James Axtell on writing a “genealogy” of the modern American research university

wisdom's workshop axtellPope Gregory IX described universities of the middle ages as “wisdom’s special workshop”, but today’s American universities bear only a passing resemblance to the European institutions that founded their most basic principles. In In his newest book, Wisdom’s Workshop: The Rise of the Modern UniversityJames Axtell writes an 800-year evolution of the modern research university, outlining the trials and successes that occurred while these universities were taking root in America. He recently took time to explain why this examination of higher education is so necessary.

You’re probably best known as the author of eight books on colonial Indian-white relations or “ethnohistory.” How and why did you make the transition to the history of higher education?

JA: I didn’t shift to higher education but back to it. I began my scholarly career in the history of education with a study of one-time Oxford don John Locke’s educational writings, followed by a book on education at all levels in colonial New England, including Harvard and Yale. Then, partly as a result of the “Red Power” protests of the late ‘60s, I was drawn to the ethnohistory of Indian-white relations in colonial North America. After 20-plus years probing the ins and outs of those relations, I was drawn back to the history of higher education. After finishing most of a book of essays on The Pleasures of Academe: A Celebration and Defense of Higher Education (1998), I spent a dozen years researching and writing Princeton’s history from Woodrow Wilson’s transformative presidency (1902-10) to 2005. Retirement from William & Mary in 2008 took me to Princeton for a semester of teaching and the organization of a conference on “The Educational Legacy of Woodrow Wilson,” which resulted in an edited book in 2012. When Peter Dougherty, the director of Princeton University Press, suggested the genealogy of the modern American research university as a much-needed book, I immediately saw it as a perfect fit for my longtime experience and love of universities.

Do you see that shift in interests as a sharp break?

JA: Not as much as it must seem to others, because I chose to write the history of Princeton as the first ethnohistory of a collegiate university. From my study of Indians and colonists I brought a focus on cultures and en- and ac-culturation as the best way to understand the transition of an educational institution from a relatively small, hidebound college to a world-class research university. So I devoted substantial chapters to the century-long development of the faculty, admissions, curriculum, student life and extracurriculum, library, art museum, graduate school, and university press–all the participants in and agencies of education.

Wisdom’s Workshop similarly focuses on the educational process (teachers, students, courses, and books), but with slightly more attention to institutional foundings, leadership, and architecture. It also covers a much longer time-span in tracing a clear and specific genetic lineage from medieval foundings and Tudor-early-Stuart Oxbridge, to 9 colonial American colleges, innumerable academies and c. 250 colleges before postbellum university developments and, in the 20th c., what Clark Kerr called “multiversities.”

Are the sources for university history much different from those for colonial ethnohistory? Are the questions?

JA: While some of the questions were framed similarly, the sources were of course quite different. I didn’t use archaeology, linguistics, or oral memory as much, but I did pay close attention to material culture, student jargons and dress, and faculty, administrator, and student memoirs. As centers of manuscript and then print culture, colleges and universities were founded on and sustained by the intellectual activities and written products of learned classes, who have left myriad clues to their pasts in libraries and archives around the world. The 19th-century invention and spread of photography has given university history an important additional source, which I have used in numerous illustrations in the Princeton and present histories.

You have written an 800-year “genealogy” of the modern American research university. What surprised you about what you found?

JA: A whole lot of things, some major, some interestingly “factoidal.” First, three persistent myths. I found no evidence to support the notion that Harvard was modeled after Emmanuel College, Cambridge. The second myth was that antebellum student mayhem was caused largely by a static college curriculum and a dull “recitation” system of teaching: the curriculum was prescribed but not static, and recitations were used almost exclusively in introductory courses to ground students in the basics. The third myth posited that American higher education was transformed after the Civil War by the wholesale importation of German academic features by returning American graduate students and scholars: instead, borrowings were carefully selected and adapted to American needs and conditions.

I was happily surprised to find that some medieval matriculants could not write; hazing of freshmen (“yellow-beaks” or “goats”) began in the Middle Ages; student spies (lupi or “wolves”) reported classmates who didn’t speak Latin outside of class as required; undergraduates were prohibited from using medieval libraries because they were places and “occasions for [presumably coeducational] sin;” four Tudor university chancellors were beheaded by King Henry VIII for not toeing the party line; 17th-c. Oxbridge students were forbidden (rather than recruited) to play football; parchment pages declared “heretical” were used as toilet paper, book bindings, and soap wraps; 17th-c. Harvard graduated an average of only 8 B.A.s a year; Yale College moved location five times in its first 18 years; campus was coined by Princeton’s president in the 1770s and spread quickly; antebellum academies enrolled far more students (including women) than did colleges and offered curricula that often earned advanced college placement; in copying older eastern college architecture, newer western colleges often built dorms with long hallways, perfect for student conspiracies (or rebellious “sprees”) and cannon-ball bowling games; the libraries of student literary societies were often larger (and more up-to-date) than college libraries; the only 19th-c. German university degree was the Ph.D. and only a quarter of students bothered to take it: the majority studied for state professional exams; 19th-c. German (and postbellum American) Ph.D. dissertations were article- rather than book-length; American college rankings began as early as 1910; Harvard wisely rebuffed a philanthropist’s offer to build a Harvard dorm in the “Turkish style;” diplomas (as opposed to degrees) were not given regularly until the late 19th c.; older veterans admitted to American colleges on the G.I. Bill after WW II (many with wives and children) performed so well that younger students cursed them as DARs (“Damned Average Raisers”); research conducted on government contracts at U.S. universities during the war contributed mightily to Allied victories, as did the influx of Jewish scientists and scholars exiled from Axis countries (the “Rad Labs” at Harvard and MIT and the atomic HQ at Los Alamos, NM were key); the loss of a Class of 1907 son on the Titanic led eventually to the building of the world’s largest university library system at Harvard (despite which, a New York Times article in 2014 declared Harvard “The Stanford of the East”).

The modern American university comes in for a lot of criticism. How do the consistently high global rankings of America’s research universities jibe with those criticisms?

JA: The global rankings are based primarily on research productivity, patents, and commercialization, faculty “star” power (especially Nobel Prizes), and other quantitative measures such as library holdings, endowments, and operating budgets. Most of the criticism is aimed at undergraduate education and the very diverse public and private American (non-)system below the 50 or 100 elite research universities. The two measures are not inconsistent or incompatible. In trying to serve more than 20 million students, America’s institutions of higher education perform very well for many, less well or poorly for many more, often because of inadequate secondary preparation, economic inequalities, or family circumstances. There is plenty of room for improvement in the “system” as a whole, but Wisdom’s Workshop, focused on America’s best universities, seeks to explain why they continue to earn a majority of the top global rankings.

The university is a medieval European creation. Has it maintained its essential identity and focus through eight centuries of social and intellectual change? If so, how?

JA: According to former University of California chancellor Clark Kerr in 1982, it had done so. “The eternal themes of teaching, scholarship, and service, in one combination or another, continue.” “Universities still turn out essentially the same products–members of the more ancient professions…and scholarship.” “The faculties are substantially in control….” “Looked at from within, universities have changed enormously in the emphases on their several functions and in their guiding spirits, but looked at from without and comparatively, they are among the least changed of institutions,” not unlike the Roman Catholic Church, several monarchies, and a few parliaments, all of which they outnumber by large margins.

Thirty-four years later, much the same could be said. For wherever they are founded or maintained, they serve society in familiar ways. Their participants may be more diverse, their purviews broader, their resources more extensive, their tools more sophisticated, their administrations larger and more involved in their operations. But they are today still recognizable for what they do, how they look, and who and what they produce because they are conservative as well as progressive institutions at the very crossroads of modern society.

You obviously enjoy writing: what do you like the most? Did or do you have any models?

JA: As a teenage sports reporter for two local papers and school publications, I was fond of adjectives and adverbs. Now, besides utter clarity and factual accuracy, I seek the richest nouns and verbs, internal rhythms, and unconscious (but once recognized, stet-ed) wordplay. I never consciously patterned my writing after that of any models, though I’ve admired and still do admire many historians and writers (Tony Grafton, Jim Turner, John Elliott, David Quinn, George Kennan, Edmund Morgan, Bill Bowen, John Fleming, Peter Brown, Erwin Panofsky, Natalie Davis, Rolena Adorno, John McPhee, and Inga Clendinnen to name just a few) Instead, I relish and applaud their lifelong professionalism, productivity, and stylistic brio.

James Axtell is the Kenan Professor of Humanities Emeritus at the College of William and Mary. His many books include The Pleasures of Academe, The Educational Legacy of Woodrow Wilson, and The Making of Princeton University (Princeton). Axtell was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His most recent book is Wisdom’s Workshop: The Rise of the Modern University.