The contribution of education to economic development is difficult to assess. On the one hand, in contemporary settings, there is little doubt that education matters for innovation and growth — to say nothing of its direct benefits for those who receive education. On the other hand, historical evidence on education’s role is mixed. Scandinavia is a good case study: Denmark, Norway and Sweden all had relatively high rates of literacy by 1800, but were at the same time also relatively poor.
But maybe it is not the basic education level of the masses that, at least in pre-industrial times, had the greatest effect on development. Rather, we should perhaps look to what Mokyr describes as the ‘upper tail’: the relative few with a high level of useful skills. Some existing empirical work provides tentative support for this idea, but comprehensive measures of the ‘upper tail’ remain elusive. In a new working paper, Kristin Ranestad, Paul Sharp and I document a novel set of sources for charting the educated elite: biographies.→