James Axtell, who before retirement was William R. Kennan Jr. professor of Humanities at the College of William and Mary, made a name for himself first as a pre-eminent expert on American Indian history. But he soon became also known as a top historian of American higher education. He wrote more than a dozen highly regarded scholarly works.
Now, with the publication of his latest book, “Wisdom’s Workshop: The Rise of the Modern University,” published by Princeton University Press, Axtell has earned even more accolades from experts in the field of higher education.
“Axtell’s book stands alone as the only work that traces the historical genealogy of America’s elite research universities. The scholarship is deep and solid ... His important, learned, and entertaining book is not simply a clear and coherent history but also a love letter to universities and the life of the teacher-scholar,” writes James Turner, University of Notre Dame.
“This book surveys eight hundred years of university evolution, from medieval Paris to elite American research universities. While also providing, telling vignettes of life within these institutions. With masterful scholarship and delightful prose, Axtell recounts history, little known beyond specialists, of an establishment central to contemporary culture,” opines Roger L. Geiger, author of “The History of American Higher Education.”
I asked Axtell, who calls his book “my 6-year baby,” why did he take on such a heavy load of research work.
“I was toying with a project on the Big Three (Harvard, Yale and Princeton) when Peter Dougherty, director of the Princeton University Press persuaded me that a genealogy of the modern American research university was needed more ... Indeed, the keening of the ‘gloom-and doom’ critics of higher education, their negativity couldn’t be let go without some serious historical challenge,” Axtell said.
In his analysis of how American universities had adopted European models, he pointed out that the residential colleges of Oxbridge provided American colonists with modestly sized models for undergraduate liberal arts teaching and learning. The German experience a century or two later gave post-graduate American students and scholars models of research training. This was adapted to very different American academic philosophies and conditions.
Nowadays, many American universities are criticized for prioritizing research over teaching, to the detriment of undergraduates. But Axtell argues that research does not inevitably detract from good teaching. “When exemplified by the professor and applied in classrooms, it is usually superior to second-hand knowledge in demonstrating disciplinary methods, standards, and discoveries.” Moreover, “as a results and patented products of university research become ever more important to America’s economy and social well-being, research understandably acquired greater clout in academic appointments, funding, and governance.”
Axtell believes that the most American aspect of our universities is public service. Well before the federal funding of the land-grant universities in 1864, starting with Harvard in 1636, academic funding and governance have been blends of private and public.
“This inevitably causes our institutions, private as well as public, to pay close attention to larger public needs and wants,” Axtell said. “As a political democracy, we also maintain a diverse multi-level system of higher education designed to accommodate a wide range of aptitudes.”
In spite of the current emphasis on STEM disciplines, (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), according to Axtell is reassured that “the humanities are still being taught to large number of students as distributional requirement, prerequisites, and increasingly as interdisciplinary components. Often on the advice of STEM advocates” he said, “who realize their value as routes to self-knowledge, human and public awareness, and imaginative wisdom. And as our economic, political, and religious involvement with the world expands, the humanities will continue to prove and even increase their lifelong worth to our students and graduates.”
Shatz is a Williamsburg resident, He is the author of “Reports from a Distant Place,” the compilation of his selected columns. The book is available at the Bruton Parish Shop and on Amazon.com.