I spent the last couple of days at a Princeton conference organized by Jim Axtell and John Cooper on “new approaches to the educational legacy of Woodrow Wilson.” That will sound to some as a pretty unpromising topic for a conference, but in fact it was quite lively and altogether relevant for anyone concerned with the state of undergraduate education in this country.
The conference dealt frankly with problems that confounded Wilson, such as race and gender, two of the challenges that Wilson simply could not handle in a manner acceptable to us today. But what most interested, and surprised, me was the extent to which Wilson the college president anticipated much of what has turned out to be essential to the best in modern liberal education. Princeton’s President Wilson was a progressive educational reformer and many of his innovations have gained acceptance in higher education over the past 100 years.
Jim Axtell argued that Woodrow Wilson attempted to create five major types of reform at Princeton University. The first was his reorganization of the faculty — the creation of disciplinary departments and the appointment of faculty chairs. The second was his modernization of the curriculum — he lightened undergraduate course loads, attacked the chaos created by the new elective system, and in general tried to institutionalize liberality of subject matter. The third was his introduction of the preceptorial system, appointing superb young scholars to run small undergraduate discussion groups, aimed at shifting from an emphasis on teaching to a focus on student learning. The fourth was the failed attempt to introduce residential colleges in the Oxbridge manner, to provide a sound residential basis for liberal education. The fifth was his second failure — to integrate the graduate school into the newly coordinated university. Several others papers examined Wilson’s commitment to the idea of “Princeton in the nation’s service.” Arguably the service ideal was one of Wilson’s great contributions to the idea of liberal education.
President Shirley M. Tilghman addressed the conference in its opening session and argued that today’s Princeton deeply reflects the influence of the man our students call “Woody Woo”. Princeton, she said, has become a serious intellectual university rather than the finishing school for southern gentlemen that Wilson found in place for his class of 1879. Princeton is still, at its core, a collegiate university committed to liberal undergraduate education. And, finally, Princeton has now embraced a residential college system that embraces the “quad plan” that Wilson longed for. Tilghman did not mention it, but of course Princeton is still the physically gorgeous and geographically remote campus that Wilson thought would create the ambience for a serious, reflective undergraduate education. Quite right.
But of course times have changed. In some ways they have permitted the creation of a much better Princeton University. Our president is a brilliant Canadian-born female geneticist. The university has fully integrated women into its student body. Both our students and our faculty are much more diverse than they were a century ago. And we are still striving to keep liberal undergraduate education at the core of a research university — a harder task with each passing year in an era in which research has become the 300-pound gorilla in the college canoe.
We are indeed also trying to introduce residential-college structure to our educational efforts, although I am less sanguine about its prospects than some of my colleagues. And we have resisted temptations to introduce professional education in order to maintain a single faculty — though, again, the asymmetries of compensation and teaching load required to maintain our place in the research-university pecking order have badly attenuated what it means to have a single faculty. At the end of the conference, I was mostly struck by how hard it is in the 21st century to maintain Wilson’s admirable and coherent educational vision. But I was intrigued to think that we might be able to improve ourselves by a similarly thoughtful examination of how Tilghman’s university differs from Wilson’s.