On this day in 1740...


On this day, in 1740, at the age of 17, Adam Smith set off for the University of Oxford. He had won a scholarship as Snell Exhibitioner, and was to study at Balliol College. The trip on horseback from his native Scotland took more than a month.

Smith's time in Oxford was not happy, though it taught him something about incentives. As he would write decades later in his great book The Wealth of Nations, "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." College life was arranged such that the academics got paid whether or not they actually taught their students. Smith concluded that "In the university of Oxford, the greater part of the public professors have, for these many years, given up altogether even the pretence of teaching."

However, Balliol College was blessed with one of the world's great libraries, from which Smith was able to educate himself. He left Oxford a year earlier than originally planned, exceedingly well informed, and very much wiser.