Science in the Scottish Enlightenment
Science in the Scottish Enlightenment

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Science in the Scottish Enlightenment

2.3 The universities

Turning to the universities, scholars have discovered that much more was going on during the late seventeenth century than the unimaginative training of young men for ministry in a dour church. Another legacy from the Reformation in Scotland was a recognition of the need for education, and, by the beginning of the eighteenth century, five universities, in four cities, were well established. (England, a far larger country, had only two.) Research and specialist teaching was held back by a system known as ‘regenting’, whereby individual ‘regents’ taught every subject to undergraduates. Not until the eighteenth century could lecturers break out of this generalist teaching of often outdated material, and provide specialist courses.

Even so, the universities were not backwaters. The work of Shepherd, for example, has shown that Newton's work was finding its way onto the syllabuses of Scottish universities from the 1680s. She has also reconstructed syllabuses at Edinburgh which show that the work of Copernicus, Galileo and Boyle was being taught (Shepherd, 1982). And in a reconstruction of Hume's education at Edinburgh University in the 1720s, Barfoot has found evidence that he was alerted there to the latest developments in science (Barfoot, 1990).

Not all innovation came from beyond Scotland's borders, and that which did was just as likely to have come from the Netherlands as from England, especially in the field of medicine. There were powerful links between medicine in Leiden and in Edinburgh. There were also entirely local traditions in mathematics, chemistry and medicine.

Figure 1
Figure 1: The Scottish connection

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