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human progress lesson

Centers of Progress, Pt. 18: Edinburgh

In this article, Chelsea Follett describes why the small university city of Edinburgh, Scotland, was such an important intellectual center in the Enlightenment.

By Sean Kinnard


Centers of Progress

14-part unit
  • Centers of Progress, Pt. 37: Dubrovnik

    Dubrovnik is a beautiful walled city on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia, once home to one of the freest and most cosmopolitan societies in Europe and one of the first societies to implement comprehensive public health measures to contain disease.

  • Centers of Progress, Pt. 36: Seville

    Today we know Seville as the sunny capital of the region of Andalusia, but during the century following the Iberian conquest of America, Seville was one of the most important cities in Europe.

  • Centers of Progress, Pt. 6: Chichen Itza

    In this lesson, you will learn about Chichen Itza—a sprawling ruined city in the Yucatán Peninsula in modern Mexico—and the oldest continuously played ball sport in the world variously called Pok‐​A‐​Tok, Ulama, or simply, the Ball Game.

  • Centers of Progress, Pt. 16: Amsterdam

    In this lesson, you’ll learn about how a unique set of cultural values that emphasized openness and tolerance helped lead Amsterdam to the pinnacle of European commercial success during the Dutch Golden Age

  • Centers of Progress, Pt. 1: Jericho

    Why did our ancestors turn their backs on a nomadic way of life that was thousands of years old? Why did people begin to live in farming communities about 10,000 years ago? This article answers those questions by discussing the history of Jericho—the world’s oldest city and possibly the birthplace of agriculture.

  • Centers of Progress, Pt. 35: Agra

    In this lesson, students will learn about the Mughal Empire and its rulers by exploring the theme of monumental architecture. They will also have the opportunity to research other “new wonders of the world” and examine their own beliefs about memorials in contemporary society.

  • Centers of Progress, Pt. 18: Edinburgh

    In this article, Chelsea Follett describes why the small university city of Edinburgh, Scotland, was such an important intellectual center in the Enlightenment.

  • Centers of Progress, Pt. 15: Mainz

    In this lesson, students will learn about the city of Mainz, Germany and the man responsible for Europe’s rapid adoption of the printing press, Johannes Gutenberg.

  • Your Life in Numbers

    In this lesson, you’ll learn how these measures have changed during your lifetime and compare your results with people in other countries.

  • Centers of Progress, Pt. 10: Chang’an

    In this lesson, you’ll learn how the Silk Road greatly expanded the international flow of goods and ideas and how Chang’an both benefited from and contributed to that exchange.

  • Centers of Progress: Manchester

    In this lesson, you’ll learn about the city of Manchester, England, the first center of textile production in Great Britain as well as how industrialization there helped spark a revolution in living standards over the past 200 years.

  • Your Life in Numbers: Student Work Document

    Interpret interactive, data‐​driven tools, and compare and contrast international results to make inferences and draw conclusions about changes and improvements over time in the quality of life: locally, regionally, and globally, and more.

In this article, Chelsea Follett describes why the small university city of Edinburgh, Scotland, was such an important intellectual center in the Enlightenment. During this period, scrappy Edinburgh produced such giants as David Hume, Adam Smith, and James Watt, historical figures who have had a profound impact on our world.


  • What do you already know about Edinburgh, Scotland? Build your schema about the city by taking a virtual walking tour of Edinburgh. Watch these videos: The Royal Mile, New Town, and the famous Edinburgh Castle.
  • How has Adam Smith influenced Americans? Watch this video to see how Smith’s economic philosophy has impacted the United States. Then discuss these questions:
    • What do you admire about Smith’s philosophy?
    • What are some potential problems that may stem from Americans’ embrace of Smith’s ideas?
    • In your opinion, how “Smithian” is the United States?

Questions for Reading, Writing, and Discussion

Read the article, and then answer the following questions:

  • What social and institutional factors contributed to Scotland having one of the highest literacy rates in the world during the 1700s?
  • In what ways did Scottish Enlightenment architects influence American architects in the 19th century?
  • What have been some of the impacts of the scientific discoveries made at Edinburgh during the Scottish Enlightenment? Use your historical knowledge to complete the chart below.

    Look at each field in the left column. Write the discoveries made in that field during the Scottish Enlightenment in the middle column. Write at least two impacts of that discovery on subsequent history in the right column.
Field Discovery Two Impacts of the Discovery
Chemistry and Physics
Math and Engineering

  • According to the article, what were the four qualities that characterized the Scottish philosophical outlook during the Enlightenment?

Extension Activity/​Homework

  • Create a “Butterfly Effect” Poster

    The butterfly effect is an idea used in chaos theory. It states that a small change can precipitate much bigger ones in the future. In the study of history, it’s obvious that one event or person can have an outsize effect on the future.

    Choose one of the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers to research in depth. Learn about their legacy and think about how that person’s ideas and innovations are still shaping the world today.

    Create a poster showcasing 7–10 developments from history that can be connected chain‐​like to a particular Scottish Enlightenment thinker. Each development should have a clear link with the preceding item. Be creative and come up with novel connections between seemingly disparate events.
  • Write a Personal Essay about a Scottish Enlightenment Idea

    Imagine The Scottish Enlightenment produced some of the greatest thinkers in history, including David Hume and Adam Smith. Their ideas have had far‐​reaching effects on science, philosophy, political science, and economics.

    Research one of the “big names” of the Scottish Enlightenment and choose one of that person’s ideas that is particularly compelling or motivating to you. Write a personal essay on why that philosopher’s idea is relevant to your own life