Turning peasants into Frenchmen

That’s the title of one of my favorite books that development folks seldom read but should.

The basic thrust: in (nearly) living memory, French was a foreign language to more than half its citizens. The path to universal French, and with it nationhood, was beaten down by bureaucracy and education and not a little coercion. A couple world wars and industrialization helped too.

When we look at ethnic conflicts today, and judge that a heterogeneous or polarized population causes conflict, we forget that homogeneity is an outcome  of long and bloody struggle, with many losers, and not some lucky trait that rich countries have and poor countries don’t.

The book puts more emphasis on state-building than economic incentives. I’m not sure that’s right. that is why I was excited to see this paper by an LSE grad student, Konrad Burchardi. It’s a pretty technical paper, but the basic thing it does is show the co-evolution language homogeneity, industrialization, and growth. He looks at early France, but we might just as easily look ahead to a few dozen industrializing countries and expect to see the same thing.

One of the more original and possibly more important things I’ve seen from a grad student in some time. Worth a look.