Education Technology and 'The Rise and Fall of American Growth'

Economic history as a lens to think about the future of higher ed.

November 22, 2016

The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War by Robert J. Gordon

Published in January of 2016.

I resisted reading The Rise and Fall of American Growth.  

The reviews were laudatory.  The topic is of complete interest to me.  

But I was afraid that the conclusions that Gordon draws were lessons that I did not want to hear.  

My job is predicated - and maybe my entire sense of self - on the idea that the future will be much better than the present.  

I work under the assumption that the application of technology to teaching will result in non-incremental improvements in learning.  

This is the story that I tell myself, my colleagues, and really anyone who will listen.

And besides, the book is long.  784 pages.  Intimidating.

What finally pushed me to read The Rise and Fall of American Growth is that the book came out in Whispersync format - both e-book synced with audio.  A book that I can read with my eyes while sitting, and my ears while doing dishes, is a book that will get read.

I shouldn’t have waited so long to read this amazing book.  

Everyone curious about how we arrived at our current standard of living should read this book.  

Everyone interested in our economic future should read this book.  

Nor should pro-technology educators be afraid of Gordon’s conclusions.  

It turns out that one can be skeptical of the claims of techno-utopianism, as Gordon is, but still believe that education will change more (and more positively) in the next 30 years than during the previous 300.

The Rise and Fall of American Growth calls into question the whole idea of a bright future based on technological progress.  Through a careful analysis of the factors that created an unprecedented rise in American living standards between 1870 and 1970, and then an examination of technological advances and economic growth since 1970, Gordon concludes that future American economic growth will pale in comparison to the earlier period.

This argument rests on some observations that are difficult to dispute.  The first observation is just how poor and backwards the U.S. was prior to 1870. Things that we take for granted today, such as indoor plumbing and clean water, were not a part of the pre-1870 world. Almost every advance that the quality of modern life rests on, from antibiotics to automobiles, came after 1870.  

The conquering of infant mortality, the prevention of infectious disease, and the rise of mass schooling are developments that could only happen once.  The big leap was the move from horses to cars, and then from early flight to jet airplanes. Once these big leaps occurred they could not occur again.  

The second part of Gordon’s argument is an analysis as to why economic growth has been so slow since 1970, and if there is any likelihood that new technologies will accelerate economic growth in the future.  

Gordon is convincing in his diagnosis of post-1970 economic stagnation.  The headwinds to economic growth that he identifies, including rising inequality and crumbling infrastructure (as well as poor schools, heavy student debt, the decline of unionization, and the erosion of marriage and marital childbearing amongst the poor), do indeed represent significant barriers to economic growth.  

In covering the information, communications, and technology (ICT) revolutions since 1970s, Gordon concludes that the economic growth spurred by the computer, the internet, and the mobile phone are of a different scale compared to earlier technological advances.  The scale of Google and Facebook and the iPhone is broad, but the economic impact of these platforms is relatively small.  (At least compared to the impact of electric lighting, highways, airports, and penicillin).  

Digital technologies may change how we receive and process information, but they don’t do much to increase economic productivity.  

Further, the advantages of technological advances tend to be concentrated on a narrow range of creative / analytical class professionals.  Ever more powerful computers and smart phones may be a benefit to designers and engineers - but there are only so many design and engineering jobs to go around.  

Digital technologies also tend to concentrate wealth at the top.  The founders and early investors in Uber will get rich - the people driving the Uber cars struggle to earn a middle class wage.

Where Gordon departs from the "techno-utopians" is in his thinking about the future of jobs.  There is a meme going around higher ed circles that 50 percent of all jobs will disappear in the next 30 years.  The rise of the machines (think self-driving cars and trucks, Baxter robots everywhere, etc.) will destroy many jobs.  Just as Netflix got rid of all those Blockbuster employees, Uber will make truck, cab, and delivery drivers obsolete.

Gordon thinks that this prediction of disappearing jobs is nonsense.  He believes that we are entering a future of lots of bad jobs (low-paid, low-autonomy), a few really good jobs (creative / analytical) - and not much in-between.  

The hollowing out of the American job market will continue.  The future will hold rising income inequality and slow growth, but not mass joblessness.  

So where does all this leave educational technology?  

Can we argue that the intelligent application of new learning technologies and new teaching methods (based on the science of learning) will lead to non-incremental improvements in postsecondary education?  

Can we envision a technologically mediated future of lower costs, wider access, and better quality for higher education?

From reading The Rise and Fall of American Growth, I tend to think that the future of postsecondary education will be much like the future of the larger economy.  Spectacular innovation and growth, but benefits that are not evenly distributed.  I’m concerned that new educational technologies will most privilege the already privileged. 

I continue to be more hopeful than Gordon - but my optimism for the future is certainly tempered by the time that I invested reading this magisterial book.

What are you reading?


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