Adam R. Nelson is Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of Educational Policy Studies and History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This interview is based on his new book, Capital of Mind: The Idea of a Modern American University (University of Chicago Press, 2024).
JF: What led you to write Capital of Mind?
AN: I wrote Capital of Mind to offer a new interpretation of the American university’s origins. I wanted to correct three key misperceptions. First, most scholars place the emergence of the university after the Civil War as part of the “second” industrial revolution, but in fact its roots lay earlier, at the start of the nineteenth century, as part of the first industrial revolution. Second, most scholars identify the university with a principle of “pure” research and the pursuit of advanced knowledge “for its own sake,” but in fact its roots lay in the steady institutionalization of practical and professional subjects that recast students as consumers of educational credentials that carried value in the contemporary labor market. Third, most scholars associate the rise of the university with a celebration of German academic models, but in fact early-nineteenth-century American travelers were often skeptical of the German political economy of higher education. Capital of Mind sets the record straight and, in the process, suggests a new explanation for the modern American university’s appearance: with its focus on a free and open choice of studies, it was the institution best suited to meet the demands of a new industrial middle class. To understand this history is to gain a deeper perspective on current debates over higher education and “neoliberalism.”
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Capital of Mind?
AN: Set in the early nineteenth century during the United States’ ﬁrst age of manufactures, Capital of Mind shows how a bold generation of higher-education reformers called for the mass production and mass consumption of knowledge—and ultimately a competitive industrialization of ideas—for members of a nascent middle class. New universities, linked to liberal market ideologies that were ascendant on both sides of the Atlantic, catered to popular demand for practical and professional studies and contributed to a steady commercialization of academic expertise, a phenomenon some associated with a welcome democratization of access to a credentialed meritocracy but others identified with a worrisome marketization of education that subordinated moral to material concerns.
JF: Why do we need to read Capital of Mind?
AN: On the one hand, “the idea of a modern university” opened new and democratic opportunities for the production and consumption of academic knowledge to serve an increasingly complex industrial society. On the other hand, it commercialized both scholars and scholarship and, in the process, commodified academic consciousness itself. With its factory-like division of intellectual labor that equated mental with mechanical work as well as its focus on professors’ competition for student-consumers, it set the stage for the institutions we have today. Capital of Mind—which is structured around two institutions, Harvard and the University of Virginia, one northern and ostensibly private, the other southern and ostensibly public—explains not only how the modern American university arose but also how it shaped the nation’s broader system of higher education. Contemporaries debated the pros and cons of an “Intellectual Economy” in which markets set the value of ideas and the most advanced sciences were left to pay for themselves. They discussed whether government investments fostered innovation, whether federal aid unfairly benefited some regions more than others, whether public assistance disincentivized philanthropic support, and whether it was better for a state or nation to have one “university” or many. From these questions came the United States’ uniquely public-private system, a juggernaut of academic productivity and economic development. Some have called it a miracle. Others have called it a mess. What all seem to acknowledge is that, despite its seemingly inexorable commercialization of knowledge, the modern American university became the envy of the world.
JF: Tell us about the kinds of sources that you used for this book.
AN: The research for this volume is grounded in a variety of sources, many found with the aid of the extraordinary librarians at the American Antiquarian Society (AAS) in Worcester, Massachusetts. I had the privilege of a month-long Kate B. and Hall J. Peterson Research Fellowship as well as a year-long National Endowment for the Humanities Long-Term Fellowship at the AAS, which, along with the Library of Congress, holds the nation’s largest collection of materials printed before 1840. I cannot overstate the value of this collection for scholars of early American history. For my project, it offered access to rare manuscripts, correspondence, and unpublished letter books as well as innumerable reports, pamphlets, broadsides, sermons, poems, songbooks, addresses, orations, newspapers, magazines, travel journals, personal diaries, court decisions, government materials (bills, resolutions, memorials, committee minutes, tariff schedules), college papers (textbooks, lecture notes, course syllabi, disciplinary regulations, bursars’ receipts), business documents (bank loans, financial ledgers, construction invoices, property titles, mortgage registrations, bankruptcy papers, land certificates), learned society bulletins (transactions, proceedings, memoirs, treatises), and other printed ephemera, as well as countless portraits and paintings, etchings and engravings, architectural renderings and other visual artifacts. Of course, I also consulted the vast secondary literature on the nineteenth-century transatlantic history of higher education and political economy (particularly in the United States and the German states) as well as the history of industrialization, the history of intellectual property and intellectual labor, and the materialist history of ideas (based on the claim that “ideas” are legible, discernible, or recognizable chiefly in material or institutional forms). I also consulted recent sociological work on higher education and social-class formation as well as the growing historiography on higher education, race, and slavery.
JF: What is your next project?
AN: Capital of Mind is the second of three volumes I plan to publish with the University of Chicago Press on early American higher education. The first, Exchange of Idea: The Economy of Higher Education in Early America, was released in December 2023, and I am now writing the final volume, Nation of Knowledge: Internationalism, Imperialism, and the Americanization of Science. It examines how attempts to institutionalize science in the new United States balanced a desire to advance the well-being of humanity with an equal desire to advance the particular interests of the national state. In addition, I will publish a brief history of the nineteenth century’s most famous U.S. Supreme Court decision on higher education: Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward (1819). This case, which held that Dartmouth’s charter was a “contract” under the law of corporations, asked whether the college was a public or private institution and, more broadly, how much authority the states had to regulate the corporations they chartered. While some felt the state’s role was to protect independent corporations from public supervision, others felt it was the state’s role was to protect the public from the abuses of independent corporations. Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion embraced all the arguments of Dartmouth College attorney Daniel Webster, but as many scholars have shown, Webster built his case on a flimsy interpretation of the facts—not to mention questionable legal tactics. My book unearths the surprisingly tangled roots of a landmark in American corporate, and collegiate, jurisprudence. Set in an era of toxic partisanship, religious culture wars, and increased social inequality, it has useful lessons for today.
JF: Thanks, Adam!