Did schooling drive the Industrial Revolution?

Alexandra M. de Pleijt has a new paper on that topic (pdf):

Did human capital contribute to economic growth in England? In this paper the stock of total years of schooling present in the population between 1300 and 1900 is quantified. The stock incorporates extensive source material on literacy rates, the number of primary and secondary schools and enrollment figures. The trends in the data suggest that, whilst human capital facilitated pre-industrial economic development, it had no role to play during the Industrial Revolution itself: there was a strong decline in educational attainment between ca. 1750 and 1830. A time series analysis has been carried out that confirms this conclusion.

The reference there is from Ben Southwood.


James Watt came from a well-educated nation, Scotland, and was home-schooled by his well-educated mother.

Why go to the expense of sending your children to school when you can take them to work at the factory?

This is consistent with what the Luddites actually were trying to do (as opposed to what modern techno-utopians argue they were trying to do). The Luddites were exactly "anti-technology"--they were against the deployment of machines against their particular set of skills in weaving and handcrafting. The deployment of machines (i.e. looms) was clearly going to deskill the entire industry and render their education superfluous, and correspondingly undermine their wages and their social privilege. Hence, they went all smashy-smashy.

"as opposed to what modern techno-utopians argue they were trying to do"
What do you think modern techno-utopians argue???

In other words Luddites were violent monopolists, ruthlessly and selfishly advancing their own pecuniary interests.

Yet another confirmation of the importance of using public choice economics as a lens when viewing all human actions.

And here I was up till now, thinking that p_a's meaning would become discernible if only he would write briefly.

Strike another blow for the Protestant thesis. If schooling was important, then presumably it is those Calvinists who insisted everyone, boy or girl, should be able to read the Bible for themselves that are to blame.

"Newcomen's religion had consequences greater than absence from a local census.  Dissenters, including Baptists, Presbyterians, and others, were as a class, excluded from universities after 1660, and either apprenticed, or learned their science from dissenting academies."

"At the same time that he chartered the world's first scientific society, Charles II had created an entire generation of dissenting intellectuals uncontrolled by his kingdom's ever more technophobic universities."

p29, Rosen, Willam, 'The Most Powerful Idea in the World'

That's about 100 years earlier than the time in question, but it sets up the environment. The early advances in the industrial revolution came as much from the skilled trades as the scientific education. Not to mention, the skilled tradesman had to know a lot about the chemistry, mechanics, etc., as their tools and supplies had to be foraged, mixed, made, etc.

Also, as Steve Sailer pointed out, many of educated during that time came out of Scotland, which had adopted the English penchant for education wholeheartedly as opposed to retaining traditional cultural practices.

"Scotland, which had adopted the English penchant for education wholeheartedly": oh what rubbish. Scotland's penchant for education goes back to its Reformation; it was nothing to do with England. From then until the 1960s Scottish education was recognised as superior, even in England. Since then, the triumph of the Forces of Progress has buggered that up.

Not sure you're going to get at this question given the data used.

There's no reason to assume that literacy rates or "education" would have any impact on industrialization. Not if we don't consider what was taught in primary or secondary schools in England at the time. I.e., not all "education" is created equal. If in 1750 the type of "education" one received in English schools was geared towards being able to read the Bible, for example, there's no particular reason why this would impact an economic trend based on...productivity improvement.

The Industrial Revolution was based on productivity improvement. That requires no educational abilities on the majority of the people partaking in it (i.e., the workers). Same thing as we see happening in China or Vietnam or we saw in many other developing countries.

The gains from education (again depending on how one defines it and what its content is), come later. At least, the gains from a general increase in education over a population. Clearly, "education" played a role in the invention of the machinery and systems needed for productivity improvement. But that isn't going to be reflected in the population trend. That's specific to "innovators".

So it seems like flimsy logic to tie in a population trend with productivity improvements.

But more educated people means also more educated potential innovators, even if innovators are a very small fraction of the population.

Imagine that only 0.01% of the people has the (innate?) ability to invent a new technology, and that the fraction of the population with the education required to create a new technology rose from 5% to 10%; then, you will have 0.001% of the population inventing, instead of only 0.0005% (small absolute difference, but high relative difference).

Yeah but that's the assumption which an overall population average literacy rate isn't going to get at.

If 0.01% of the population is the innovators, there's nothing to tell us if their level of education increased along with the general population literacy rate, or if they already had unrestricted access to education independent of the population average literacy rate.

You (and the paper) are making the assumption that the education level of that 0.01% is reflected in the population literacy rate.

It likely isn't.

PS: The use of the term "human capital" is flimsy here. Human capital does not equal literacy rate. Not only is that too coarse, but it has no logical connection with productivity. In fact, the value of being able to read decreases as more people are able to read, which in itself implies diminishing returns on literacy.

PPS: Second, I'm not sure how the authors can make any claims here by simply looking at a within country trend. To see the impact of "human capital", even broadly (and wrongly) defined as "literacy rate", one would have to look at between country differences. I.e., you need some comparison group.

The value of reading more likely increases with the number of people who read, since you can collaborate with them, etc.

But again that's the assumption which this measure can't get at.

What was the focus of primary and secondary education in England at the time? It was mostly religious instruction.

One of the papers referred shows that the **average** literacy doesn't matter for industrialization. Instead it is level of knowledge at the elite level that causes the differences. Scandinavia was fully literate by 1800 but lagged industrialization. The Industrial revolution is the result of a tiny minority of people. The average has been over for over 200 years.


And yet it was famous that part of the success of the Agricultural Revolution was attributed to having literate farmers who could keep up with the new ideas.

I guess I'm biased because I'm a professional writer, but I am in favor of literacy.

Literacy, like the Western Civilization, would be a good idea.

Exactly! This is about "elite" education.

In fact, it is...STILL...about "elite" education. If one, even today, looks at literacy rates, primary and secondary schooling rates and economic development...one is likely to find very weak association, if any.

It's the university education, and at that the top universities...which produce most of the innovators and wealth creators.

Not to say that there is no benefit to overall literacy and education. But it isn't the sort of thing that produces industrial revolutions. Back then, or today.

They actually do not show there their claim

"Evidence from more than 14,000 French firms in 1837 further supports our argument. We show that firms in modern, innovative sectors (but not in traditional ones) were much more productive in regions with higher subscriber density, even after controlling for sector and location fixed effects. This suggests that upper tail knowledge favored the adoption and efficient operation of innovative industrial technology."

To pick some particular 8 years in http://www.anderson.ucla.edu/faculty/nico.v/Research/Encyclopedie_forthcoming.pdf , table 11 looks a lot like cherry picking

Either way, its a much better paper than the one linked here at MR.

isn't is this an example of the work/education tradeoff? It seems possible that many young adults chose to trade educational gains for the immediate revenue that comes from factory work.

It seems like a good idea until you get a young boss who knows nothing about the machines, but because he's literate and able to do math and reason, he learns enough to start telling you to change the machine settings, and while you could have told him it would only produce scrap, in a week he's telling you how to set the machines to produce good stuff, and in a month he's getting credit for increases in production, with charts and graphs showing progress, plus proposals for new machines and other changes. He might even have asked you friendly and all and you taught him, but he's the one with the charts and graphs and proposals and budgets, not you. He's gone in a few years to better things and you are stuck on the line as supervisor with no reporting required so you are just a cog.

You would have been better off in the blacksmiths or cobblers where over a few years you would earn an apprenticeship and 6-7 years later you could be a journeyman.

Education isn't for doing "a job", but for being able to chart your path in a career.

I'm no economist, but didn't the USA play a role in the Industrial Revolution? The 2nd Great Awakening in the early 19th century resulted in a literate population in America that put its British counterpart to shame. It may have been informal, church schooling, but it was still schooling that taught nearly every American (including slaves, according to the book "What Hath God Wrought?") to read. Like maybe that shit mattered.

"didn’t the USA play a role in the Industrial Revolution?" Only a minor one; mainly it copied first Britain and later Germany.

Presumably quality of education matters more than quantity.
More education hasn't helped in the 20th century:
"In 1960, countries with an education level of 8.3 years of schooling were 5.5 times richer than those with 2.8 year of schooling. By contrast, countries that had increased their education from 2.8 years of schooling in 1960 to 8.3 years of schooling in 2010 were only 167% richer. Moreover, much of this increase cannot possibly be attributed to education, as workers in 2010 had the advantage of technologies that were 50 years more advanced than those in 1960. Clearly, something other than education is needed to generate prosperity."

I suspect the relationship of schooling to economic growth is less happy than the theory that smarter people go onto become more successful and rich as a reward for carefully doing homework every night.

I think modern schooling accomplishes several purposes that are essential to economic growth but are not quite as noble sounding as imparting wisdom on the young.

1. Schooling uses economies of scale to get the job of supervising kids done thereby freeing up most of the day for most adults to get stuff done.

2. Schooling breaks the 'clan mentality' by forcing people out of their immediate families and into socializing with people from strange families during most of the day.

3. Modern society requires being able to sit still for very long periods of time while paying careful attention to how others perceive your actions and words. Kids, by nature, do not want to sit still and generally are unable to see how complicated relationships between people are. Schools serve essentially as a type of jail that keeps trouble making kids from disrupting society and getting themselves in trouble until they 'grow out of it'.

This is not quite social capital in the positive sense of learning skills like how to use Excel. This is capital in the sense that boot camp is, a method to prune away bad habits and shape the person into the 'system'. I suspect, though, that it remains pretty essential to all modern economies and it very well might be nearly half of the value that schooling provides.

What does this explain IMO?

1. Why tribal societies like Afghanistan seem to have a less than totally supportive view of schools.

2. Why schools are always so expensive...you aren't just buying a crash course in alegebra or geometry.

3. Why homeschooling does not take off. For the same reason people don't grow much food in their backyards, it is essentially a niche hobby that is impractical for large scale use in a modern society.

4. Why lots of online study methods will continue to grow but not replace physical schools where young kids spend a sizeable chunck of the day.

5. In fact, expect more hours of school rather than fewer despite greater options to learn outside of a classroom.

What you're saying is partially true, but it is likely only a small fraction of the benefit of schooling (at least for young kids).

If what you were saying where major contributors, then we should expect to see little difference between the quality of the "education" (i.e. the stuff actually taught, and who is teaching it) and kid's performance later on. But, there obviously is a very large impact.

Secondly, schooling is likely to increase in the future simply because specialization in knowledge is becoming more important than ever...hence...a BS degree just doesn't cut it anymore. But, I assume you're speaking of more hours of schooling in...early childhood education, rather than more years of schooling.

It's the other way around.

Dangerous, I think, to reason backward; that is, to observe (correctly) that education in the 21st century is imperfectly correlated with productivity, and therefore conclude that education generally, and literacy specifically, weren't key elements of the Industrial Revolution. Joel Mokyr at Northwestern is the go-to scholar on the subject, and he makes a persuasive case that the 18th century's enthusiasm for what was widely known as "useful knowledge" was utterly dependent on a large and literate audience for its diffusion. The era was, for the first time in history, full of what we would today call professional publications targeted at artisans like wheelwrights, mechanics and blacksmiths (an example was the widely popular Course of Mechanical and Experimental Philosophy by J.T. Desaguliers, published in 1754; another is the Oliver Evans's 1795 Young Millwright and Miller's Guide). See Mokyr's book THE GREAT SYNERGY for a detailed exploration of the subject.

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