Capital of Mind: The Idea of a Modern American University

Review

Sam Short
by
published on 02 May 2024
Capital of Mind: The Idea of a Modern American University
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Title: Capital of Mind: The Idea of a Modern American University
Author: Adam R. Nelson
Audience: University
Difficulty: Hard
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Published: 2024
Pages: 480

Adam R. Nelson’s "Capital of Mind" traces the beginnings of the first universities emerging in the 19th-century United States. While providing a history of American education and how it grew from a few scattered colleges, "Capital of Mind" is an intellectual history of how Americans thought about higher education, its role, and how it should be funded in the industrializing society.

Nelson, the Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of Educational Policy Studies and History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, takes the title of his work from a quote by German economist Friedrich List.

Nelson notes in his Introduction that a modern university was an idea in its infancy in the 19th century.

List, an advocate of German tariff reform before fleeing to France in 1822, advocated for fewer trade restrictions between German states and more unity in supporting a single policy to restrict the flow of British goods to those states. While in Paris, List turned his attention towards the United States before docking in New York on June 10, 1825. Nelson quotes List saying, “The greater part of productive power [of a nation] consists in the intellectual and social condition of the individual, which I call Capital of Mind.” List found himself in a stirring debate between liberal economic policies - or free trade without restrictions - and protectionism. For List, a country’s productive power was tied to its intellectual power. Manufacturers at home needed protection from outside producers like Great Britain via tariffs. Education needed an answer inside the United States to foreign universities which Americans may be enticed to study at if their state lacked one.

Debates over free trade and protectionism raged in the early 19th century due largely to the Scottish economist Adam Smith’s popularization of the former but also due to the United States seeing a series of tariffs passed in 1816, 1824, and 1828 against imports largely targeting British manufactures.

Nelson notes in his Introduction that a modern university was an idea in its infancy in the 19th century. Some said it was several undergraduate colleges under one name, like Oxford or Cambridge; others said the learning should be practical and technical rather than classical. While Nelson says there was not a widely accepted definition, “its courses were to be not only classical but also practical. Its students were to be not only local but also national, even international. Its standards were to be meritocratic, but also, somehow, democratic. In the end, they agreed, a university should be more open, more liberal, and its very liberalism would make it modern."

Nelson makes the creation of the University of Virginia by Thomas Jefferson and the expansion of Harvard beyond a small college central to the development of this definition. Debates over Jefferson’s plan raged as he struggled to find a means for funding and stirred controversy when his first faculty were European professors. Harvard’s push for change came from one of its professors, George Ticknor. Before joining Harvard, Ticknor had traveled to Europe where he observed notably German universities which behaved like an economy where students had significant power as consumers. While not looking to replicate the German example entirely, Ticknor and Jefferson both inspired to see a more liberal institution arise as something grander and more open to students’ choices in their studies.

Capital of Mind, while focusing on the early 19th century, feels broad in scope. Nelson focuses greatly on Jefferson’s plan for a university and Harvard’s expansion but also devotes a significant portion of his work to names like Daniel Raymond, credited for bringing the study of political economy to intellectual circles in the U.S.

Scholars and students of intellectual history, history of education, or debates over government’s role in economics and education will find Capital of Mind a satisfactory addition to their studies. Aside from endnotes, Nelson includes a bibliographic essay where he directs further study for readers on several topics the book covers. Primary sources employed in the book include correspondence between Jefferson, Ticknor, and other figures like Edward Everett. Chapters dedicated to names like List and Raymond analyze works such as Fredrich Engels's "Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy" (1843).

The book is Nelson's second volume in an economic history of higher education. Volume 1, Exchange of Ideas: The Economy of Higher Education in Early America was released in 2023.

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About the Reviewer

Sam Short
Sam Short is an Instructor of History with Motlow State Community College in Smyrna, Tennessee.

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APA Style

Short, S. (2024, May 02). Capital of Mind: The Idea of a Modern American University. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.worldhistory.org/review/406/capital-of-mind-the-idea-of-a-modern-american-univ/

Chicago Style

Short, Sam. "Capital of Mind: The Idea of a Modern American University." World History Encyclopedia. Last modified May 02, 2024. https://www.worldhistory.org/review/406/capital-of-mind-the-idea-of-a-modern-american-univ/.

MLA Style

Short, Sam. "Capital of Mind: The Idea of a Modern American University." World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia, 02 May 2024. Web. 15 Jun 2024.

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