The Role of Universities in the Rise of Modern Industrial Society

By Lynn, Richard | Mankind Quarterly, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

The Role of Universities in the Rise of Modern Industrial Society


Lynn, Richard, Mankind Quarterly


Georg Oesterdiekhoffhas made an important contribution to the problem of what he rightly calls "the most fascinating riddle in world history" - why the industrial revolution occurred in Europe from the 18th century onwards and not in Asia. His answer is that the Europeans became more intelligent. This enabled them to work out the laws of the physical sciences that were the basis of the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution, such as the invention of the steam engine.

I believe Oesterdiekhoffis right in his answer that the Europeans became more intelligent. However, he does not offer an explanation of why the Europeans became more intelligent from the 17th century. I suggest the answer to this problem is that the Europeans established schools and universities. As he writes: "Exposure to modern culture, especially to modern school systems, seems to be the most decisive cause of the IQ gains. Without considerable schooling humans never gain abstractive and deductive reasoning abilities." It was probably the widespread establishment of schools throughout most of Europe, mainly in the 16th century, that was largely responsible for the increase in intelligence from the 17th century onwards.

I suggest that the principal reason for the development of understanding of the physical sciences was the widespread establishment of universities throughout Roman Catholic Europe from the eleventh century onwards. The first university was Bologna, founded in 1088, and the second was Oxford, founded in 1096. From the twelfth century numerous other universities were founded. These universities taught mathematics and employed mathematicians as professors, and it was these who made the advances in the physical sciences that formed the basis of the later technological inventions of the Industrial Revolution.

Oesterdiekhoff states that "The decisive transformation from the theological disciplines to the new physical sciences took place during the 18th century. Protagonists (forerunners?) had been Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, René Descartes, Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, and others..." I would modify this by proposing that the crucial beginnings of the advances in the physical sciences took place in the 16th and 17th centuries and by noting that these were made by men who had been educated in schools and universities and largely made by men who worked as professors in universities. Oesterdiekhoffmight have begun by naming Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543), "the founder of modern astronomy" (Thorne & Collocott, 1985), who was educated at the University of Cracow where he studied mathematics and optics, and for some years was a professor of mathematics in Rome. It was this education and experience that formed the basis of his thinking that became his revolutionary heliocentic theory of planetary rotation set out in his De Revolutionibus (1530).

He was followed by Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), who was educated at the University of Pisa where he studied mathematics, and worked subsequently as professor of mathematics at the University of Padua where he carried out research on astronomy and made his refinements of the Copernican heliocentic theory that he published in his Dialogo sopra in 1632. …

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