A Progress Studies History of Early MIT — Part 1: Training the engineers who built the country

Eric Gilliam:

Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen opened their 2019 Atlantic piece that helped jump-start the progress studies movement with the following passage:

In 1861, the American scientist and educator William Barton Rogers published a manifesto calling for a new kind of research institution. Recognizing the “daily increasing proofs of the happy influence of scientific culture on the industry and the civilization of the nations,” and the growing importance of what he called “Industrial Arts,” he proposed a new organization dedicated to practical knowledge. He named it the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In my eyes, MIT is entirely deserving of this honor: being used as the authors’ first example of an organization that generated progress. Yet, despite how well-known this article has become and MIT’s prominent placement in it, many in the progress studies community still don’t appreciate just how different the Institute was in its early years — arguably the Institute’s most productive years.

Early MIT was a remarkably differentiated product from the other elite, Ivy League universities. It was an experimental school focused on training a new kind of technical man, and a remarkably successful one. It helped train many elite engineers who helped build the country in America’s era of peak economic growth, an era whose growth is largely credited to engineering and technical feats. And its faculty contributed to this growth in an even more direct way, undertaking courses of research that bordered on being so practical that many in modern times wouldn’t even call it real academic research — not to mention its extremely close Industry partnerships that the school saw as vital to its mission. MIT was a place that saw itself as existing in service to industry, and it thrived in that role.

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