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.

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Written by fabiorojas

March 13, 2013 at 12:27 am

10 Responses

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  1. Important corollary: exactly the same is true of the empirical work on recent Chinese growth that Coase and Nee have recently completed. And it will again be shown re: India, and so on. Economic growth happens in The Street. This is where the most minds exist in absolute numbers, and where the most people cover structural holes in networks of knowledge, bringing technological recombination (and therefore growth) to bear.

    The realization blasts a huge hole in the current sociology of knowledge going on in soc-proper departments, and the soc of innovation going on at the B-schools. Both of these camps take as their unit of analysis (1) the academy, and (2) large-scale non-and-for-profit primary research facilities. Why? Because Big Discoveries are salient. And because the data are cheap and accessible. Salience does not equal causation — the historians made this mistake for nearly a century until they banished Whig histories.

    Mokyr insists again and again that Big Discoveries like the Watt steam engine did not add the most value to the economic pie — myriad tiny innovations of process and technique did (caveat: he has successfully shown however an interaction between “savants” (primary researchers) and “fabricants” (tinkerers) in the early modern period, and this joining of networks of knowledge could be quite important).

    The sociology of knowledge and innovation has presumably proceeded as it has because the favorite unit of analysis of the social scientist is his reflection upon himself. And the economists continue to whittle away at Big Inventions because these are patentable and hence amenable to a property-rights explanation of growth. There is no demonstrable correlation between patents and the rate of innovation unless you measure the rate of innovation with, surprise, patents.

    It is my belief that both of these programs are pointed in the wrong direction. A thoroughly proletarian study of the emergent catalysis of innovation and knowledge In the Street is the antidote.


    Graham Peterson

    March 13, 2013 at 12:45 am

  2. Big Z

    March 13, 2013 at 3:26 am

  3. (should be “Joel”, not “John”)



    March 13, 2013 at 6:47 am

  4. This suggests that the educated, far from being the elite, are actually the drones of industrialization. What a staggering thought.


    Michael Walker

    March 13, 2013 at 9:51 am

  5. John Meyer used to tell us in seminar that none of us (PhD students) was going to contribute to economic growth, and yet the worldwide expansion of higher education is justified on precisely these grounds.



    March 13, 2013 at 1:20 pm

  6. Pretendous: Take a peek at Bill Easterly’s chapter on education and economic growth in Elusive Quest for Growth. Just like democracy, everyone is convinced education is a fundamental determinate of growth — neither is true — but they make World Savers feel good, so I wouldn’t expect anyone to pay too much attention to the mountain of data on both any time soon.


    Graham Peterson

    March 13, 2013 at 1:23 pm

  7. If at the time of english industrialization the crucial educational factor was surely not higher education, but cultural literacy (or some kind of elementary eduation that in largely protestant countries was favoured by religious practices), would not it too far-strechted to suppose that fist-level higher education answers to today’s need of cultural literacy increased because of technology progress? While the problem to relate second and third level higher education to economic growth is much more blurred because of both higher education consumption value and its signalling effect.



    March 13, 2013 at 2:21 pm

  8. lubetano: universal K-6 education was the only one of the Millennium Development goals even nearly met for African nations, all of which netted on balance roughly zero or negative growth.

    Literacy is not necessary for higher-order logic and communication.

    On the other hand, a large portion of African nations *did* grow, even while the rest of the world was spinning into financial chaos, largely because of (I think) the influx of Chinese foreign direct investment and concomitant production-technology spillovers.

    It’s worth noting that Weber’s theory is pretty much defunct — there was nothing particularly special about Protestantism. Most of its major tropes are nicely mirrored in for instance Confucianism, which of course yielded no Industrial Revolution.


    Graham Peterson

    March 13, 2013 at 2:27 pm

  9. *correction: the universal K-6 education goal was almost completely met — the others weren’t even nearly


    Graham Peterson

    March 13, 2013 at 2:29 pm

  10. Reblogged this on Undergraduate Research Blog and commented:
    Great post (and comments) about the role and value of higher education for nation-building.



    March 14, 2013 at 10:00 pm

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