Bohanon: Adam Smith and the Rationale of Pre-School

November 11, 2013

by Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D.

The Indiana legislature will likely consider expanding statewide pre-kindergarten programs for children at risk. Informing the discussion will be an extensively studied 1960s pre-K experiment, the Perry Program from Ypsilanti, Mich. Its findings suggest we reexamine a forgotten goal of early education.

In the Perry Program, researchers assigned 123 three-year-old children from low-income black households to either a control group or a treatment group. Those in the treatment group participated in a two-year program that included five-day-a-week sessions and weekly home visits. Those in the control group had no contact with the program.

There have been 40 years of detailed follow-ups on the life outcomes of participants in both groups. Although those who participated in the pre-K program showed no increase in IQ, they did better in the job market, had better health behaviors and were less likely to engage in criminal activity than those who did not participate in the program.

Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckman and colleagues offer additional evidence from the Perry data in a recent article in the American Economic Review. They conclude that the impact the pre-K program had on reducing students’ externalizing behaviors was the key factor in explaining the outcome differences.

“Reducing externalizing behaviors” is fancy social-science jargon for increasing self-control. In other words, evidence from the most valid and reliable study shows that the primary benefit of pre-K lies in its ability to increase a child’s skills in interacting with peers and teachers. Learning to control one’s resentments, constrain one’s anger and follow the rules at age four seem to be a key to keeping a job, not committing a crime and staying off addictive substances at age 40. Interestingly, the Perry program intentionally emphasized self-control as one of its primary goals.

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 treaties “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 a cardinal virtue in itself but as adding “lustre” to all other virtues. He notes that “a very young child has no self-command” but that 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 that 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.” And the Russian Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn defined freedom as “self-restraint.”

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 that 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, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is a professor of economics at Ball State University.



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