Portrait of Princeton President Woodrow Wilson 1879 circa 1907.
Princeton University Archives.

W. Barksdale Maynard ’88 is the author of Architecture in the United States, 1800-1850 and Walden Pond: A History. He is writing a book on Woodrow Wilson at Princeton.

I spent four years on campus, two of them in Wilson College, yet graduated knowing little about Woodrow Wilson. And what I thought I knew turns out to be wrong. Researching his life has been continually surprising. He was not merely a “thinking machine, “but temperamental and difficult and full of fire. I am drawn to such people, having recently written a book on Thoreau. Wilson was no less ferocious than the Concord transcendentalist in his pronouncements on right and wrong and the importance of living deliberately. And his treatment of his closest associates – well, if Wilson suddenly disagreed with them on matters of principle, he dropped them ruthlessly. His path to power was strewn with broken and discarded friends whom he had decided were sellouts to pragmatism or expediency. He burned hot with self-righteousness, and he scorched many of those around him.

We live in an interconnected age. A university president who throw his or her weight around quickly breaks china and is dismissed. But Wilson lived in a transitional era, when pushy individualism still worked – sometimes. He thought he could apply the heroic style of leadership he had admired as a boy in Civil War days to running Princeton. He told people what he was going to do, and then he did it. For four years the results were spectacular. Princeton became a fine school, and he gave us the preceptorial system. But his last four years were a disaster. The Battle of Princeton, they called it – a conflagration that threatened wholesale ruin. Wilson’s feud with Dean Andrew Fleming West 1874 over the location of the graduate school was just one part. Less known, but to me more fascinating, is how the alumni loudly rejected Wilson’s vision for undergraduate life. He wanted to make students more intellectual; he said that the only purpose of a university was intellectual attainment. But alumni, spouting off in the then-anti-Wilson PAW, said they didn’t want their sons to be intellectuals – “preceptors and pedants,” “mere scholars.” They wanted them to be affable, popular, and ultimately rich.

“I know that the colleges of this country must be reconstructed from top to bottom, and I know that America is going to demand it,” Wilson said to Pittsburgh alumni in 1910. The more I study his fiery speeches, the more astonishing his vision appears for reform. He wanted to smash the upperclass eating clubs on Prospect Avenue along with many other extracurricular “sideshows,” which had lately expanded, by his count, to more than 80. In his controversial quad plan, he was trying to force students of all four classes to mingle with each other and talk about intellectual things, not houseparties and bicker.

Not only that, he was trying to force professors to interact with students outside the classroom, to teach in off-hours by deep conversations over supper or around a fireplace (hence the “common rooms” he promoted, which you can see alongside the dining halls in what are today Mathey and Rockefeller colleges). He was pushing everybody to change, to become morel literary and intellectual. “The fight is on,” he said, “for the restoration of Princeton. My heart is in it more than it has been in anything else, because it is a scheme of salvation.”

Did he succeed in reforming the American university according to his vision? That’s doubtful, at least from the perspective I have from teaching at Johns Hopkins (where Wilson himself taught part-time in the 1890s). My students are busy and engaged but don’t strike me as truly being pushed to live the intellectual life as Wilson defined it. To him it implied, foremost, a passion for reading, a heartfelt conviction that immersion in great works of literature and history is the true path to self-improvement. This, after all, was a man who sat with his wife on the grass on campus to read Wordsworth out loud. Quads were to be places of beautiful sequestration where reading and deep, thoughtful talk could occur, where students could catch seductive glimpses of “Literature, walking within her open doors in quiet chambers with men of olden time.” To have this magic happen, undergraduate life needed to be simplified. But the opposite has happened, of course: Campuses are noisy with uplifting social, cultural, and aesthetic diversions of all kinds. We encourage students to immerse themselves in the world of the moment through the Internet and political activism and the academic study of pop culture. Worthy pursuits, maybe, but Wilson might wonder where the diligent readers have gone.

He might fault us, too, for glibly appropriating the title of his famous 1896 address in Alexander Hall, “Princeton in the Nation’s Service.” Have we stopped to ask what he actually meant by it? He stressed that college education is a rare privilege (much rare in his day than ours). Being lucky enough to obtain such an education obliges a person to take on a leadership role for the good of the nation. It can be a big role or a small one – that doesn’t matter. His point was that every graduate should think of himself or herself as burdened with a lofty duty to provide some leadership. Everything the faculty teaches should be aimed toward “Princeton in the Nation’s Service.” For Wilson, this meant that it ought to give a broad, general training, rooted in great historical ideas. General training produces flexible minds that can respond to any contingency, he said, and people who are not self-obsessed but who sympathetically find common ground with all American types.

“In the Nation’s Service” – it has a fine ring, but Wilson might not think American universities are applying his words as he meant them. He probably would find our curricula a rabbit warren of subspecialties: courses so narrow that they once would have been reserved for the graduate level; and choices so obscure that they seemingly are designed to chase the young mind down a corridor of theory or deepen the groove of pre-existing ideological affinities. Wilson believed undergraduates needed to grasp the big picture if they were going to lead society effectively someday. Miscellaneous, trivial, or trendy offerings produced only confusion, not the clear vision he insisted was critical for bold, broad-minded service to the nation.

His radical policies came down hard on professors. He wanted only “normal men,” no strange prigs or pedants, even if they did happen to be the world’s top experts in Widget Studies. When he hired his 50 preceptors, he interviewed them in his study in Prospect, to be sure they had good personalities. This sounds fluffy, but he had a serious pedagogical purpose: He was sure that undergraduates cannot learn from teachers they don’t relate to or like. Learning, he thought, is about being emotionally inspired to emulate the life of the mind, not just swallowing facts and theories. We could chuckle at this, except that he had some success. Witness preceptor Christian Gauss, a man who, as a generalist, would have little chance of being hired today but who was almost worshiped by his students – people like Judge Harold Medina 1909, Edmund Wilson ’16, and F. Scott Fitzgerald ’17 – as an inspiring intellectual, whose love of thinking and literature remained with them all their lives.

I heard recently that people may one day live to be 150. Imagine if Woodrow Wilson had lived that long – he would be with us today, in the year of his sesquicentennial. I can imagine him banging down the door of the president’s office in Nassau Hall, wanting his job back, ready to institute a few reforms. How he would gnash his teeth to see Prospect Avenue still lined with eating clubs (though fewer than in Wilson’s day) and to learn that registered extracurricular organizations now number 240. The new Whitman College might please him, however – his quad plan attempted at last. His fondest dream was that the American university would be reborn in the quads: members of the community rubbing shoulders with each other, from the grayest professor to the greenest freshman, in a “vital academic family” where social distinctions would evaporate, trivial topics be forgotten, and great ideas flourish. His vision was Olympian, his temperament sharp and impatient – and if the old warrior showed up today, we would hardly know what to do with him. Indeed, his contemporaries were perplexed, too. He seemed to have descended from some mountaintop, bringing an ideal educational vision of doubtful relevance to a cold, hard world where expediency and pragmatism rule.

Perhaps it is just as well that mortal life is brief, that Woodrow Wilson is not coming back to break out china. At his memorial service in Alexander Hall, his friends Melancthon Jacobus 1877 quoter Emerson: “Beware when the great God lets loose a thinker on this planet. Then all things are at risk. It is as when a conflagration has broken out in a great city, and no man knows what is safe, or where it will end.”

This was originally published in the June 7, 2006 issue of PAW.