Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Adam Smith on the Subject of Laptops in the Classroom

There has been a good deal of discussion of late of the question of whether students should be permitted to have laptops in the classroom, with professors concerned that the students might be reading email, checking Facebook, even looking at porn instead of paying attention to the lecturer. The underlying issue is not a new one.
     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. Force and restraint may, no doubt, be in some degree requisite in order to oblige children, or very young boys, to attend to those parts of education which it is thought necessary for them to acquire during that early period of life; but after twelve or thirteen years of age, provided the master does his duty, force or restraint can scarce ever be necessary to carry on any part of education.
(Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Bk V Ch 1)


At 11:40 AM, September 24, 2014, Blogger jdgalt said...

I hope this is not too off topic, but it may be related. In the last few years, the textbook industry has come a long way toward having the "timed ink" you suggest in Law's Order.

What they've done is to move some of the content from the book itself onto a web site (I'm only familiar with McGraw Hill's version, called the SuperSite). The web site also grades students' homework, thus doing some of the instructor's work for him. The catch is that, if a professor is using that company's book, each student has to have a password to the web site in order to take the class.

New copies of the book come bundled with a password that is good for one semester, but if a student tries to save money by buying a used textbook, the company will then charge him (for the password) about as much as the price of a new book. So in effect these companies have deliberately destroyed the market in used textbooks, while bribing the instructor not to care that his students are being gouged.

Naturally, this angers students and has provoked some to upload and download illegal copies of textbooks. I can't blame them, and I would like to see schools adopt policies that prohibit their instructors from requiring these web sites in their courses.

At 1:15 PM, September 24, 2014, Blogger Tibor said...

I think that the problems could arise if you have half of a classroom who would like to listen to the teacher while the other makes it difficult by being too loud or otherwise making it harder for the former to focus. But one could object that the problem then is with the fact that the latter half is forced to stay in the classroom in the first place.

At 5:47 AM, September 25, 2014, Blogger Unknown said...

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At 10:21 AM, September 25, 2014, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In practice I am forced to attend university (I'm from the UK), because it means huge amounts of money being spent on me which I otherwise would have paid for via taxes with no compensation. So the choice is between attending higher education or being stolen from.

We do at least have reasonable textbook prices. I saw prices of them go up to about 3 times as much when I went to Canada, and in England I have not experienced the weird lecturer-textbook collusion that is so common in North America. I don't know why the difference exists.

At 10:51 AM, September 25, 2014, Blogger David Friedman said...

RT: You interpret your experience as evidence that the students lack discipline. Shouldn't you at least consider Smith's interpretation—that your lectures were not sufficiently interesting to make the students willing to listen to them?

You can't change the students but you might be able to change your teaching.

At 11:46 AM, September 25, 2014, Blogger Unknown said...

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At 12:20 PM, September 25, 2014, Anonymous Hayek said...

There is a quote (can't remember where it is from) that basically says that, in many disciplines, we are teaching 21st century subjects with 17th century style.
Many times, what happens is that teachers mistake "new approach to education" with being an entertainer in the class. There are other ways to convey attention and the efforts nowadays go in two (complementary) directions:

1.- Improve the flow of the material taught. That is, why do we teach what we teach in that order?. Can we teach it in a different way that makes the discipline a unity rather than a set of independent island of knowledge?.
2.- Improve the dynamics of the classroom. Can we make it more participative?.

I know of several approaches that have been tried (and, are doing well) in experimental sciences and, specially, in teaching one of the big devils of any University: Introductory Physics.

At 12:27 PM, September 25, 2014, Blogger Unknown said...

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At 1:06 PM, September 25, 2014, Blogger Tibor said...

RT: Why not simply tell the students that if they are not intersted they can leave the classroom for the time of your lesson, no trouble for them. They some leave and the rest are interested and are not annoyed by others who are not...or if that is not possible, simply tell those others they can do whatever they want as long as they are quiet enough not to interfere with the teaching. This is how I spent my high school English lessons (English is mandatory in Czech schools). I was far ahead the rest of the class and the lessons were absolutely useless for me (but I could not leave, at least not before I turned 18...and even then I needed to have a certain number of attended lessons) instead I usually read a book or something during those classes. Officially, this probably would not be permitted, but not everything has to be official.

At 1:16 PM, September 25, 2014, Blogger Unknown said...

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At 1:17 PM, September 25, 2014, Blogger Unknown said...

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At 12:09 AM, September 26, 2014, Blogger Jonathan said...

The original post is a good quote, thanks.

At 10:46 AM, September 26, 2014, Anonymous Power Child said...

Let's remember, though, that the students with which Adam Smith was familiar were an inherently much different set than a typical undergraduate classroom today.

My experience in college is full of anecdotes that run contrary to Smith's assertion that "Where the masters [...] really perform their duty, there are no examples [...] that the greater part of the students ever neglect theirs."

In both classes I took with the best professor I ever had, I was one of maybe 3 or 4 students who did the reading assignments, took the work seriously, thought critically about the material, and participated consistently in class discussions. The other couple dozen students were outraged that the professor didn't hand them As and Bs for their incoherent semi-literate half-efforts the way other professors did, and thought it wildly unfair that he expected them to show up to class on time having read the material and pay attention, without texting or going on Facebook (this was before smartphones were widely used). By halfway through the quarter many students had dropped the class or stopped showing up.

I had similar experiences in other classes with good professors. Of course, classes with bad professors weren't much better.

By the way, the worst offenders were consistently freshman females in the liberal arts and student athletes in any major. Were there student athletes in 18th century Edinburgh whose situation was in any way comparable to student athletes today?

At 8:34 AM, September 27, 2014, Blogger Tibor said...

Power Child:

"By halfway through the quarter many students had dropped the class or stopped showing up."

I think that is a good sign, not a bad one. A fried of mine teaches R (the statistics programming language) class in Göttingen. She told me half of the students play computer games there instead. But those are freshmen and they have not yet realized that attendance is usually not mandatory at the university. Once they do, these types simply stop coming and those who want to learn do learn (or if the teachers is bad, almost everyone will eventually cease to come).

Make attendance optional and make just the exams mandatory. In an ideal world, you don't need exams either...but it is much easier to get a rough estimate of somebody's skills by looking at their diploma than to test their knowledge every time they look for a job with you or something...although a lot of this diploma seeking is driven by schooling requirements in public institutions which employ more and more people...they don't actually need you to know much, but they are required to filter out people without a diploma. However, it is not even necessary to have the same institution hold classes and also exams. When I took the CPE Cambridge English language exam, I had to pay a fee and then was allowed to take it. But I had my classes in a completely unrelated language school...and I could have taken it even without having classes at all. There is no reason universities could not work that way too.

At 2:15 PM, September 27, 2014, Anonymous Power Child said...

@Tibor Mach:

Attendance isn't always optional in college, especially in smaller undergraduate classes. I don't know all the reasons that professors make attendance mandatory, but I'd guess one of them is that many freshmen are quite childish and immature, and do in fact need to be forced to go to class for their own good.

It's not that these aren't smart kids or even potentially serious students, it's that they are unaccustomed to the relative freedom and independence. I would further guess that the professors bear some of the brunt of the rage of parents who discover they are paying out the teeth for their kids to get drunk and play video games into the night without earning good grades during the day.

So, combine the outcome of that with the fact that nowadays the vast majority of students are low-IQ Facebook addicts who have no business being in college in the first place but in practical terms have nowhere else to go (meaning, society is pushing them, at this stage in their lives, to go to "college or bust").

What you get is a situation where, if I were a professor, I would ban cell phones and laptops. If I had to, I would further justify my ban as an effort to foster an all-around conservative atmosphere in the classroom (conservative in this case meaning "Old School").

At 2:50 PM, September 27, 2014, Blogger Unknown said...

Power Child: I teach at a regional college (and formerly taught at a nearby university), and I have become the no-cellphone professor. My reason is simple: their is nothing in the syllabi (for my English composition, literature, and drama courses) that includes cellphone usage as either a learning objective or a measurable achievement objective. Either a student is in the classroom to learn and achieve or the student is not. Each student makes a choice. If a student's cellphone is more important than learning and achievement, then the student needs to be elsewhere, and I quickly show the student the door. And then there is this old-fashioned reason: It is my classroom, and I make the rules; students must realize that all of life is built upon that simple concept -- someone is always making and enforcing rules, and students (like all of us) need to deal with that fact of life. Is that too harsh? Am I being too old-fashioned? Am I being a pain in the ass to students? Yes. Yes. Yes.

At 8:43 AM, September 28, 2014, Blogger Tibor said...

Power Child:

I heard from people who studied different subjects (mostly social sciences) that they had lectures with mandatory attendance. I was (still am, but now I am a PhD. student, so that's a little different) studying mathematics and we did not have a single class with mandatory attendance (well, except for a few seminars that were not accompanied by an exam and the credits were only given for being there...but there were very few of those).

At 12:14 PM, September 28, 2014, Anonymous Anonymous said...

No matter how interesting your lectures are, Angry Birds, Farmville and Facebook can top them for most students, if not for the intellectually thirsty ones.

We have computer games which some people would risk death from sleep deprivation to continue playing (see; so what chance does that leave for2 maths or chemistry?

At 9:46 AM, September 29, 2014, Blogger Tibor said...

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At 9:52 AM, September 29, 2014, Blogger Tibor said...


When I was a bachelor freshman (6 years ago, so with facebook and angry birds already out there) there were a few people who would come to a lecture with a computer, watched films or played games...then they realized that at the university they are not required to actually come to the lecture (this is apparently different in different fields and/or schools, but I was studying maths)...and so they simply stopped coming when they wanted to play games of watch movies.

If the lecture is valuable to them (it does not have to be entertainment to be appreciated, it only has to be more entertaining or practical than simply reading it all from a book if there is one - or someone's lecture notes if there is none), they will come. If not, the teacher can pay more attention to those who actually find it valuable and come to the lecture. Maybe some of those who don't come are making a mistake and would have benefited from being there (maybe the book does not contain the whole lecture...or maybe simply it would be a way to learn during the semester and not just a week or two before an exam as is often the case, and it can sometimes be too little time for some people). But then they will find out they made a mistake eventually and hopefully change their attitude. Universities are not there to babysit people.

On a slight tangent, there is a czech website called "" which is structured to contain scans of lecture notes (written by those students who actually come to the lectures). You can search by school and a lecture. Those who upload the data there have to be given "bananas" by those who download them, while bananas are also (slowly over time) automatically generated in your account (but only to a maximum which can only be exceeded by being given bananas from others). Bananas can be used for various coupons and vouchers for the services provided by the sponsors of the website (which is, as most websites are, financed by advertisement), so there is a motivation for people to put them up (and to write the notes well, so that others like your notes over those of your competitors). I also used it a couple of times and it strikes me as a very smart business model.

At 5:39 AM, September 30, 2014, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Concerning university students, I agree. With high-school students in the age-range Adam Smith mentioned, less so. Robin Hanson actually put it quite nicely in a recent blogpost:

"even if dinner manners and birthday presents rituals don’t most directly express the sincerest feeling of those involved, they can create an “as if” appearance of good feelings, and this appearance can make people nicer and feel better about each other...while for some kids it seems enough to just support their curiosity, most kids are probably better off in a school system that forces them to act as if they are curious, even when they are not"

(hope Dr. Friedman doesn't mind me linking out from his comments)

At 8:40 AM, September 30, 2014, Anonymous Power Child said...


That's an astute point. It relates to the whole idea of why people in certain professions have to dress a certain way, even when that dress is not strictly functional (e.g. bankers have to wear suits) or why many schools implement dress codes. It creates a certain kind of atmosphere that is more conducive to the activity being undertaken.

At 12:11 PM, September 30, 2014, Blogger Tibor said...

Power Child:

I think the main reason for bankers wearing suits - those bankers that deal with customers at least - is to look conservative. The last thing you want from your banker is to be someone carefree. And similar for managers or auditors. If your boss looks like "no funny business", you might be more orderly yourself.

Then again, very few people from IT wear anything close to formal clothes (in some cases anything close to decent clothes :) ). It depends on what you want to achieve...more "carefree" environment can perhaps foster innovation and initiative of the employees. That is vital to IT, not so good for accountants.

By the way, when I was in my freshman year, we had a programming class (for mathematicians). The lecturer explicitly forbade anyone to come to the exam (which was partly oral) in formal clothes :)

At 12:17 PM, September 30, 2014, Blogger Tibor said...


It could work with some people. It never worked with me. In those lectures that did not interest me in grammar school, I opted out for the minimum to get through with a grade acceptable by my parents, which consisted of paying almost no attention and then sometimes learning things quickly before an exam (sometimes not even that). The result is that today I have almost no recall of chemistry for example. I could have spend that time better.

But I can imagine there are kids who simply are not interesting in anything, who have to be forced into everything beyond watching TV and playing computer games (some games are actually better for your development than some lectures at school...but probably not most first person shooters which are very popular). Then perhaps it is better to force them to learn at least something so that they won't have to depend on you or the welfare state...but I think there are many kids who are not like this.

At 12:57 PM, September 30, 2014, Anonymous Power Child said...

@Tibor Mach:

That's my point. Looks are important. The look of open laptops in the lecture hall--even if their screens don't show games or pages--detracts from the general atmosphere of learning.

At 1:08 PM, September 30, 2014, Blogger Tibor said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 1:08 PM, September 30, 2014, Blogger Tibor said...

Power Child:

I agree that I don't like to see them there (or did not when I was a freshman, I have not seen them there since). But they did not in any way make my studying more difficult.

I just considered that to be impolite to the teacher. Nobody was forced to stay at the lecture, so why not take it outside the room, sit down at the corridor perhaps if you are waiting for another class or something. But as I said, it was not necessary to enforce that. They simply realized themselves after a few weeks.

By the way, I just remembered a slightly related story our mathematical analysis lecturer told us in the first semester. He had been holding a class and there would be this 50-60 year old guy coming regularly to his lecture on one day (say Thursday, I don't remember exactly). He never said anything but he always sat there and listened. Then one day the lecturer could not keep the curiosity down any more and asked him who he was. He expected him to be a colleague who was perhaps trying to compare his teaching to that of the lecturer and so he asked him about that. But the guy instead replied:"No no! I have no idea what all that math means. I have to catch a train every Thursday and it is nicer to wait for it here than at the train station." :)


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