A celebration of America’s elite research universities.
Axtell (Emeritus, Humanities/Coll. of William and Mary; The Making of Princeton University, 2006, etc.) offers an authoritative, panoramic history of American higher education, from its origins in 12th-century Europe to the present. Drawing on prolific research, including student and faculty diaries, the author makes a convincing case that “the university is the most versatile institution in contemporary society,” with America’s leading research institutions “at the apex of the higher education system,” serving as “ ‘sieves’ for sorting people, regulating mobility, and credentialing experts…and as secular ‘temples’ for the legitimation of official knowledge and new ideas.” In medieval Europe, higher education focused on training clergy, but with the growth of an “increasingly complex and litigious urban population,” students moved toward legal studies to train for positions in royal or church administrations. Axtell’s investigation of changes in faculty, curricula, and student life yields some surprising facts—at the Oxbridge colleges in the 16th century, needy students served the sons of aristocrats. Curricular change often responded to students’ desires: French and Italian, for example, were offered when students expressed a wish to travel or seek employment in diplomatic missions. In antebellum America, the nation’s “touching faith in education” resulted in “the wildfire spread of versatile academies and small denominational colleges.” The author attributes the rise of universities to the professionalization of the academic career and the creation of specialized disciplines, which in turn led to the development of laboratories and libraries. In the 19th century, with American universities still in a nascent stage, many faculty were trained in Germany, importing to their home institutions the seminar format, a demand for growth in libraries, and the elective system. Today, argues the author emphatically, because they compete for excellent faculty and students, foster research, and are committed to broad liberal education, elite American universities will continue to thrive.
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.”