Woodrow Wilson: Princeton to the Presidency

By Bayliss, Mary Lynn | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, January 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Woodrow Wilson: Princeton to the Presidency


Bayliss, Mary Lynn, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Woodrow Wilson: Princeton to the Presidency * W. Barksdale Maynard * New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008 * xii, 392 pp. * $30.00

With his Woodrow Wilson: Princeton to the Presidency, architectural historian W. Barksdale Maynard explores territory that angels might have feared to tread. There are currently two full-length new biographies of Woodrow Wilson in varying stages of preparation, one by eminent Wilson scholar John Milton Cooper, Jr., and the other by popular biographer A. Scott Berg. In addition, the path Maynard takes is a wellworn one, ably explored earlier by historians Henry W. Bragdon and John M. Mulder. Nonetheless, Maynard successfully combs primary and secondary sources to provide a highly pictorial, anecdotal exploration of Wilson's many-year relationship to Princeton University, where he was an undergraduate student, an immensely popular faculty member, the president, and ultimately the chairman of the board of trustees. Maynard's thesis that Wilson's "preparation for greatness happened at Princeton University, where he first showed the strange contradictions in his character," is not a new one, but the evidence he marshals to support it is nonetheless compelling (p. xi). Maynard sees not simply foreshadowing in those early years but almost precise parallels between Wilson's actions during his Princeton and United States presidencies.

Maynard charts Wilsons life from his boyhood and includes his continuing influence on Princeton up to the present time, but he devotes the bulk of his book to Wilson on the Princeton campus. Maynard gives a full account of Wilson the bold and popular educational innovator at Princeton's helm, who established an American version of the tutorial system he had observed at Oxford and Cambridge, dramatically shifting the primary teaching method at the university from reliance on large lectures to small, intellectually stimulating tutorials led by well-trained young "preceptors." The achievement would make Wilson and Princeton famous and propel other colleges and universities to follow in Princeton's footsteps. Maynard thoroughly depicts Wilson, emboldened by his successful innovation, proposing to democratize the living arrangements for undergraduates with a system of quadrangles in which students of all social and economic backgrounds would live together.

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