Toward the end of the eighteenth century when England began the transformation to become the first industrial society on earth, the colonies that would soon become the United States of America were scattered communities with muddy streets cutting through them and no reliable connecting roads. As the Revolutionary War approached, the smart money was on England. It had a formidable navy, a well-trained army, and factories to produce both guns (military weapons and supplies) and butter (domestic goods).
The U.S. victory was quite likely the greatest surprise of that era because industrialism was the new intellectual forefront, much as information retrieval and nanotechnology are today. But, within a relatively short time, the U.S. surpassed England, becoming the most industrialized country in the world. What happened? How did England lose its edge?
Our nation’s founders, people like Thomas Jefferson who built the University of Virginia, believed that a well-educated population was the key to future success. England, however, stuck to its elitist ways, washing out students with a device called the “thirteen-year test.” This system of eliminating potential students from the university system persisted well into the late twentieth century. Without realizing its error, England fostered an educational climate that was great for the few, but non-existent for the many.
Meanwhile, America’s elitist institutions (like the Ivy League) were joined by land-grant colleges (like state universities that specialized in science and agriculture, instead of liberal arts) and individual-sponsored schools (like Rockefeller’s University of Chicago). The general population also benefited from about 3,500 Carnegie libraries and museums spread across the country in small towns and large cities, alike...