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.
Awards and Recognition
- One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2016
- Honorable Mention for the 2017 PROSE Award in Education Theory, Association of American Publishers
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 Wisdom's Workshop, James Axtell takes us on a fascinating journey from the Oxford and Cambridge colleges through the German universities to the early development of American colleges to the preeminent research universities of today. This is a wonderful history: beautifully written and compelling. If you think current colleges and universities face challenges, wait until Axtell tells you about their predecessors."—Jonathan R. Cole, author of The Great American University
"This major work examines the evolution of the American research university, judiciously placing it into an international perspective. Axtell's research is solid, comprehensive, felicitous, and inspired."—W. Bruce Leslie, State University of New York, Brockport
"With both a bird's-eye view and ground-level perspective, Wisdom's Workshop offers a broad look at the university. 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, James Axtell recounts a history, little known beyond specialists, of an establishment central to contemporary culture."—Roger L. Geiger, author of The History of American Higher Education
"James Axtell begins Wisdom's Workshop by noting that some books beg to be written. Yes, indeed, and we readers should be grateful that Axtell answered the call. We have needed an updated history of the American research university and this work fills the void superbly. Following the institution's development from the Middle Ages to the present, Axtell's narrative is lucid, insightful, concise, and comprehensive. This will be the go-to book for people seeking to understand elite universities."—Julie Reuben, Harvard Graduate School of 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, and Axtell's distinctive voice comes through. 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."—James Turner, University of Notre Dame