From "Wisdom's Workshop" to the "Knowledge Factory"

By John R. Thelin

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

Wisdom’s Workshop shows why James Axtell is the consummate historical tour guide for tracing the development of the modern university over almost a thousand years. Axtell writes an account that takes readers from the twelfth century to the twenty-first. The book’s lyrical title is from Pope Gregory IX, who in 1231 granted papal protections to a new university, commenting that it was a “parent of sciences . . . wisdom’s special workshop.” What readers have, then, is an engaging analysis from the medieval to the modern era, leading us from the pope’s proclamation to University of California president Clark Kerr’s observation that by 1960 the university had become a “multiversity.”

Axtell notes in his epilogue that the university warrants celebration today as nothing less than the “medieval institution that ate the world.” This hyperbole may bring to mind 1954 Hollywood posters for the movie Godzilla, but it does provide a dramatic counter to recent books and articles about the alleged decline of the university. And Axtell’s epilogue is consistent with the writing style and wit that characterize his extended institutional saga. He is an engaging storyteller whose history of the rise of the modern university is intriguing and sometimes convincing.

In Wisdom’s Workshop, Axtell describes the structural development of the university as a formal institution—and then succeeds in animating the skeleton, bringing it to life with characters both scholarly and mortal. But bringing these characters to life also reminds us that at times they were put to death. Chancellors and other scholars at Oxford and Cambridge during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries sometimes were beheaded when their academic codes ran counter to the wishes of the monarchy. Such episodes indicated that the university often was central to serious business and had much at stake (or “at the stake” for those poor academics who were burned for sticking to their principles) when entangled in the politics of crown and church.

Axtell’s account of Oxford and Cambridge as fertile ground for publishers, stationers, and libraries shows that a community of scholars depended on books. These auxiliary academic enterprises also signaled the maturation of a university town as a “city of intellect.” Axtell leavens his survey with glimpses at artifacts in the academic museum. One illustration, of a handheld wax tablet that medieval university students used for taking lecture notes, brings to mind an instruction manual for a modern-day cell phone. “Waxing” probably was the fourteenth-century equivalent of today’s “texting”—both are a tribute to academic use of the latest forms of information technology.

Axtell’s chronological cases mirror the script Clark Kerr first presented in The Uses of the University. Axtell fleshes these out and adds trends that have emerged since the publication of Kerr’s book. The sequence of selected cases creates a success story of sorts. But readers are left to wonder about what happens to sixteenth-century Oxbridge and then the nineteenth-century German universities after the American universities hoist the triumphant banner in the twentieth century. A good way to take stock across time and nations would be to consider Abraham Flexner’s 1930 book, Universities: American, English, German, as part of the historical discussion.

Axtell’s chapter on nineteenth-century German universities is not so much about German universities as it is about American views of them. This topic has been well covered elsewhere. Besides, a detailed account of German universities has the ironic consequence of making them lose their luster. Axtell writes about an American college graduate, Bliss Perry (later famous as a literary critic who taught at Princeton University), who opted for advanced studies at Strasbourg, noting, “He was drawn there by ‘the fame of that great scholar and delightful teacher, Bernhard ten Brink . . . unquestionably the foremost Chaucerian upon the Continent.’” Even though Strasbourg was attractive to the impressionable young American, it is not clear that the German professor and his type of scholarly specialization provided a fitting model to transplant in attempts to create a modern university in the United States.

In addition to covering nineteenth-century German universities, Axtell might have given attention to universities in Scotland of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The universities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, and Saint Andrews were academically distinguished. They emphasized lectures, debating societies, critical analysis, rational inquiry, and scholarly publishing, along with spirited discussions at nearby coffeehouses. Scottish universities encouraged exciting academic fields of political economy, philosophy, literature, medicine, law, and mathematics. Whether young American college graduates chose to study at universities in Scotland is incidental, because ultimately Scottish professors and students published influential scholarly works that were widely read.

Most of Axtell’s chapter on America as a “land of colleges” in the nineteenth century is a distraction that often digresses from a focus on universities. He is on the mark in his discussion of how a handful of innovative liberal arts colleges in the late nineteenth century added such features as laboratories, libraries, lectures, seminars, faculty research, and new academic fields far ahead of many self-proclaimed “universities.”

This legacy from the innovative colleges between 1890 and 1910 reminds us that the form and function—and success—of the modern American university were not inevitable. Andrew Carnegie, for example, thought universities were not good places for advanced scholarship and research. That is why he created the Carnegie Institution in Washington, DC, in 1902. His concerns were warranted, because university commitment to graduate studies in this era was often sparse. From 1898 to 1909, for example, five of the fourteen “Great American Universities”— Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois, California, and Stanford—conferred 198 PhDs, an institutional average of fewer than four per year. Perhaps the “Great American Universities” of 1910 were not so great? Axtell’s account shows that their real gains were made after World War II, with the rise of the “federal grant university.”

Axtell’s book looks forward and backward. It provides scholars with historical perspective on their own academic institutions. In so doing, Axtell pays respect to a passing generation of great professors who studied higher education—and from whose works he has drawn. This group includes Roger Geiger, who recently retired as a professor at Pennsylvania State University, and several recently deceased scholars—Laurence Veysey, Hugh Hawkins, Frederick Rudolph, Burton Clark, and Martin Trow—along with Clark Kerr, who died in 2003. Axtell wisely brings intercollegiate athletics into the core of the contemporary university’s activities. Since the university is a work in progress, Axtell has left some topics as unfinished business. One hopes that the next generation of historians who study the university will consider the following issues.

First, we need historical perspective on the promise and problems of the university-based academic medical center. This could start with Flexner’s 1910 study on medical education sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and eventually lead to analyzing academic medical centers that now have a strong record in federal research grants associated with the biological and health sciences and whose departments also claim a high proportion of university-wide faculty and budgets.

Second, the history of academic institutions will gain added significance with study of professional schools of law, business, journalism, agriculture, engineering, and education. Although PhD programs in arts and sciences historically were a dominant source of university prestige, this is no longer always or exclusively the case. At the very least, the professional schools now contribute to the ratings, rankings, and resources over which universities compete.

Third, any forthcoming history should emphasize that the place of women in the modern university has changed significantly. Work such as Maresi Nerad’s The Academic Kitchen and Geraldine Joncich Clifford’s anthology Lone Voyagers: Academic Women in Coeducational Institutions, 1870– 1937 put into historical context the plight of women as scholars in universities. In an understudied historical change, women today make up more than half the students in medicine and law and many PhD programs. This topic would be a welcome addition to the success story of the modern university that Axtell tells.

Axtell concludes that the modern university is strong. He bases this view on the profile of the 108 most productive American research universities, as measured primarily by federal research grant dollars. Even if one accepts Axtell’s verdict that the university is in good shape, the same cannot be said for the academic profession. The underemployment of PhDs and the decline in tenure-track faculty appointments leave future generations of scholars at risk, and faculty inclusion in institutional governance has become marginal. Axtell’s delightful book provides a good base from which to consider these issues, leading us to create as well as write the next chapter about the university in continuing its history from “wisdom’s workshop” to “the knowledge factory” of the twenty-first century.

John R. Thelin is professor of higher education and public policy at the University of Kentucky. He is the author of A History of American Higher Education, published by Johns Hopkins University Press. His e-mail address is john.thelin@uky.edu.

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