Industrial Intelligence

This is a re-post from a blog I keep with my mom about family genealogy called social genealogy. It’s a historical look at the problem of education in a changing economy.

Willis Blaisdell was my great-grandfather. Before he passed when I was 5, he left me a number of neat and thoughtful tokens of his own childhood — a children’s book about the American Revolution, his first fork and knife, and the remnants of his coin collection, much of which he sold to afford nursing care. I remember him as a kind man with a vibrant mind.

My mom’s genealogical research (and her own memories of him) provide more insight into his life.

Willis was the first person in my family tree to complete college. He attended New Hampshire College (now University of New Hampshire), graduating in 1912. This year, almost 100 years later in 2010, I’ll be the first person in my family to complete a PhD. Like him, my access to higher education was opened up by changes in overall education levels and changing ideas about the need for higher education. This quote, from Grubb and Lazzerson’s The Education Gospel, could be about the worlds either of us entered after school:

Social commentators worried about transformations in the economy, about technological changes that required new competencies and new occupations, about the communications revolution…and about international competition. The inequality of earnings was growing. Real annual earning were falling among the working poor, and poverty was increasing . Immigration added to poverty, the sense of instability, and the challenges to schools.

In the early 1900s, as in the early 2000s, the pace of change – in technology, work and society at large, left a generation of youth searching out new opportunities in an uncertain environment. Education was seen as a path to certain mobility. Then, education was a means to produce industrial intelligence in farming, home economics, and industrial labor and there was a movement toward high school for all. Now, education is a means to produce creative intelligence in flexible knowledge industries like consulting, communications, and engineering and there is a movement toward college for all.

The expansion of education encountered a similar contradiction then as now. Those with educational credentials far outnumber(ed) the jobs that require(d) such credentials. As youth were trained in math, reading, and sciences, many of them ended up in unskilled and semi-skilled labor where such knowledge was not relevant. Today, scientific and professional knowledge industries account for roughly 30% of all jobs. By a stricter definition of the knowledge economy, high tech jobs account for only 2.5% of all jobs. While it has been more democratic to train everyone for high skill jobs, economic opportunities have not followed for the vast majority who have today moved from the industrial labor market into often low-wage, unstable service industries.

I find it interesting in light of these statistics, and my own uncertain career future, to look at the jobs Willis had and the relevance of his education to his life choices. After graduation, he did work in agriculture, first as a milk tester, then as a herdsman on his wife (Mattie Allen) parents’ farm. I don’t know much about these occupations, how he felt about them, or whether he felt he was using his degree, but I assume he was using it and enjoyed his work. I also get the sense that during that time, a commitment to his wife’s family farm may have been more important and meaningful than individual career success.

After his wife’s tragic death, he worked on his in-laws’ farm where he also raised his daughter Louise and son John. Later, he remarried and left the farm, where his daughter and son remained. He never returned to farming. Instead, he sold appliances and juices door-to-door. In his old age, he worked as a mail carrier in Gilmanton Ironworks. These occupations were quite unrelated to the scientific management of agriculture.

From Willis’ activities, I get the sense that a college education provided him more than particular skills. He had the range of interests (and the gumption) to invest himself in several careers, even into his 80s. His personal circumstances and relationships to people also likely guided him as much as the social conditions of his time. His successes and struggles offer me hope today.

Reference: W. Norton Grubb and Marvin Lazerson. 2004. The Education Gospel: The Economic Power of Schooling. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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