What? James Axtell is writing now about education?

Historians in the News
tags: education, James Axtell, Wisdoms Workshop

Pope 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 University, James 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 “multiversity's.” ...

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