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Wisdom’s Workshop: The Rise of the Modern University

reviewed by Michael D. Waggoner - January 13, 2017

coverTitle: Wisdom’s Workshop: The Rise of the Modern University
Author(s): James Axtell
Publisher: Princeton University Press, Princeton
ISBN: 0691149593, Pages: 416, Year: 2016
Search for book at Amazon.com

Wisdoms Workshop: The Rise of the Modern University is a fine new history of elite higher education institutions. It was written by distinguished historian James Axtell, Kenan Professor of Humanities at the College of William & Mary. But the book is more than just another history. Instead, it is a paean to an 800-year-old tradition of the conservation and advancement of knowledge by someone with a deep familiarity and appreciation of these rich environments. Axtell unfolds the evolving traditions and practices of these institutions with a curators care. He is one who sees his life's work, and thereby lets us see ours, as part of the grand arc of human achievement. We first experienced a glimpse of this affection with his 1998 collection of essays, The Pleasures of Academe: A Celebration and Defense of Higher Education.

The title Wisdoms Workshop comes from Pope Gregory during the 13th-century, suggesting that along with being the parent to the sciences, the university serves as a special workshop for wisdom. I believe that Axtell, while affirming the place of science in these institutions, hopes that they may transcend any contemporary challenges and continue to be places where wisdom is valued, nurtured, and sought. He argues at the end of the book that these multiversities have remained basically unchanged in mission, structure, and operation over the past 25 years, except of course for the appropriation and integration of technological innovations. He also contends that U.S. universities continue to dominate the international rankings since the first of such lists came from Shanghai in 2003. So what accounts for this rise from their 17th-century origins as imitations of Oxford and Cambridge? A few themes speak to this trend: selective adaptation, conscious cultivation of type, the importance of individual leadership, and competition.

The colonists borrowed from England and Scotland in their creation of the first colleges in British colonial America, adapting forms to their needs. It was clear from the outset that they did not want the faculty-centered institutions of Europe. Rather, they wanted an institution with a strong president answering to a governing board, a direct appropriation from Scottish institutions. Axtell takes a sojourn here, some six pages or approximately two percent of the book, to investigate the prevailing assumption that Cambridges Emmanuel College was the model for Harvard. He makes a case for the greater influence of other colleges both at Cambridge and Oxford. The occasional digression like this is part of the charm of this volume.   

Among the most significant of these types of appropriations were those from Germany through the 19th-century. The most widely acknowledged innovations were lectures, laboratories, and seminars. But at least as important was the idea of academic freedom. For students, this was lernfreiheit (freedom to learn); for faculty members, this was lehrfreiheit (freedom to teach). Of course, how these elites became so is the major part of this story.

I have been teaching the history of U.S. higher education for some time and am familiar with the major texts used for these courses (Cohen & Kisker, 2010; Cole, 2009; Geiger, 2015; Lucas, 2006; Rudolph, 1990; Thelin, 2011). One thing I appreciate about Axtells history that does not come across as much in other texts was the elites conscious cultivation of their own type of institutions. Specifically, these institutions organized early to protect their interests and further their collective agendas, particularly in the 20th-century with respect to federal research funding. During the latter part of the 19th- and early 20th-century period (the flowering of the university movement), general public references were made to the leading universities, assuming this meant the larger research universities. Absent a national higher education schema for ranking institutions, some among the elite took it upon themselves to organize. For example, they formed the American Association of Universities (AAU) in 1900.

A second and more public list emerged in 1910 with Edwin Slossons Great American Universities where he identified 14 institutions (nine endowed: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Chicago, Cornell, Penn, Stanford, and Johns Hopkins; five state funded: Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, California, and Illinois). He used as his main criterion those institutions spending the most on instruction. He spent a week at each university and developed in-depth profiles and comparisons (p. 283). There have been lists and rankings over the ensuing 100 years and these institutions have used these results to solicit individual donors, foundations, and federal agencies for grants ever since. The most recent list is the 2003 Shanghai international ranking and U.S. universities still dominate this list (p. 364).

A large part of the reason for these universities rise and sustained high position in the rankings depended upon vigorous leadership at the top. From colonial beginnings, university presidents raised money, recruited top faculty, and promoted the institution. But by the mid- to late-19th-century, with the industrial revolutions model of the Captain of Industry, trustees sought leaders who could produce results similar to business. Thus emerged Captains of Erudition, a disparaging characterization first leveled by Thorstein Veblen. He argued this leadership style diminished, rather than improved, higher education by aping a business model for university operation. Today, presidents have a wide range in professional background, including distinguished academics, former politicians, and business executives who continue to grow campuses, faculty, and students. They compete with each other for talent from the laboratories to the football field.

Competition for resources was another aspect of university life that helped hone the elite list. Better facilities (including libraries), endowed professorships to attract prestigious faculty, and bigger research grants all heightened this competition. One such facility was often a football stadium. Axtell takes some time to argue that big-time college sports, with its financial excesses and moral lapses, is one area not emulated by international aspirants to the elite level of higher education (p. 362). There is little other mention of the growth of co-curricular activities and staff, though he does point to the trend of growing administration. He notes that as early as 1940 there was one staff member for every 10 students, and four for every three professors (p. 294).

The concluding epilogue outlines 12 reasons why Axtell believes U.S. elite higher education is likely to retain its enviable position in the world. This includes academic freedom, relatively secure finances, technological innovation, being a locus for research, and the subsequent international leadership that it brings. However, he offers this caution: [a]s long as contemporary society does not im- or ex-plode, there is very little likelihood that the university will lose its complex role at the center of modernitys infrastructure (p. 364).

The focus of this book is the evolution of the top several dozen universities in the United States. Consequently, one should not expect attention paid to the rest (and most) of the colleges and universities in this country. This is a deeply erudite and elegantly written volume that is a worthy and necessary update to Lawrence Veyseys 1970 classic, The Emergence of the American University. I will certainly use this text in my teaching to highlight this important and distinguishing aspect of U.S. higher education. I recommend Wisdoms Workshop to anyone seeking an appreciative consideration of the development of our rich intellectual heritage through these institutions.


Cohen, A. M., & Kisker, C B. (2010). The shaping of American higher education: Emergence and growth of the contemporary system. (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Cole, J. R. (2009). The great American university: Its rise to preeminence, its indispensable role, why it must be protected. New York, NY: Public Affairs.

Geiger, R. L. (2015). The history of American higher education: Learning and culture from the founding to World War II. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Lucas, C. J. (2006). American higher education: A history. (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Rudolph, F. (1990). The American college and university: A history. Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press.

Slosson, E. E. (1910) Great American universities. New York, NY: The MacMillan Company.

Thelin, J. R. (2011). A history of American higher education. (2nd ed.). Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 13, 2017
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21798, Date Accessed: 10/16/2021 8:46:31 AM

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About the Author
  • Michael Waggoner
    University of Northern Iowa
    E-mail Author
    MICHAEL D. WAGGONER, professor of education, University of Northern Iowa; Editor of the journal Religion & Education; most recent published book, Religion in the Public School: Negotiating Common Ground; currently co- editor with Nathan C. Walker of the forthcoming Oxford Handbook for Religion and American Education.
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