Research Economics

Shedding Light on the Road to Universal Education

, by Fabio Todesco
Mara Squicciarini obtained an ERC Starting Grant for a quantitative history project focusing on France from the 1789 French Revolution to the 1900s

Free and universal education is considered a major achievement and a crucial factor for economic development, but it continues to be anything but, well, universal. Still today, many countries do not guarantee full access to education, religious minorities often face restricted learning opportunities, and top educational institutions are being dismantled if they dissent from governments' policies.

Mara Squicciarini, Assistant Professor at Bocconi Department of Economics, obtained a €1.46mln European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant to study the drivers and consequences of educational expansion, the patterns of inclusion of religious minorities in the school system, and the effect of closing down a high-quality educational institution on innovation and politics. She will study these phenomena through the lenses of quantitative economic history, focusing on France from the 1789 French Revolution to the 1900s, a period of key educational reforms, crucial for French and, more broadly, European modernization.

The EDIPO - Education, Diversity, Innovation, and Politics research proposal sheds light on past and current instances of expansion and universalization of education, by identifying exemplary historical episodes to establish causality and then studying the long-term effects. To this aim, it constructs ground-breaking micro data from archival and secondary sources, of similar quality and detail of modern data, but for a longer time horizon. Their unique level of coverage allows Professor Squicciarini to perform a comprehensive analysis, using up-to-date econometric methods.

EDIPO is composed of three projects:

The first project will study the process of educational expansion, from its demand to its consequences. It will focus on the Cahiers des Doléances, which – solicited in 1789 by King Louis XVI to each of the three estates (clergy, nobility, and third estate) – are a list of suggestions and grievances on several aspects of the social, economic, and political situation of France. Using automated text analysis methodologies, Prof. Squicciarini will study the demand for schooling. Contrary to received wisdom, preliminary results find no evidence of demand for education by the illiterates. The findings show instead that demand for educational expansion to the masses came from the progressive elites of the time. Then, the project will provide novel micro-level evidence on the role of schooling for sectoral specialization and growth during the period of the First Industrial Revolution.

In the second project, Prof. Squicciarini will focus on the Affaire Dreyfus, one of the most famous discrimination episodes in European history and investigate how rising discrimination affects schooling preferences and choices of a discriminated minority – the Jews in this case. In addition, she will study how the Protestants (the religious minority not directly discriminated against) reacted to discrimination against another minority and whether they supported the Jewish minority or the Catholic majority.

Finally, Prof. Squicciarini will use the forced closure of Jesuit collèges from 1880 to 1885 to provide the first empirical evidence on the consequences of dismantling a top (but dissident) educational institution on the future potential of a country – in terms of its human capital, innovation, as well as on the diversity of the political debate and the support for the incumbent government. The Jesuits indeed were training the scientific elites of the country but also represented the main oppositional force to the government.

"EDIPO," Prof. Squicciarini says, "speaks to economists, economic historians, and political scientists. It uses 100 years of history as an exemplary laboratory to provide novel evidence on the causal relationship between education and economic, political and social outcome. It also contributes to important public debates, such as, the importance of achieving universal education; the increasing diversity of our society and the discrimination often faced by minority groups; and the dismantling of institutions training outstanding but dissident scholars."

The Road to Universal Education

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