do we need college for industrialization? – a comment on mokyr’s history of industrial age britain
I’ve recently finished Joel Mokyr’s The Englightened Economy, an economic history of Britain during the industrial revolution. The book is an exhaustive argument about the role of Enlightenment ideas on economic development. I won’t go into detail here, but I’ll summarize it by merely saying that the book is a thorough review of the literature on Britain through the eyes of economists and historians.
Today, I want to make a comment on an observation of Mokyr. In his review of research in higher education during British industrialization, he notes the following:
- Higher education was very rare
- Innovators and industrial leaders were mostly uneducated
- Individuals with elite education (e.g., Oxbridge) were fairly rare among the ranks of the industrial leadership
Mokyr raises this point in service of the argument that Britain’s economic expansion can’t be attributed to rising quality of education since most people were not well educated until well after the industrial revolution. My point: This is somewhat analogous to economic expansion today. Leading Silicon Valley firms aren’t always, or even usually built, from people who have advanced degrees. I can think of only one such major firm (Google). Microsoft, Facebook, and Apple were founded by college drop outs, albeit elite drop outs. Groupon was founded by a policy school grad school drop out (not computer science). Twitter’s founder was a computer geek in high school but went to un-glamorous Missouri Tech, then later went to NYU, not known as a computer science hub.
The conclusion: You need an educated work force to carry out ideas, but the leadership doesn’t need a lot of education. Rapid economic expansion seems to hinge on having a mix of smart people who get their “training” from a wide variety of sources, not just college. Colleges are more about educating the masses who compose the rest of the organization.