I am currently reading “The Americans – The National Experience” by Daniel Boorstin, Pulitzer Prize winner and former Librarian of Congress. The book is part of his trilogy on the social history of America.
In his chapter on how innovative New England manufacturing methods were quickly putting American manufacturing ahead of old England, Boorstin wrote an interesting passage on the training of the American worker.
The New England system of manufacturing, destined to become the American system, prized generalized intelligence, literacy, adaptability, and willingness to learn. As the machinery of production became larger, more complicated, more tightly integrated, more expensive, and more rigid, working men were expected to be more alert and more teachable. Open minds were more valuable than trained hands. Technicians and industrialists from England noted a new type of workman being created in the United States. The most skilled English mechanics, they regretfully confessed, showed such “timidity resulting from traditional notions, and attachment to old systems, even among the most talented persons, that they keep considerably behind.” In the American system, they said, “you do not depend on dexterity—all you want is intellect.”
It sounds like as far back as the late 18th century, American workers who were adaptable and willing to learn were as much valued as they are today.