What Led to the Modern University?

Faculty members are prone to complain about all sorts of issues with their institutions, sometimes without understanding that many of these issues are not new at all. James Axtell, the author of a first-rate history of Princeton’s past century and a refreshing examination of the pleasures of the academy (among many other studies) has given us the best history of the university in his Wisdom’s Workshop: The Rise of the Modern University (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016).

Axtell, in this well-written and thoroughly documented volume, considers the full-range of motivations for higher education, the changing nature of the curriculum, the patterns of methodology for instruction, the role of academic libraries, the generation of funds for the academy, and a host of other matters. Some of Axtell’s observations may surprise some, such as “From the twelfth century to our own, universities have always been bibliocentric, although the role of books has changed over time” (p. 29) and “Most leading universities recognize and cultivate the synergy between teaching and research” (p. 33). The latter statement is part of an interesting discussion of the twelve attributes of the elite universities (pp. 265-373).

This is a book all university faculty and administrators ought to read.

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