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EdTech Lessons from "The Big Roads"
January 30, 2012 - 8:00pm

The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways by Earl Swift

Us edtech guys and gals are infrastructure geeks. We like to understand, and to talk about, the engineering that makes our systems run. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt - have you made a concerted effort to sell The Big Roads to the vast, wealthy, and influential population that makes its living in learning technology?  

The Big Roads is a great companion book to Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway by Matt Dellinger.  (See my 9/16/10 review of this book here).

Swift's tale of the Interstate Highway system is really two stories. 

The first is an origins story. We think we know this story, about how President Eisenhower came back from the War and decreed that America would have a modern highway system capable of moving troops, populations (and nuclear missiles), as a key part of our Cold War arsenal. Turns out, the highway system has many progenitors, and has roots going back much further than the 1950s. The 47,000 or so miles of Interstate that we associate with the 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act were the fulfillment of decades of work by highway enthusiasts, bureaucrats, and visionaries.  The history of the National Highway System, the largest single infrastructure project ever conceived and built, follows closely the larger 20th century U.S. economic and social stories of migration, population and industrial growth, urbanization and eventual suburbanization.   

The second story is one of resistance. Swift tells the story of the "freeway revolts" that occurred in the 1960's in urban areas as diverse as Baltimore, Atlanta, and San Francisco. The great tragedy of our Interstate project was the Robert Moses inspired efforts to "save" our aging industrial cities by building highways through them. This obsession with efficient transportation created the deep wounds imposed on urban landscapes in the form of gigantic (often elevated) highways running through city centers. These highways served to destroy neighborhoods (usually poor and African American), divide cities, and cut-off urban life from natural features such as waterfronts. Only now are some of these monstrosities starting to come down, with the best example being San Francisco tearing up its Embarcadero Freeway (following the the 1989 earthquake).

Many people resisted the encroachment of highways into their urban neighborhoods. Some citizens, such as those in Baltimore, were able to delay or significantly change the routes of proposed urban highways.   

Us edtech enthusiasts must be mindful of not making the same mistakes as our cousins, the highway engineers. We need include in our discussions and planning the voices of people wishing to preserve the traditional higher education experience, even as we hurdle ever faster into our brave new technology mediated education world.  

What are you reading? Any good infrastructure books to recommend?


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