The Educational Legacy of Woodrow Wilson: From College to Nation

By Benbow, Mark E. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, March 2013 | Go to article overview

The Educational Legacy of Woodrow Wilson: From College to Nation


Benbow, Mark E., Presidential Studies Quarterly


The Educational Legacy of Woodrow Wilson: From College to Nation. Edited by James Axtell. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012. 267 pp.

In The Educational Legacy of Woodrow Wilson, James Axtell has collected nine essays, one from a political scientist, and eight from professional historians, discussing the record of Woodrow Wilson not as president, but as an educator. As Axtell notes, his career as a politician was "comparatively brief" to his time spent as a professor (p. 2). Not long before he died, Wilson himself told a former student that "his contribution to his generation ... was in connection not so much with his political work as with his activities as a teacher and college administrator" (p. 2). While the bulk of works on Wilson discuss his political career, Axtell's book is one of several recent works that examine Wilson's career as an educator. The essays in this volume came from a conference on Wilson as educator held at Princeton in late 2009.

Essays in such collections are often of uneven quality, but Axtell chose his contributors well. All the entries are strong, each supporting Axtell's contention that Wilson played a central part in the development of American education in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as universities debated whether to follow a British- or German-influenced model. Wilson, educated at Johns Hopkins under Herbert Baxter Adams' German-influenced program, nonetheless preferred a British-influenced style. W. Bruce Leslie notes that many academics, Wilson included, had a romantic view of "Oxbridge" (a conflation of Oxford and Cambridge) rather than a more realistic vision (p. 98). Despite this admiration, while touring Britain during his Princeton years, Wilson spent little time actually going to visit universities to see how they operated. Instead, he relied on published accounts of the British schools as communities of scholars, teachers, and students. A pleasant and not unreasonable vision, Wilson not only relied on this Anglo-centric idea to design his preceptor system, he also favored the Tudor Gothic architectural style of "Oxbridge" as president of Princeton, overseeing the addition of new buildings (pp. 102-3). Princeton would not only operate as Wilson imaged his model universities did, it would look like them as well. Why did he not favor the German model? According to Wilson, they had mistakenly not viewed the university "as a community of teachers and pupils" (p. 101), and Wilson emphasized the role of "community" as central to his view of institutions. Wilson's reforms not only affected Princeton, but, Axtell argues, influenced how other universities, including Harvard and Yale, structured their programs (p. 3). Wilson's skill as a speaker and writer added to his ability to command a national platform even before he entered politics (p. …

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