Not Just Woodrow Wilson U

Article excerpt


The Making of Princeton University: From Woodrow Wilson to the Present

James Axtell. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2006.


The writing of American higher education history has been shaped by the tradition of great presidents. We think of William Kainey Harper's University of Chicago, Charles William Eliot's Harvard University, John Coit Gilman's Johns Hopkins University, and M. Carey Thomas's Bryn Mawr College. Recently, that tradition has been challenged, though not overturned, by such studies as Julie Reuben's 1996 book, The Making of the Modern University, and W. Bruce Leslie's Gentlemen and Scholars. published in 2005.

An excellent and exceedingly wellwritten book, James Axtell's The Making of Princeton University: From Woodrow Wilson to the Present to meld these two ways of viewing higher education's past. Nonetheless, the book's title could easily be "Princeton and the Long Shadow of Woodrow Wilson," for the Princeton of the early twentyfirst century is primarily an extension of Wilson's vision: "If Princeton is one of the very best universities in the country, indeed the world, today, Wilson's articulate goals, disciplined focus on its distinctive character, unlimited faith in its potential, and enduringly persuasive rhetoric are largely, though of course not entirely, responsible."

As the university president for only eight years at the beginning of the twentieth century, Wilson "wanted Princeton to be modestly sized, devoted primarily to face-to-face undergraduate teaching, grounded in the liberal arts and sciences, and intellectually powerful; but above all else, he wanted it to be distinctive." All of this has happened, Axtell argues, and much more, with the school becoming, in the course of the twentieth century, arguably the richest university in the world on a per capita basis. Along the way, Axtell shows how Princeton became different than Wilson might have imagined-open to people of color, coeducational, and internationally oriented-while traditions such as active engagement in intercollegiate athletic competitions and participation in eating clubs persisted.

To make his case that Princeton transformed itself during the twentieth century and to show how it did, Axtell takes the reader through a series of chapters on the shift of the faculty from "gentlemen to scholars"; the development of highly selective admissions (including the sorry history of racial and religious discrimination, the decision to admit undergraduate women, and the ambivalence over recruited athletes); curriculum and teaching changes; the extra- or co-curriculum (about which Wilson lamented in 1909, "the sideshows have swallowed up the circus"); student culture; the development of graduate education; and brief histories of the university's libraries, its museum, and the Princeton University Press.

It is hard to imagine a better book on a single university. The Making of Princeton University is engagingly written, judicious in its use of materials, exceptionally well researched (here Axtell had the advantage of an outstanding archival collection), and wise in its understanding of how Princeton has become what it is. But to be genuinely enthusiastic about Axtell's book, you have to accept his basic point of view. I do not for two reasons, The first is that he makes Wilson's shadow unduly important as the hinge around which to write the twentieth-century history of Princeton. Whatever the "accuracy" of Wilson's vision that Princeton should be both excellent and distinctive (and the rhetorical references to it over time), the actual development of the university is much better understood in the broader context of higher education. …