Wisdom’s Workshop: The Rise of the Modern University

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Wisdom’s Workshop: The Rise of the Modern UniversityJames Axtell. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016.


Despite their humble origins, U.S. universities dominate the global rankings of elite research institutions, holding a majority of the top 50 spots—how did this come to be? In his new book, Wisdom’s Workshop: The Rise of the Modern University, James Axtell assigns himself this question, tracing the American university from its medieval roots, through the shape of Oxbridge imitated in colonial New England, refashioned after the German model, and through to the contemporary multiversity. In its historical narrative, Wisdom’s Workshop is thorough and fascinating, even exemplary in its scholarship and clarity.

Some histories pay lip-service to the medieval sources, but Axtell devotes considerable care to explaining the earliest days of Bologna, Paris, Oxford, and Cambridge. While highlighting the trivium and quadrivium, lectio and disputatio, he goes beyond the usual gloss to explore in some detail the structure of these institutions, including their right to self-governance and, fascinatingly, regulations on the buying and selling of books and parchment, food and drink, and freedom and discipline of students. A similarly impressive chapter traces the Oxford and Cambridge of the Tudor and early Stuart period, including the effects of religious revolution, humanism, royal interference and largesse, and the rise of the printing press and the expanded library.

While colonial America lacked institutions of similar prestige, the young country was unafraid to borrow from Europe, and eventually became equal or superior (xvi). Emigrants replicated what they knew, and anxious for the ministers needed for an expanding population, what we now know as Harvard was in 1636 awarded £400. While not modeled solely on Emmanuel College, as some think, Harvard received its essential form from the idea of Cambridge, striving to be in one solitary institution what Cambridge had dispersed into several colleges. Harvard was a college only, lacking a supporting university, but attempting to produce ministers, lawyers, physicians, merchants, teachers, and so on, forced to serve as a “kind of ‘mini-versity’” (115). While promoting “godly learning” appropriate for any Puritan, Harvard provided a liberal arts education serving the many needs of a young colony, as did Yale and the other colleges which followed.

And they were colleges, favoring a collegiate form orbiting around “living, study, and discipline” (131). They built to suit, and hired as well, with tutors and professors responsible to discipline the high-spirited and unruly sons of farmers and merchants, with a correspondingly high turnover of the overworked and poorly treated tutors. Still, colleges rose “like mushrooms” in the “luxuriant soil” of the new world (147), and as the population grew and expanded westward so too did various academies and denominational schools, even though enrollments at many was miniscule—averaging under 100 students in 1840. Nonetheless, alumni associations formed, fundraising initiatives commenced, as did a golden age of collegiate architecture, often on a monumental scale.

Despite the growth, many feared that American higher education did not “reach high enough” (221). Not only was secondary education inferior, but college professors were given over to the transmission and repetition of current knowledge. Nothing like the German model of the research university existed, with even Oxford and Cambridge resisting the Ph.D. until the 20th century. Consequently, many graduates of American colleges went to Germany for advanced work, returning not only with doctorates but with new ideas of the importance of research, specialization, and the vocation and professionalism of the professoriate. After some hesitation—the Ph.D. initially as much an impediment as help to employment—higher degrees became expected, and then granted at home, with research universities formed and greatly expanded in size. In time, a certain standardization was imposed, with the Association of American Universities and rigorous expectations of the “Standard American University” (287) in terms of number of departments, qualifications of faculty, minimum time of study, and quality of research facilities and tools. Not only did older universities rise to the challenge, but newer institutions, such as Chicago and Stanford, emerged, thrived, and challenged their Eastern rivals.

Now, of course, we experience the elite multi-versity which partners with business, produces vast amounts of knowledge, transforms society, consumes vast sums of governmental and foundation funds in return for cutting edge technology and science, as the central hub of the “knowledge industry” (341). All while competing fiercely with each other for funds, professors, prestige, and (too often for Axtell) athletic victory.

Along with the Catholic Church and British Parliament, the university has maintained itself in the last 500 years, even, despite all the advances, maintaining its essential form. The university is the “medieval institution that ate the world” (363), with the American version particularly able, in part because of its diversity and lack of centralization which fosters competition within and among universities. There is intense rivalry, an “up or out” mindset, including a willingness to ransack other institutions domestically and abroad in our search for the best, brightest, newest, and most prestigious. Correspondingly, the university faculty has maintained academic freedom and self-governance, including the benefits of benign neglect from the federal government. These are success stories, and Axtell is generally optimistic, little given to the crisis mood of much academic discussion.

Unfortunately, when it comes to judgments about the condition of the current university, the book is platitudinous and uncritical, handicapped by “boosterism,” and apparently unaware of serious challenges to the promises of enlightened progress. Axtell is convinced that specialization and research give rise to good teaching, that good teaching is easy to come by and that proximity to specialists results in more knowledge. Perhaps it does, but he too easily conflates knowledge and wisdom, research with knowledge, and production with advance. The book skates blissfully over the quandaries of the university, including a lack of intellectual diversity, failures to protect free speech and due process, and the lack of correlation between technical and moral progress. After such careful work tracing the historical struggles of the university, Wisdom’s Workshop risks triviality, almost a naivety, despite its occasional nod to what right-thinking people “know” to be the case.

Even if one reads the final “booster” pages with something of a grimace, the bulk of Axtell’s book is very strong, well worth the read, and sure to inform anyone with an interest in the university.

R. J. Snell

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R. J. Snell directs the Center on the University and Intellectual Life at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey. He is author of The Perspective of Love: Natural Law in a New Mode (Wipf & Stock, 2014) and Acedia and Its Discontents (Angelico, 2015).