is central to anything of value and occurs when an act of work is valued. Invention is the core of healthy, self-sustaining economies. Universities must encourage, recognize and reward invention in faculty, students and staff. More than any single component of economic development, invention builds a foundation for prosperity and growth.
Good universities focus on primary mission—academic excellence, and policy should elevate original ideas and insights as the highest ideal to attain, even in technically driven courses of study. The art of doing things well is an act of invention. Invention, guided by a framework of moral propriety, is the seed corn of a free society. The university bears the responsibility of finding in every task of study, every act of learning and every pronouncement of purpose a means to create individuality and inspiration, leading to the attainment of aspirations for every student.
Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His reflections are available at www.walterwendler.com.