Higher education in the Middle Ages

The first universities were founded in Europe in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. In Scandinavia, the oldest extant universities can be found in Uppsala and Copenhagen — both universities opened in the late fifteenth century. My own institution, Lund University, was established in 1666 — following an earlier medieval academy in Lund, which was shuttered during the Reformation. (The Academy of Lund was connected to a Franciscan monastery.)

On one level, modern-day universities are a world apart from their medieval forebears. The numbers of the students and academics, and the range of courses and research on offer, are an order of magnitude greater today than in past centuries. But on another level, the mission of these institutions is fundamentally unchanged. The specialised skills communicated through higher education, as well as the knowledge and productive applications generated through research endeavours, are essential to understanding economic growth and humanity’s progress. Is it possible to trace the effects of the earliest universities on development?

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Leaving their mark

Københavns Universitet

This week, I get to offer a sneak peak on my work as a researcher. My colleagues and I have put out a working paper (PDF link), describing our early efforts to produce a detailed measure of educational acquisition in Denmark from the 19th century onwards. Our longer-term ambition is to use this (and other) data to explore the role of education — and in particular, changes in the types of higher education — in Denmark’s industrialisation.

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School’s out

Across much of the world, one of the initial responses to the covid-19 pandemic was to close schools. WIth the virus still circulating, many jurisdictions continue to grapple with the question of when and how to resume physical classes. Much of the political debate is focused on the health risks. Many are understandably concerned about how safe it is to send students and teachers back into classrooms. But history also points to the risks associated with maintaining shutdowns. Specifically, disrupting children’s schooling can have persistent effects on their overall level of schooling.

Can we evaluate the consequences of mandated school closures? Plainly, one can only guess at the long-term effects of a coronavirus-induced shutdown: in the absence of time travel, the lifetime outcomes of today’s kids is unknowable. But maybe past examples from other health crises can help to gauge the direction and magnitude of effects?

In new research, Meyers and Thomasson (2020) analyse one historical case involving widespread school closures: the 1916 polio epidemic in the US. Thanks to comprehensive immunisation, polio is today eradicated across the developed world. But no vaccine (or effective treatment) was available in the early 20th century. The 1916 epidemic was significant, with more than 23,000 reported cases distributed across just about every state in the US.

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