Axtell first W&M faculty named to AAAS, Scholar shares vision for higher ed and for W&M

Axtell believes in the “life of the mind.” Photo by David Williard. When the university faculties of the nation were getting bludgeoned in the press, in Congress and in America’s think tanks during the mid-1990s, William and Mary’s Kenan Professor of Humanities James Axtell responded. His 1998 book, The Pleasures of Academe: A Celebration & Defense of Higher Education—one of 16 books he has produced—sought to set the record straight.

“During the mid-1990s, the faculties were just getting hammered for every fault in American society,” he explains. “It was outrageous.” His book attempted to show “the life of the mind” is a viable and beneficial pursuit, and that changes in the academic world are “natural, evolutionary” and, in many cases, “temporary.”

“I did the appropriate research and found out that we’re not raving left-wingers as a whole. We work 57 to 60 hours per week on average; we don’t disregard or slight our teaching for research—in fact, most of us are stressed trying to do both at once,” he says.

Today, having been admitted as a fellow into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS)—the first professor at the College to receive that honor—Axtell has obtained what some colleagues consider the academic pinacle. From that perch, he remains as conscious as ever that slanders against higher education persist. He rises to the defense because he is motivated by a belief in the scholarly ideal and by a personal mission to convince potential graduate-school candidates that noble and practical rewards await students who pursue life in Academe.

To say Axtell was delighted with his acceptance into the AAAS is an understatement. “It was like being hit with a nice kind of lightning,” he says. “My hair was standing on end, but I had a euphoric sense that I might be in academic heaven.”

 


‘The idea is that you must bring your scholarly expertise to bear on society in general. It took a lot of people to get the expertise to you, and you should be passing it on … .’

Certainly, he has paid his dues. Having earned an undergraduate degree from Yale University and then a doctorate from Cambridge University, Axtell taught at Yale, Sarah Lawrence College and Northwestern University before coming to William and Mary in 1978, where he has gained recognition as a world-class expert in the colonial ethnohistory of North America as well as in the history of American education. As one who exemplifies the life of the mind, he writes, teaches and feels an intrinsic obligation to otherwise share. His main constraint—one common to many of his colleagues, he says—is time.

“The students get preference,” he says. “I don’t have time for my research and writing during the semester. I am just crazed right now because I’m trying to finish the final chapter of my next book (a history of 20th-century Princeton) and the student papers and recommendation requests keep coming in.” Although he tries to reserve one day a week as “sacrosanct” for his research, once again, this semester, that has been violated.

Yet giving up or, at least, slowing down the research and the writing—what he calls “making peace with the fact that the rewards of being a professor are in the teaching”—is not an option. He survives by being “one of those workaholics who do nothing but read and write and think about teaching,” he says. For him, research and writing are the “quickest and most secure ways” of learning something. Besides, he says, “The idea is that you must bring your scholarly expertise to bear on society in general. It took a lot of people to get the expertise to you, and you should be passing it on to as many people as possible—especially when you work in a public university like William and Mary.”

Axtell expects to retire from William and Mary—in three years. Whatever struggles he has had, he would not trade his career here. “It’s worth the work because the kids are worth it, my colleagues are congenial and the administration is easy to work with,” he says. “What’s not to like about this College, except that our financial resources are weak and uncertain?”

 


‘We should begin by teaching students the minute they walk in the door that they are responsible for the ongoing quality and viability of the place.’

His assessment of the College and of its place in the academic world is positive but realistic.

“William and Mary is never going to make it to world-class,” he says. It will never be listed with the likes of Berkeley, Harvard, MIT or the other schools that annually are cited in the London Times list of premier universities. “One, we don’t have those kinds of finances, and we never will,” he says. “Two, we’re not in a center of intellectual or economic life; we’re in a tourist town. Three, we believe so firmly in our undergraduate teaching that we’ve starved the graduate programs.”

At the same time, Axtell believes the College has not peaked. The national reputation William and Mary has earned for its commitment to teaching is well-deserved, he says. The graduate programs, although limited, are very good, some are stellar, and the scholarship that is produced is abundant and significant, he adds. Each, he believes—based on his assessment of young faculty members—will only get better.

Funding, however, will continue to be a source of faculty hardship, he predicts. One way he would like to see that addressed on a long-term basis would be to educate students about their future responsibility to the College.

“We should begin by teaching students the minute they walk in the door that they are responsible for the ongoing quality and viability of the place,” he says. “They do not pay anything like the full cost of their education while they are here, and they need to keep paying so there will be future classes. We have to promote the culture of giving. We have to understand that when we admit freshmen, we admit alumni. Our 26-percent alumni-giving rate is way too low for an institution that wishes to be considered elite.”

As a member of the AAAS, Axtell is excited by the opportunity to nominate colleagues for the honor. For years, he says, the arts and sciences academy has been “in-groupy,” overly populated with people from the “bicoastal academic powerhouses” of New England and California. He hopes his selection will open a door. “All it takes is putting William and Mary’s name in people’s consciousness,” he says, “and they will realize that if one person qualifies, surely there must be others. That’s what we’re hoping will happen here, because certainly there are many professors who qualify.”

 


‘It certainly is a lot of work. But it’s a great life, and this is a great place to pursue it.’

Meanwhile, he will continue to be a defender of and a recruiter for what he considers a noble calling.

Assessing the critics, he says, “There’s an undercurrent of suspicion always about the academy—about group-think, even though we are intellectually diverse, about brainwashing students, even though it is impossible to brainwash students, and about tenure, even though many organizations, including the military and legal firms, have tenure.”

Toward recruiting the next generation of scholars, he says, “Somebody needs to take my place.” Later, he adds, “It certainly is a lot of work. But it’s a great life, and this is a great place to pursue it.”