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Wisdom’s Workshop:
The Rise of the Modern University
James Axtell

Hardcover | 2016 | $35.00 | £24.95 | ISBN: 9780691149592
416 pp. | 6 x 9 | 28 halftones.
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A Q&A with James Axtell

When universities began in the Middle Ages, Pope Gregory IX described them as "wisdom's special workshop." He could not have foreseen how far these institutions would travel and develop. Tracing the eight-hundred-year evolution of the elite research university from its roots in medieval Europe to its remarkable incarnation today, Wisdom's Workshop places this durable institution in sweeping historical perspective. In particular, James Axtell focuses on the ways that the best American universities took on Continental influences, developing into the finest expressions of the modern university and enviable models for kindred institutions worldwide. Despite hand-wringing reports to the contrary, the venerable university continues to renew itself, becoming ever more indispensable to society in the United States and beyond.

Born in Europe, the university did not mature in America until the late nineteenth century. Once its heirs proliferated from coast to coast, their national role expanded greatly during World War II and the Cold War. Axtell links the legacies of European universities and Tudor-Stuart Oxbridge to nine colonial and hundreds of pre–Civil War colleges, and delves into how U.S. universities were shaped by Americans who studied in German universities and adapted their discoveries to domestic conditions and goals. The graduate school, the PhD, and the research imperative became and remain the hallmarks of the American university system and higher education institutions around the globe.

A rich exploration of the historical lineage of today's research universities, Wisdom's Workshop explains the reasons for their ascendancy in America and their continued international preeminence.

James Axtell is the Kenan Professor of Humanities Emeritus at the College of William and Mary. His many books include The Pleasures of Academe, The Educational Legacy of Woodrow Wilson, and The Making of Princeton University (Princeton). Axtell was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004.


"In this time of anti-intellectualism--whether technocratic or populist--we don’t need more smug disruptors. We need more hopeful builders. They will remind us of the democratic aspirations of pragmatic liberal education while recalling that the ambitions of our finest universities help fulfill the dreams of our best selves as a people."--Michael Roth, Wall Street Journal

"Authoritative, panoramic. . . . A thoroughly researched and vigorous history of an institution that has 'gained new vigor and proliferated progeny not only in the United States but around the globe.'"--Kirkus

"At a time in which colleges and universities have come under sustained attack . . . it may well be useful to explain to those outside the academy how American institutions became preeminent and why they continue to play an essential role at the center of modernity's infrastructure. In Wisdom's Workshop, Axtell does just that. Drawing on the vast literature on higher education, he provides an informative and engaging . . . account of the evolution of the research university, from its origins in England, Italy, and France in the Middle Ages to the emergence of the ‘multiversity’ in the United States in the last half century."--Glenn Altschuler, Huffington Post

"This is an enjoyable and well-informed account of some of the most significant universities in the world."--David Willetts, Times Higher Education

"In his new book . . . Wisdom's Workshop: The Rise of the Modern University . . . [James] Axtell traces the U.S. university system all the way back to its Medieval roots. It turns out universities have changed quite a bit in the last eight centuries, both in form and function, adapting to their times. And some shifts are just as radical as the ones we face today."--Byrd Pinkerton, NPR

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Table of Contents:

Illustrations xi
Prologue xiii
Acknowledgments xix
1 Foundings 1
2 Oxbridge 43
3 The Collegiate Way Abroad 106
4 A Land of Colleges 147
5 The German Impress 221
6 Coming of Age 276
7 Multiversities and Beyond 316
Epilogue 363
Suggested Reading 375
Index 387

Other Princeton books authored or coauthored by James Axtell:


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