October 05, 2003

Human Capital Deepening in Nineteenth-Century America

Claudia Goldin and Larry Katz think about how America became the most formal skill- and education-intensive economy in the world:

The "Virtues" of the Past: Education in the First Hundred Years of the New Republic: By the mid-nineteenth century school enrollment rates in the United States exceeded those of any other nation in the world and by the early twentieth century the United States had accomplished mass education at all levels. No country was able to close the gap until the last quarter of the twentieth century. For much of its history U.S. education was spurred by a set of 'virtues,' the most important of which were public provision by small fiscally independent districts, public funding, secular control, gender neutrality, open access, a forgiving system, and an academic curriculum. The outcomes of the virtues were an enormous diffusion of educational institutions and the early spread of mass education. America borrowed its educational institutions from Europe but added to them in ways that served to enhance competition and openness. The virtues of long ago need not be the virtues of today, and they also need not have been virtuous in all places and at all times in the past. In this essay we explore the historical origins of these virtues and find that almost all were in place in the period before the American Civil War...

Posted by DeLong at October 5, 2003 05:48 PM | TrackBack

Comments

Hmmm... quite an interesting and illuminating paper. If I have one objection to it, it is that it lists virtues without saying what, exactly, is so virtuous about them. They convincingly show that American schools were more gender neutral than those of Prussia, say, and more open and forgiving than those in France, but why are they virtues? What's good about gender neutrality or an open and forgiving education system? Maybe those are questions for another paper, though.

Posted by: Julian Elson on October 5, 2003 07:26 PM

"open access"???

Not to blacks until the late in the 20th century. Look at the legacy of denial of access.

Posted by: bakho on October 5, 2003 07:29 PM

"... public provision by small fiscally independent districts, public funding, secular control, gender neutrality, [!!!]open access[!!!], a forgiving system, and an academic curriculum."

Why does it cost $5 to read the whole paper? Ah that's right. Progress. Deepening the human capital pool and all that. But only for those who can afford to pay.

If only the physicists and computer scientists weren't such a damning counterexample.

Posted by: Russell L. Carter on October 5, 2003 09:17 PM

"...by the early twentieth century the United States had accomplished mass education at all levels. No country was able to close the gap until the last quarter of the twentieth century."

In the early 20th Century NYC had a high school graduation rate of 10%. As it also had the most developed major public school system in the US, it is doubtful that graduation rates elsewhere were higher.

If that's what's meant by "mass education at all levels", OK. But Britain certainly matched it, as 70% of adults there were literate as early as 1840 -- a higher level than the world mean literacy rate in 1970 -- and effective 100% literacy was reached by 1900. (All before public schools as we know them existed.)

See, e.g., _The Economics of Education in English Political Economy_, by economic historian Mark Blaug.

I don't think the US did any better than Britain. But as we inherited so much from our colonial overseers it's not surprising we had comparable educational achievements. No *other* country closed the gap before the end of the 20th C, perhaps.

Posted by: Jim Glass on October 5, 2003 09:25 PM

What? I got the paper free. I don't know where it says you have to pay $5.

What are you talking about regarding physicists and computer scientists? Counterexample to what?

Posted by: Julian Elson on October 5, 2003 09:27 PM

Julian: It asked me for $5 too. Probably you're using a computer at an institution that has a subscription to NBER's archives.

The counterexample is that physicists and computer scientists now put close to 100% of their papers up for free download, without any apparent damage to their respective fields.

Posted by: Walt Pohl on October 5, 2003 09:33 PM

I got the paper for free, too. I suppose UNCG gets a subscription to NBER's archives. It should, with the Bryan Business School's rep.

Posted by: James S. W. on October 5, 2003 11:30 PM

Well, sorry to hear about that. I had no idea about the evils of NBER registration fees, here in my ivory tower of academe.

Uhm... er... if anyone really wants to read it, my e-mail is linked to my name. S/he could ask me about it via e-mail, though, of course, there's not a chance in hell I'd illegally e-mail it to him/her as an attachment. Nope. Never. This would just be to ask me for a paraphrased summary of it. Yeah, that's all.

Posted by: Julian Elson on October 5, 2003 11:54 PM

I may just be realizing what everybody else already knew, but isn't Claudia Golden hitting a lot of doubles and triples? I keep seeing her name attached to interesting stuff.

Posted by: K Harris on October 6, 2003 08:31 AM

Back on topic, OK? Jim Glass's knee-jerk response is about what I'd expect. Jim might even be right about some of that, but by now he has little credibility. I'll wait for the information to come from elsewhere.

I have read reports (local and family history) from late XIX early XX C. Dutch and Norwegian settlers talking about setting up public schools in tiny villages before the economically-struggling parents had even learned English. Their excitement is palpable. The gist of the Goldin article seems to be that free secular public education was a unique and tremendously successful innovation. Does Jim disagree?

We hear all these people with anti-union, religious and anti-tax agendas talking about how public education is a failed experiment, but are they right? And if they are wrong, are they in good faith?

My son and ten nephews and nieces have received good public educations in 4 states of the US and one province in Canada. Whenever I say this in one of these arguments, the anti-public-school people act like I'm changing the subject. They just want to continue regurgitating the right-wing spin points about the worst schools in the country.

Here and Oregon the Republican head of the Senate education committee is on record telling parents to pull their kids from the public schools and enroll them in Christian schools. (The Oregon schools are pretty good, especially for committed students).

To me it's nihilistic bullshit. Some local schools are pretty bad, especially but not only in areas where most things are pretty bad. People with positive suggestions for improvement should absolutely bring them forward. But that's not what's driving the dialogue.

It especially pisses me off that a lot of the hot air comes from people like Sen. Trent Lott and Rep. Tom Delay, who represent places where minimally-adequate education is either a distant goal (Mississippi) or a very recent triumph (Texas).

Posted by: Zizka on October 6, 2003 10:02 AM

Back on topic, OK? Jim Glass's knee-jerk response is about what I'd expect. Jim might even be right about some of that, but by now he has little credibility. I'll wait for the information to come from elsewhere.

I have read reports (local and family history) from late XIX early XX C. Dutch and Norwegian settlers talking about setting up public schools in tiny villages before the economically-struggling parents had even learned English. Their excitement is palpable. The gist of the Goldin article seems to be that free secular public education was a unique and tremendously successful innovation. Does Jim disagree?

We hear all these people with anti-union, religious and anti-tax agendas talking about how public education is a failed experiment, but are they right? And if they are wrong, are they in good faith?

My son and ten nephews and nieces have received good public educations in 4 states of the US and one province in Canada. Whenever I say this in one of these arguments, the anti-public-school people act like I'm changing the subject. They just want to continue regurgitating the right-wing spin points about the worst schools in the country.

Here and Oregon the Republican head of the Senate education committee is on record telling parents to pull their kids from the public schools and enroll them in Christian schools. (The Oregon schools are pretty good, especially for committed students).

To me it's nihilistic bullshit. Some local schools are pretty bad, especially but not only in areas where most things are pretty bad. People with positive suggestions for improvement should absolutely bring them forward. But that's not what's driving the dialogue.

It especially pisses me off that a lot of the hot air comes from people like Sen. Trent Lott and Rep. Tom Delay, who represent places where minimally-adequate education is either a distant goal (Mississippi) or a very recent triumph (Texas).

Posted by: Zizka on October 6, 2003 10:07 AM

The Harvard Econ Dept. has this paper - at no cost here: http://www.economics.harvard.edu/~goldin/papers/virtues.pdf

Posted by: Christian Kaylor on October 6, 2003 11:27 PM
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