Author discusses new book on the evolution of the modern university.

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Proposals abound to change the modern university. But how did universities end up the way they are? In Wisdom’s Workshop: The Rise of the Modern University , forthcoming this month from Princeton University Press, Jim Axtell explains how the history of universities played out, from medieval Europe to modern…

Proposals abound to change the modern university. But how did universities end up the way they are?

In Wisdom's Workshop: The Rise of the Modern University, forthcoming this month from Princeton University Press, Jim Axtell explains how the history of universities played out, from medieval Europe to modern America. Axtell, the Kenan Professor of Humanities Emeritus at the College of William & Mary, responded via email to questions about his book.

Q: Why did you decide to write a history of the university?

A: I was toying with a project on the Big Three (Harvard, Yale and Princeton) when Peter Dougherty, Princeton University Press’s director, persuaded me -- without much effort -- that a genealogy of the modern American research university was needed more. I liked its wide scope and research challenges, and I was dissatisfied with the keening of the “gloom and doom” critics of higher education. After publishing The Pleasures of Academe: A Celebration and Defense of Higher Education in 1998, I couldn’t let the negativity go without an equally serious historical challenge as well.

Q: In various chapters you discuss the Oxbridge model and the German model. What do you consider the key differences between those models?

A: The residential colleges of Oxbridge provided the American colonists with modestly sized models largely for undergraduate liberal arts teaching and learning. The German experience a century or two later gave postgraduate American students and scholars models of research training that could be -- and was -- cherry-picked and adapted to very different American academic philosophies and conditions. Oxbridge had the greatest impact on American residential liberal arts colleges, German universities on American graduate education and research (labs, libraries, seminars, dissertations, academic freedom).

Q: Many American universities are criticized for prioritizing research over teaching, to the detriment of undergraduates. Does the history of the university play a role in this critique?

A: Change always causes us to look back fondly on the past, often through rose-colored glasses. First, research does not inevitably detract from good teaching or attention to undergraduate education; when exemplified by the professor and applied in classrooms large and small, research prowess is, I would argue, usually superior to secondhand knowledge in demonstrating disciplinary methods, standards and discoveries. Second, as the results and patented products of university research became ever more important to America’s economy and social well-being, research understandably acquired greater clout in academic appointments, funding and governance. Yet the best research universities also tend to provide the best educational facilities and experiences in the country, indeed the world. Thus their manifest attraction to foreign students, faculty and planners. We cannot have too many conscientious scholar-teachers.

Q: As you look at the evolution of the American university, what factors do you consider most American, as opposed to those adopted from European models?

A: The most American aspect of our universities is public service, beginning well before the federal funding of the land-grant universities in 1864. From Harvard’s origins in 1636, our academic funding and governance have predominantly been blends of private and public. This inevitably causes our institutions, private as well as public, to pay close attention to larger public (local, state, national and increasingly global) needs and wants. As a political democracy, we also maintain a diverse, multilevel (non)system of higher education designed willy-nilly to accommodate a wide range of aptitudes, preparations, ages, races, ethnicities and professional goals.

Q: Many humanities scholars fear that their disciplines are fighting for funds in the research university today. Do you see anything in the history of the university that should give them comfort?

A: While universities’ and so-called disrupters’ attention and emphasis has noisily turned to STEM disciplines and courses, it is reassuring that the humanities are still being taught to large numbers of students as distributional requirements, prerequisites and increasingly as interdisciplinary components, often on the advice of STEM advocates and practitioners who realize their value as routes to self-knowledge, human and public awareness, and imaginative wisdom. And as our economic, political and religious involvement with the world expands, the humanities (and softer social sciences) will continue to prove and even increase their lifelong worth to our students and graduates. It will behoove us to put an equal share of humanists and liberal artists in senior administration so that funding does not shortchange the human arts.

Q: If you were starting a new university today (or advising those creating new universities in Asia), what would be your advice?

A: A new university anywhere today, if it wishes to compete with the best, must institutionalize academic freedom in the conduct of its teaching and research. It must be reliably well-funded for the long term from multiple sources. It must serve the public needs and welfare of the founding culture and host polity. It must also have: democratic (not autocratic) departmental structures (based on key disciplines); large up-to-date libraries and labs; teaching-research synergy; meritocratic hiring, retention and promotion systems; shared governance with real and substantial faculty participation; liberal education for undergraduates (not early or excessive specialization or professionalization); and inspiring as well as functional architecture and campuses.

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