|Beyond Economics: Intersections and Opportunites with Adam Smith in the Writing and Rhetoric Classroom Page 7 of 8|
Moving from Historical Analysis to Mainstream Media: Opportunities for New Understandings of Adam Smith for a Better Society
In a world where lengthy books like Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments are not often the primary texts undergraduate students choose to read, classroom discussions about capitalism, the role of government in today’s America, and Adam Smith help students see the rhetorical devices in play in the mainstream media and history. In September 2009, Cynthia Tucker, a syndicated, national opinion columnist, and former editor with the Atlanta Journal and Constitution wrote a piece entitled “Where did our compassion go?” In this article she states, “I’ve been surprised by how little sympathy there is even for Americans without access to medical care. A theme among the commentators is this: ‘I did well in school; I worked hard to get a good job; now I have health insurance. If others worked as hard as I did, they’d have health insurance.’” Tucker asks what happened to our compassion as a nation. She comments that we are prepared to allow illegal immigrants to die at the door of a hospital because the lack of health insurance keeps individuals from access to needed care, care such as dialysis machines. At Grady Hospital in Atlanta she describes the struggles of illegal immigrants who are need of health insurance and cannot get it. Tucker asks readers to consider the plight of those around us through the well-known quote, “There but by the grace of God, go I?” (Tucker).
Here, in nationally syndicated editorials, like the one by Cynthia Tucker, students see how research and sources can provide a strong voice in writing. For example, what if Tucker had expanded her editorial to include a reference to Adam Smith and the misunderstanding of his theories? These kinds of concrete and specific examples help students see not only the value of close reading and consideration of history and facts but also how to use their research, findings, and analysis in formats that will use outside of a writing classroom. In addition, the discussions of Adam Smith allow an opportunity for new explorations of his economic theory and correction of the misappropriation of his work. Helping students to understand the impact of abbreviated readings and sound bites sometimes separate truth from fact, but instead of speaking about this generally, they can speak with authority and specifics using the example of Adam Smith.
In the same vein, I often rely upon a August 2009 article by David Leonhardt, a columnist with the New York Times, who wrote an editorial piece entitled, “Theory and Morality in the New Economy.” In critical part, he cites the introduction by Krueger to Wealth of Nations and comments, “Smith’s modern image had become unhinged from his actual writings,” and that he was not the defender of the free enterprise system many modern day Americans champion him to be. Further, he includes assertions that Smith was concerned about a federal government getting too involved in business operations and also addresses Smith’s stance on low wages, significant taxes, and the misuse of the term “invisible hand” (Leonhardt).
From there we discuss the countless economic scholars since the 1950s have proclaimed that Smith’s theories have been manipulated, and, frankly, missed; those who crowned Smith the leader of capitalism missed a critical component of his work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Students begin their own exploration of Smith’s biographical background, the publication history of the texts, and the work of economists and theorists about the topic. Students are surprised how easy it is to learn that while Smith published The Theory of Moral Sentiments in 1759, he continued to revise and rework it for over forty years. In contrast, Smith dedicated about ten years to the researching and writing of The Wealth of Nations. Archival history reveals he deemed The Theory of Moral Sentiments—a text that more fully examines self-interests, ethics, virtue, and human nature—his life’s work and the superior text. When students see that Smith may have written an economic masterpiece but that his central concern was not economics, Smith is seen in a new light. McKenna argues, “Some scholars have long come to appreciate the essential coherence between [The Theory of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations]—that Smith had not imagined two separate words, one governed by sympathy, the other driven by self-interest” (135). Details such as the fact that Smith had over 3,000 volumes in his library and only one-fifth of them related to politics, economics, and history (West 180) and that his library included Aristotle, Lysias, Cicero, Quintilian, Longinus, George Campbell, and Thomas Sheridan (rhetorical texts) prompts students to ponder what other information or theories they need to reconsider about other public figures or organizations. Bringing Adam Smith into the writing classroom not only presents an opportunity to discuss sound rhetorical theory but also emphasize the need for critical thinking, independent analysis, and close reading in the age of sound-bites and cable news.
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