Readers of Prof. James Axtell's forthcoming book, tentatively titled, "The University: The First Eight Centuries," could expect to be presented with a kind of genealogy of the best American universities, from medieval beginnings to the present.
"Princeton University Press, the publisher of the my book and I envision it as an historical guide to universities around the world that want to emulate the success of our Harvards, Yales, Princetons, Stanfords, and Chicagos," said Axtdell in a recent interview with the Lake Placid News and The Virginia Gazette.
Axtell, who before retirement was the William R. Kennan Jr. Professor of Humanities at the College of William & Mary, is a historian whose interest lie in American Indian history and the history of higher education. He is the author of more than a dozen highly regarded scholarly works on those subjects. He was the first W&M faculty member to win a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship and is the only W & M member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
His book, in seven chapters, is going to trace the distinctive development of American universities through their medieval progenitors. Each chapter tries to describe how the highereducational institutions of the day grew from and have been largely adapted to existing but ever-evolving social, economic, and cultural conditions.
Readers will find a sensible symbiosis between temporal conditions and the institutions they created and fostered. "The dramatic religio-political changes during the 16th century England, for example, had major effects on Oxford and Cambridge, from government, religion, and collegiate building and architecture to faculty and student recruitment, curriculum, and future employment of alumni," he said.
Nowadays, he said, American higher education leads the world because of its democratic size, reach, and variety, offering something for everyone, the early inclusion of women, wealth provided by private, corporate, and public funding. This in turn provides research strengths and capacities, like libraries, digital resources, laboratories, and publication outlets. All thus is augmented by public respect and support, academic and intellectual freedom, personal competitiveness and national ambition, to be the best.
According to Axtell, the College of William & Mary shares many features, except financial resources, with the nation's best research universities. It attracts and graduates a very high percentage of increasingly well-qualified undergraduates, in all fields. It is still relatively inexpensive, especially for in-states, although it lacks enough financial aid to be competitive. It is residential, with a relatively low student-faculty ratio for personal, engaged learning in relatively small classes.
Reflecting on William & Mary's graduate programs, he said, while they are selective, are well regarded and have commendable records of placing their graduates in both academic and non-academic careers. He considers the leadership at W&M experienced, efficient, accessible, and upbeat, and does more-with-less that its peers.
"Although public funding has declined steadily and endowment has not grown enough to replace it, it continues to enjoy a private-college reputation as a "Public Ivy," Axtell said.
If the past is any guide, Axtell's new book will contain some fascinating historical facts that have eluded other researchers. In one of his previous books on the ethno-history of Colonial North America, he wrote that contrary to portrayals, the Indians weren't just helpless victims. They often managed to hang on to their land for a long time, against all odds.
Another persistent misconception about the Indians was the notion that they acted in childlike fashion and were fascinated by cheap trinkets. One most quoted example is the sale of Manhattan. It was supposedly sold for $24 worth of trinkets to Dutch settlers.
"Not so," said Axtell. "The goods the Indians got were valuable, what we would today call high-tech items, things that they couldn't produce themselves: wool cloth, axes. metal-kettles. Even the glass beads have special religious significance for them. In addition, Manhattan at that time wasn't such a hot property. It was a mosquito-infested swampland."
Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from The Virginia Gazette.