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  • The Making of Princeton University: From Woodrow Wilson to the Present
  • John R. Thelin
The Making of Princeton University: From Woodrow Wilson to the Present, by James Axtell. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006. 704 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-691-12686-9.

James Axtell’s history of Princeton over the past century shows how an author can seize victory from the jaws of defeat. This is the story of a single university—and, as such, tends to be dismissed unfairly as a typical work in the genre of higher education’s “house histories.” But look again—here we have finally an outstanding historian writing about a significant institution. The writing is lively; the case study is connected to the larger domains of American higher education. It provides an antidote to the familiar reasons that institutional history has been maligned or ignored.

Axtell’s story gets off to a great start due to his historical candor. He presents in a forthright manner the various foibles and flaws which characterized Princeton during the tenure of Woodrow Wilson as president, circa 1902 to 1910. The student body and ethos of the place were homogenous, leaning toward dilettante upper-class white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant young men who were graduates of Northeastern prep schools. Even within this privileged orbit, strong intellectual commitment was optional at best. Exclusion extended to women, African Americans, public high school alumni, and often to studious “wonks” and “greasy grinds.” Even within the student body, snobbery and non-merit factors permeated even deeper, with emphasis on selection to “eating clubs”—the intra-campus prize that trumped one’s achievements in the classroom, the lab, the library, and even the athletic field. Axtell delineates this combination of policies and customs which created a seamless web among the admissions office, the board, the alumni, much of the faculty, and the undergraduates. The compelling drama is to follow in detail how over the course of the twentieth century key individuals and groups worked to transform Princeton gradually and persistently from a geographically isolated, provincial campus closer and closer to the goal of nurturing a great university that also was distinctive within the ranks of powerful research universities.

So, one remarkable feature of the Princeton story over the course of the twentieth century is not only the changes that took place to reduce partially the exclusionary abuses of 1910—but also, the interesting, difficult choices Princeton’s community chose to retain and emphasize. In other words, Princeton deliberately opted against the excesses of growth in size and indiscriminate expansion of the academic fields it hosted. Try creating a great university today without a medical center, a law school, and an annual freshman class of 1,300 students.

The heart of this history is undergraduate living and learning. James Axtell draws from his experience as an ethno-historian. The new wrinkle is that instead of reconstructing the round of life of the Hurons and Iroquois of North America in the eighteenth century or the colonial colleges of New England, he probes the continuities and changes in the student cultures which have flourished within Princeton University’s structure. To do so he undertook intensive [End Page 359] archival research and demonstrated keen appreciation of such historical documents as Edwin Slosson’s 1909 period piece anthology, Great American Universities. He also has drawn from outstanding secondary sources, including Bruce Leslie’s Gentleman & Scholars: Colleges and Community in the “Age of the University” (1986). Axtell’s book is both readable and coherent because he holds true to his pledge to give prime attention to the educational dimension, with emphasis on students. Periodically he presents detailed profiles of legendary student figures, such as Richard Halliburton (Class of ’21), to illustrate ways in which Princeton undergraduates navigated the official and hidden curricula. On balance, however, one of his most novel contributions is to animate the collective life of various generations of Princetonians. One unusual feature of his writing and the whole project is that Axtell is neither an alumnus of Princeton nor a member of the faculty. It means that his understanding and appreciation are hard-earned as he waded through diverse and voluminous documents and...


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