Wisdom’s Workshop: The Rise of the Modern University – Book Review

Robert Kajiwara

Book Review

Wisdom’s Workshop: The Rise of the Modern University

By James Axtell

Axtell, James. Wisdom’s Workshop: The Rise of the Modern University. Princeton University Press. 2016. $22.76 eBook.

In Wisdom’s Workshop: The Rise of the Modern University, James Axtell sets out to provide a history of the development of the modern university and how it came to be what it is today. From the earliest universities in Europe, the development of Oxbridge, and the founding and growth of major universities in the United States, Axtell’s narrative provides historical perspective and context for the creation of elite universities in the English-speaking world. The key phrase here, though, is elite English-speaking universities, which is Axtell’s true focus.

Through Axtell’s work we see that medieval universities were not terribly dissimilar from universities as we know them today. Both share a similar liberal arts curriculum. Students in both eras had to deal with issues of paying for their tuition, taking notes, managing their personal life, the high cost of buying books, and finding jobs after graduation. Throughout Catholic Europe the church was the primary employer of university graduates, though Axtell states that the goal of medieval universities was not to produce zealous clergy, but to produce qualified leaders to maintain the social order, both secular and religious.1

Axtell writes that “The Genesis of America’s great modern universities lies not in the continental experience of all European universities, but in the provincial antecedents of England’s Oxford and Cambridge.”2 That is to say that Axtell has a self-admittedly strong penchant for universities in the English-speaking world, while giving little thought or time to the study of universities in non-English speaking countries. Some of the oldest European universities are in Germany, France, Italy, and elsewhere, yet Axtell gives little attention to these. He also overlooks ancient universities and centers of learning in Africa, the Middle East, India, the Americas, Asia, and the Pacific. Many civilizations throughout the world constructed their own schools and universities that far pre-date European universities by hundreds and even thousands of years. Axtell, though, writing from a white Eurocentric perspective, shows little interest in these. A case could possibly be made that the modern university is based on the Western university model, and therefore the study of non-Western systems is not relevant to Axtell’s work. However non-English speaking Western European countries made important contributions to the development of the modern university as we know it, so Axtell’s lack of interest in this narrative is a notable shortcoming.

Axtell also has a strong focus on elite universities in both England and the United States. While elite universities may have a prominent role in setting precedence for others, they are certainly not the only universities worth studying in a review that is title the the Rise of the Modern University. Far more students attend community colleges and less-prestigious universities than the Ivy Leagues, the Stanfords, and the Oxbridges of the world, so a true study of the modern university should have a significant emphasis on institutions that are more representative of the majority of students. Axtell’s review of the modern American or English university is intriguing, but it should be labeled accurately. It is not truly a study of the Rise of the Modern University, since it focuses primarily on a very specific and elite version of the modern university. Instead Axtell’s work would be better titled The Rise of the Modern American-English University or perhaps The Rise of Elite American-English Universities.

Axtell’s sources are reflective of his focus, and includes both primary and secondary documents, mostly from England and the United States. Although Axtell devotes a chapter to the German influence in American higher education during the nineteenth through twentieth centuries, he neglects the use of German-language sources, and opts instead to heavily utilize English-language sources. Unsurprisingly his narrative in the chapter remains heavily focused on how Germans helped to influence elite American institutions, rather than on how Germans contributed to the modern university.

Universities were not immune to the negative effects of the Great Depression. Faculty salaries and the construction of new buildings came to a standstill in reaction to lessening of university income.3 During World War II American universities saw a decrease in enrollment and faculty, though this was somewhat alleviated by the start of military training that took place on university campuses. When America became an undisputed superpower after the war, American universities adjusted to an increase in enrollment, as well as to being the premier centers of learning in the world.

In spite of its shortcomings, Wisdom’s Workshop is an interesting read for anyone who desires to know more about the history of the university as an institution and how it came to be what it is today. Through times of struggle and prosperity, change and consistency, Axtell describes the university as an institution that both changes and remains the same. Axtell’s focus on elite English-speaking narratives though advances the American exceptionalism and white supremacist belief of superiority over other cultures and races, including Europeans from non-English speaking countries.

1Axtell, 17, 38.

2Axtell, 43.

3Axtell, 316.


Robert Kajiwara is a Ryukyuan (Okinawan), Nahua, Hawaiian PhD in History student at Liberty University. He has an MA in History from the University of Nebraska at Kearney, and a BA in History, Asia/Pacific focus, from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He is President of the Peace For Okinawa Coalition, a non-profit think-tank and cultural organization (www.PeaceForOkinawa.org). For more information please see his website, www.RobKajiwara.com, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram @RobKajiwara.