Individuality Is an Unquenchable Fire: The Surprising Story of Woodrow Wilson at Johns Hopkins
W. Barksdale Maynard
When I asked my students, "Do you feel that your Hopkins degree carries
with it a responsibility for you to eventually serve America in some
way?" more than half said "no." It would seem that Woodrow Wilson's educational
ideals are languishing--and yet there are hopeful signs at many schools,
including JHU, of a return to his fundamentals-based approach. For example,
his "In the Nation's Service" mantra has been taken up today by Richard
Cherwitz at The University of Texas at Austin, whose Intellectual Entrepreneurship
initiative encourages faculty to be "citizen-scholars--researchers supplying
more than narrow, theoretical disciplinary knowledge." Cherwitz stresses
"the obligation of universities to serve society" yet points out that
specialized and "theorized" graduate curricula are often irrelevant to
"pressing public problems" and promote a never-ending culture of narrowness
as students ape their highly focused advisors. Those students should
instead take the reins like self-motivated young entrepreneurs, Cherwitz
argues, and demand that their expensive graduate educations train them
broadly and sanely for jobs inside the academy or out--not specialization,
but general training for useful service to society.
Surely the first Intellectual Entrepreneur graduate student was Woodrow Wilson at Johns Hopkins, the day he declared, "I want to be near the world. I want to know the world"! In a biting 1885 speech to the Hopkins Literary Society, a debate club he helped form for the undergraduates, he lamented the fact that oratory and clear speech were languishing at a place "where exact knowledge overcrows everything else and the art of persuasion is neglected on principle." He concluded pessimistically, "Oratory must be full of the spirit of the world: that spirit is excluded from University life. That worldly spirit is the one Cherwitz seeks to re-instill today.
Last December, Atlantic Monthly named Woodrow Wilson number ten among "The Top 100" most influential Americans of all time--an extraordinary honor. But what do we know about our most famous graduate (PhD, 1886)? Of the highest-ranking presidents on the Atlantic list, he is arguably the least understood by the average person. He has been neglected by popular biographers, compared to Lincoln (number two on the list), FDR (four), Theodore Roosevelt (fifteen), and JFK (not even included). With Wilsonianism back in the headlines as America struggles to establish a democracy in the Middle East, Woodrow Wilson seems ready for new attention and reappraisal. How can we understand this enigmatic man?
One largely overlooked source is his academic life--the thirty-five busy years he spent on campuses as student, professor, and university president. Here his character was formed; here his strengths and weaknesses first showed themselves. My forthcoming book, Wilson's First War, attempts to uncover the drama of these years and offers a startlingly new picture of Woodrow Wilson as a fighter for idealistic reform long before he first ran for political office. It shows that Wilson was one of the most controversial men in academia, thanks to his willingness to wage war on behalf of high-minded causes--a tendency that first showed itself when he was a graduate student at Johns Hopkins.
Wilson spent most of his pre-politics career at Princeton, as undergraduate (1875-79), professor (1890-1902), and president (1902-1910). During the last of these phases he introduced extraordinary reforms, including tightening academic standards. ("This place is becoming nothing but a goddamned educational institution!" one undergraduate famously growled on his way out.) And Wilson established the Preceptorial System, still the pride of Princeton today, whereby pupils were taught in small conferences, substantially replacing big, rowdy lectures.
But the title of my book, Wilson's First War, refers to the final phase of his reforms, the one that turned ugly--his fight to make Princeton University more democratic and its students much more intellectual. He proposed a revolutionary "Quad Plan": underclassmen would live in residential, Gothic-style quadrangles alongside upperclassmen, graduate students, and faculty for what he called "mind and mind" interaction and egalitarian socializing. Quads would replace the private, elitist, and frivolous upperclass "eating clubs" then popular. Wilson's Quad Plan met with a firestorm of criticism--"The Battle of Princeton"--and was finally vetoed by the conservative plutocrats on the Board of Trustees, who were determined to protect the clubs.
The Battle of Princeton deeply wounded Wilson, and he never recovered emotionally. About to be forced out of office, he entered politics, adapting his fight for campus democracy to a national stage. In 1912, he pulled off one of the most remarkable feats in American political history: the college professor turned university president won the Presidency of the United States less than two years after entering public life. Princeton's Wilson (now governor of New Jersey) defeated not one but two former Chief Executives in the "Big Three Schools" election--William Howard Taft (Yale) and Theodore Roosevelt (Harvard), the most seasoned politicians of the age. The time was right, Progressives said, for a "Scholar in Politics."
In researching Woodrow Wilson's academic life, I've made an intriguing discovery: his famous ideas about how to reform Princeton and other American universities around 1907 actually originated much earlier, at Hopkins. Another discovery, one that I almost hesitate to report: during his two years at JHU, Woodrow Wilson was desperately unhappy! And yet it was those difficulties at Hopkins that focused his thinking and crystallized his key educational ideas: 1) that undergraduates learn best by "mind and mind" (rubbing shoulders with upperclassmen and genial professors in preceptorials and quads); 2) that schools must train students to serve the nation ("Princeton in the Nation's Service" being the title of his most famous academic speech, in 1896); 3) that the only way to educate citizen-scholars was with a general training, not a specialized one. As it turns out, these concepts were largely reactions against what Hopkins was doing in the 1880s.
Abandoning a short, stultifying career as a lawyer in Atlanta, 26-year-old Wilson had entered Johns Hopkins determined to become a famous writer on constitutional history and the American government. Secretly he yearned for a career in the United States Senate, but politics required an independent fortune, which he would never enjoy--he was barely scraping by on an allowance from his dad, a minister in Wilmington, North Carolina. "My end is a commanding influence" in political affairs, he declared, and he was going to try to secure it through his pen, not on the stump. Academia, he supposed, would at least give him the time he needed to write influential books.
Founded in 1876, Hopkins was fast becoming famous among American universities for its German-inspired, research-oriented graduate program and the many PhDs it produced. In Eisenhower Library's Special Collections I have held in my hands Wilson's application for admission, on which he explains in his neat penmanship, "My preparation is one of general reading rather than of special training." He had said as much in a letter to an old Princeton friend: "My appetite is for general literature and my ambition is for writing."
So he did not want to become an Ivory-Tower researcher, but a political mover-and-shaker. He craved "as broad a field of study as possible." He was about to get a very nasty shock, however--for Hopkins was for specialists, not generalists.
Wilson enrolled in the so-called Seminary in Historical and Political Science, housed in the new Biological Laboratory building on the JHU campus (which in those days was west of Mount Vernon Place in the then-fashionable residential section of Baltimore). The students in the Seminary were witnessing the birth of a modern educational method, what we now call a "seminar," symbolized by the huge, rectangular table around which lectures were held during the day and the celebrated Seminary Meetings on Friday nights. In those meetings, graduate students read research papers aloud, with the lofty goal of advancing specialized human knowledge. Afterwards, the head of the Seminary, Professor Herbert Baxter Adams (PhD, Heidelberg), would analyze the subject at length--often too-great length.
Seminary Meetings were very specialized. Topics included the history of Spanish Florida, or the socialist experiment of Brook Farm, or (as Wilson dryly put it) "others more obscure." May 1, 1885, was typical: Adams called the meeting to order at 8:10 p.m., twelve members gathered around the stately table, with Woodrow Wilson diligently taking notes as official secretary. A student read a paper on the Puritan colony in colonial Annapolis. Then Adams digressed about how the family of Mr. Johns Hopkins may have lived in that very colony. Wilson, we may imagine, stealthily glanced at his pocketwatch. "I need not bore you about all this," he wrote to his fiancé in Georgia, Ellen Axson. "I am sufficiently bored for both of us."
Yet the impatient young man came alive when called upon to deliver papers himself. He had worked hard at Princeton and the University of Virginia Law School to polish his oratorical skills, should he ever need them in Congress. A disciple of Burke and Gladstone, no peer could match him in speechifying. I "greatly envied him," a fellow student wrote after one of Wilson's brilliant Friday night presentations. "When I got to my room, I had a very discouraged feeling."
From the beginning, Woodrow Wilson was unhappy at JHU. The proud young man resented that he had not been given a fellowship (a unique feature of Hopkins). And he chafed at still being a student at nearly thirty. His mind was on the future: starting "the real work of my life," getting a job so he could marry Ellen. For him, the point of Hopkins was not so much to get additional education but to advertise himself for a teaching position, JHU being "a sort of employment agency for the faculties of the country." Even a two-year program seemed interminable. "I feel all the while as if I were waiting for my real life to begin."
Most agonizing of all was the specialization. A man of sweeping visions--the Fourteen Points and the League of Nations culminated a lifetime of glorious daydreams--Woodrow Wilson was at the same time a slow reader and poor memorizer, to the point that some biographers think he might have been dyslexic. For Professor Adams's exam on colonial history (special stress on Maryland) Wilson had to memorize two thousand "minute particulars about the quarrels of nobody knows who with an obscure Governor." "What dreary annals we have to familiarize ourselves with," he complained to Ellen. "I find the school-boy task of cramming for examination increasingly irksome. I find my interest choked by . . . the innumerable dry particulars."
He wanted to fire up his fellow men in their vital public and political affairs, not live with his nose in textbooks. He could not bear the way the Germanic system made students merely specialized. He spelled this out in one of his lovesick letters to Ellen, a correspondence that has proven priceless to biographers: "It is this spirit against which I struggle. I want to be near the world. I want to know the world; to retain all my sympathy with it--even with its crudenesses. I am afraid of being made a mere student. I want to be part of the nature around me, not an outside observer of it." "We get our learning served in bits of German literature," he added. Wilson said years later in no uncertain terms that he had always been "opposed to Germany and all that Germany represents. . . . I have always disliked German people. I have despised their educational ideas," as experienced at Hopkins.
Today we revere Herbert Baxter Adams as the founding father of professional historians in America and a JHU legend. "That miserable humbug," Woodrow Wilson called him in a letter home to his mother. The "ignorant specialist" spent too much time burrowing into his own research, not enough in preparing pithy lectures for his students. His talks were "shams" and a "hodge-podge." Assigned readings were "trash," and his pupils were drowning in "innumerable facts of life and science."
"Adams is superficial and insincere, no worker and a selfish schemer for self-advertisement and advancement," Wilson ranted to an old Princeton friend. He soon quit talking to Adams about his favorite political subjects, for "I have found him possessed of a very quick faculty of acquisition and prone to use as his own any original material which one may inadvertently lay before him." Because "his stock of ideas is small," Wilson said, Adams did not shy away from "plagiarism!"
I have recently uncovered a startling fact: Woodrow Wilson grew so angry at Adams and another professor, his father had to dissuade him from fomenting a "plot" or "conspiracy" against these "men who are pretending to teach." Apparently the self-righteous, stymied young man was scheming to get them fired for incompetence.
"I came here to admire and have remained to scoff," Wilson told a friend during his first year at Johns Hopkins. Throughout those painful months, he walked the city streets two hours a day to escape recurrent "nervous headaches"--already he was probably suffering from the high blood pressure that would give him a small stroke at age 39 and a much more disastrous one as U. S. President. During these meandering walks he admired the famous sights of Baltimore (on Charles Street there were "more pretty women then I could count") and seethed against his professors' "specializing mania," how they cared only to know "the precise day of the month on which Cicero cut his eye-teeth." Once he ran into an old Princeton friend, Hiram Woods, who was shocked at how haggard Woodrow looked--"working himself to death," it seemed. Hiram dragged him to an Orioles game.
In fact he was working too hard. "Cramming kills me," he complained again and again. "Cramming [is] killing me by inches." ("I worked myself sick at the Hopkins," he later recalled.) He sought his father's advice--should he continue to seek the PhD even if it broke his spirits and his health? The degree meant "fourteen thousand pages of dry reading," and he would be seeking it only for "the name of the thing." Forget the PhD, his father advised, and write the kinds of books he wanted to--urgent manifestos on contemporary American politics.
And that's exactly what Wilson did. Finding so much of his studies distasteful and pointless, he privately poured his energies into a book, the most important he would ever write. He pounded out Congressional Government on his Caligraph typewriter in his tiny room at Miss Jane Ashton's boardinghouse at 909 McCulloh Street. Published in January 1885 during his second year at Hopkins, it called for an introduction of British parliamentary methods to reform Congress, so that strong leaders could emerge to guide America after years of mismanagement. This slender volume with a gilded blue cover astonished his professors and signaled to the nation Woodrow Wilson's arrival as a rising star of political thought.
Now Herbert Baxter Adams could not help but be impressed by Wilson's independence and drive. Although Wilson never completed the requirements for the PhD, Johns Hopkins granted him one anyway in honor of Congressional Government, and Adams helped him get his first teaching job at a brand-new educational offshoot nicknamed "The Miss Johns Hopkins," Bryn Mawr College for women, in Pennsylvania.
By the time Woodrow Wilson packed his trunks in preparation for his move to Bryn Mawr, he could actually look back on his two years at Hopkins with a certain wry fondness. Things had brightened up after his book was published. Adams seemed a bit less villainous, and some other professors were downright helpful, including psychologist G. Stanley Hall, "one of the most interesting and suggestive men" at the school, with "a pleasant, straightforward, man-of-the-world's way" of teaching. Guest lecturers had been consistently inspiring, including President Charles Eliot of Harvard, editor John C. Rose of the Baltimore Sun, and man-of-letters Charles Dudley Warner, who told young Wilson he admired Congressional Government so much, he had sent a copy to Matthew Arnold in England.
The best speaker of all was red-bearded English historian James Bryce, who was both an Oxford professor and a member of parliament--a dual literary/political role of the exact kind Woodrow Wilson craved for himself. "There are a strength and dash and mastery about the man which are captivating," young Wilson exulted. "He knows both what to say and how to say it. A taste of the instruction of such a man makes me all the more conscious of the insipidity of the lectures I hear daily in the classroom." Who could have imagined that Bryce would later be British Ambassador in Washington when Woodrow Wilson was President of the United States?
Fellow students had proved to be exciting, too, especially when crowded around cider and cake at Miss Ashton's lively boardinghouse. There was the brilliant John Dewey (against whom Wilson once debated in a Seminary Meeting whether the U. S. Government ought to pay to educate the Negro--Dewey said yes, Wilson no). Later Dewey became, of course, the famed educator. Another graduate student was Albert Shaw, future editor of Review of Reviews. A fellow Southerner was Thomas Dixon, who unfortunately went on to write a racist novel, The Clansman (he later ran afoul of President Wilson by sweet-talking him into screening the movie version, called Birth of a Nation, in the White House, and then telling the world that Wilson endorsed it).
At Miss Ashton's, Wilson heard stories of yet another Southerner, Walter Hines Page, who had dropped out of Hopkins, fuming about the Germanic emphasis and the specialization. Page later founded the Progressive journal World's Work, which promoted Wilson for President, and Wilson in turn would name Page Ambassador to the Court of St. James. For Woodrow Wilson, these friendships and connections were among the most important legacies of Johns Hopkins.
In researching my book, I've tried to figure out exactly what Wilson believed about academia and which ideas fueled his reform battles at Princeton. As I've said, I have become convinced that those ideas first crystallized during his Hopkins years. Remember again his three concepts: 1) undergraduates learn best by "mind and mind"; 2) schools must train students "in the Nation's Service"; 3) citizen-scholars need a general education, not a specialized one. Wilson was appalled to find that Johns Hopkins, among the most esteemed and talked-about universities in America, was failing on all these fronts.
He concluded that JHU students weren't trained for the real world, but for the Ivory Tower, and were isolated from what he called the "community at large." A true intellectual, he argued, was "a man who wants to put fresh thought into the minds and fire into the purposes of his fellow-men of the everyday world"--yet at Hopkins such a person "feels stifled in a thick, scientific atmosphere." What good was a graduate school if it produced only the type of intellectual who "feels more at home in a library than in conversation with his carpenter"? Such a person couldn't engage an eager young pupil in "mind and mind" and was ultimately "unfit" as an American citizen.
Hopkins convinced Wilson that specialization lay at the root of most academic ills. One could pour facts into one's mind forever--Professor Adams proved that--but such information was ultimately "mere lumber." Only the concept needed to be remembered, Wilson declared: "It is sheer, barren, ignorant waste of energy to try to remember a fact for its own sake. It is like eating for the sake of eating." He told Ellen he wanted to breathe "fresh air," to go forth and "budge the world," "to inform and influence men." It stung him that the "book students" among his JHU peers scorned "students of affairs" as "mere tyros." In the dim, marmoreal hush of the Peabody Library they spent their silent weeks, not daring to step into the noisy street outside. They wrote not history but doctoral theses, he charged, and gave the world "unassociated facts piled high as the roofs of libraries."
Wilson's First War stresses the man's pugnacious side, his willingness to fight for academic reform and, later, for democracy in America and the world. It was at Johns Hopkins, I believe, that he first honed his fighting edge. His greatest fear was that he would lose his individuality and freedom under the suffocating pedagogy of Adams. He came to define himself as Adams's exact opposite--"never cold," but instead on fire with passion to lead men and achieve greatness. Aware as never before of his own "sensitive, restless, overwrought disposition," Woodrow Wilson the graduate student declared that "individuality is an unquenchable fire," and in fact "sometimes it scorches and consumes." That fiery creed set the pattern for his future presidency at Princeton and beyond.
And I argue that it was at Hopkins, not Princeton, that Wilson first decided that university teaching ought to be wholly reformed. As early as 1883 he posed the question that years later led to his famous speech, "Princeton in the Nation's Service," and the preceptorial system he instituted there: "And how can a teacher stimulate young men to study, how can he fill them with great ideas and worthy purposes, how can he draw them out of themselves and make them to become forces in the world"?
When Woodrow Wilson as Princeton professor was invited back to Hopkins to teach an annual series of six-week spring courses on Administration, he did his best to exorcise the "specializing mania" of Herbert Baxter Adams. Student Rockwell D. Hunt saved his notebook from the January 1894 course, in which the charismatic Wilson, pince-nez flashing as he paced the stage, urged the students to see "the broad relations of things" so they could go forth to serve America. His first lecture pointedly began, "No man who knows one thing knows anything."
Unlike Adams, Wilson was a great teacher, with spellbinding oratory, a ready smile, and a bottomless supply of funny stories. In these JHU courses he helped train an extraordinary cohort of future scholars and civic leaders, including his future Secretary of War, Newton D. Baker, and John H. Latane, later a distinguished historian on the Hopkins faculty. "As a youth I came under the spell of this man," Latane remembered. "His masterful personality, keen intellect and incisive speech made a profound and lasting impression upon me."
Another Wilson protégé was a Midwestern graduate student named Fred Turner, who admired the professor's commitment to "mind and mind" interactions. If Wilson had once recoiled from Adams as a stealer of students' ideas, he now made himself endlessly available to his own pupils both day and night, offering guidance. "Homely, solemn, young, glum, but with that fire in his face and eye," Turner described Wilson to his fiancé. "If you had seen him seated on the footboard of my bed this afternoon talking the most delightful stream of anecdote and epigram to Haskins, Broughall, and myself, while we fairly shook the room with laughter, you would never have recognized him as the grave author of a book that has called out the admiration of the ablest statesmen and historians of the world." Turner added, "He is a man [of] fine thought and character, but perfectly familiar and companionable with the graduate students. I like him greatly." Frederick Jackson Turner went on to become one of America's greatest historians, and some think his informal conversations with Woodrow Wilson at Hopkins helped him formulate his famous "Frontier Thesis."
* * *
Jump ahead one hundred years or more: hardly a month goes by when my local newspaper doesn't have an article bemoaning the dire state of higher education, including that depressing January 2006 American Institutes for Research study that showed that more than half of graduates lack "the skills to perform complex literacy tasks" in spite of four long years spent on a college campus. It seems that too many of America's 14 million post-secondary students aren't learning enough, or are learning the wrong things. Do Woodrow Wilson's venerable reform ideas hold any promise today?
I believe they do, yet they have mostly gone untried. Wilson would be grieved to know that specialization still rules the academy; at top schools, research is often valued higher than good teaching. (The kinds of enlightened generalists Wilson proudly brought in as preceptors at Princeton in 1905 wouldn't have a prayer of getting hired there today--I note that undergraduate offerings in the history department at Princeton this semester include such arcana as "Byzantium in the 10th Century" and "Brazil 1930-1980.") And what about "mind and mind," which undergirded Wilson's plan for students and faculty to live and dine in Gothic quadrangles and have constant, spontaneous, intellectual conversations, especially in the evening? The American Institutes for Research report implies that students do indeed learn better when they know their professors well, can relate to them as what Wilson called "normal men" (well-rounded and personable, not narrow and remote), and interact casually with them outside of class. Is such "mind and mind" vital today on campuses?
Not according to the 2005 PBS documentary Declining by Degrees, which concluded that "higher education in America is sinking, with less emphasis on quality teaching [and] a disconnect between professors and students." Most schools have a long way to go before "mind and mind" is really thriving. According to an informal survey I conducted recently of my 65 art history students at Hopkins, one-quarter of them have never had any kind of intellectual conversation with an instructor outside the classroom. Fully two-thirds have never shared a meal with a professor.
Finally, what about "In the Nation's Service"? When I asked my students, "Do you feel that your Hopkins degree carries with it a responsibility for you to eventually serve America in some way?" more than half said "no." It would seem that Woodrow Wilson's educational ideals are languishing--and yet there are hopeful signs at many schools, including JHU, of a return to his fundamentals-based approach. For example, his "In the Nation's Service" mantra has been taken up today by Richard Cherwitz at the University of Texas at Austin, whose Intellectual Entrepreneurship initiative encourages faculty to be "citizen-scholars--researchers supplying more than narrow, theoretical disciplinary knowledge." Cherwitz stresses "the obligation of universities to serve society" yet points out that specialized and "theorized" graduate curricula are often irrelevant to "pressing public problems" and promote a never-ending culture of narrowness as students ape their highly focused advisors. Those students should instead take the reins like self-motivated young entrepreneurs, Cherwitz argues, and demand that their expensive graduate educations train them broadly and sanely for jobs inside the academy or out--not specialization, but general training for useful service to society.
Surely the first Intellectual Entrepreneur graduate student was Woodrow Wilson at Johns Hopkins, the day he declared, "I want to be near the world. I want to know the world"! In a biting 1885 speech to the Hopkins Literary Society, a debate club he helped form for the undergraduates, he lamented the fact that oratory and clear speech were languishing at a place "where exact knowledge overcrows everything else and the art of persuasion is neglected on principle." He concluded pessimistically, "Oratory must be full of the spirit of the world: that spirit is excluded from University life." That worldly spirit is the one Cherwitz seeks to re-instill today.
The most remarkable sign of a revival of Wilson's ideals is happening right now at Princeton. In an extraordinary historical twist, his Quad Plan is being implemented, exactly a century after he proposed that doomed initiative (which, ironically, Yale and Harvard embraced as the "college system"). Starting in fall 2007, three colleges (what Wilson called "quads") will be opened to members of all classes, freshmen through seniors, along with ten or so graduate students each, much as he had wanted for "mind and mind" interaction: older peers will inspire younger through casual contacts. (The showpiece of the new system is Whitman College, now under construction, an authentic-looking Gothic quadrangle donated by billionaire alumnus Meg Whitman, founder of the online company eBay.) Current Princeton president Shirley Tilghman often lauds Wilson, for example telling the graduating seniors last June, "His educational initiatives, considered by some to be the most significant curricular reform in American higher education of the twentieth century, had enormous impact." Particularly important, she said, was "his call to define our lives in terms of service to causes that are larger than ourselves."
But as Princeton institutes Wilson's quads and celebrates his "In the Nation's Service" call, Hopkins seems to have largely forgotten its most famous graduate. Although he is sometimes mentioned briefly on the campus tour, more than a third of my students are unaware that he went here. When I asked a professor in the Department of History whether the memory of Woodrow Wilson generates excitement among current students there, he showed bafflement at my question before answering "no." (This professor brings up Wilson annually in class, but chiefly to highlight his "racial imperialism.") I expressed astonishment that the history department does not encourage its youngest members to feel just a little thrilled when they are sitting at the same table as the only U. S. President who ever earned a PhD . . . in that very department . . . a man whom the Atlantic just named (for what it is worth) the tenth most influential human being in all American history! The general public is fascinated nowadays by Presidents and turned out by the tens of thousands for the funerals of Reagan and even the obscure Ford--does no whiff of this genuine enthusiasm seep into the hushed corridors of Gilman Hall? "Famous American presidents are not particularly the focus of historians today, even political historians," the professor explained to me. Besides, "Some cultural environments go in for more hagiography than others."
In other words, nothing could be more passé among academics than the "Great Men" approach to teaching history. But by forbidding hero worship, are we missing out on something valuable in pedagogy? Do eighteen-year-olds learn best by the method of hard, dry, clinical analysis only, or could there possibly be some value to them, intellectually, in coming to feel affection for a person from the past and forming a bond--even with a flawed and "incorrect" person? As Wilson knew a hundred years ago, education is as much about the emotional life as the intellectual, and his passionate self-identification with "great men" (Burke, Gladstone, James Bryce) was a major source of his astonishing inner drive, the kind that led him to publish Congressional Government before graduate school was over. It's heretical to say it, but perhaps hero worship of the kind that young Woodrow Wilson cultivated can lead to unexpected good, if we don't extinguish it with supercilious scorn.
Above all else, Wilson stood for enthusiasm, not cynicism, and I remain hopeful that Hopkins students will, in years to come, be introduced more regularly to his ideas and even be encouraged to find him inspiring--serious flaws and all. (It's encouraging, perhaps, that forty percent of my students say that Wilson has been mentioned in at least one of their Hopkins courses.) Some professors and administrators I have talked to seem to agree that we ought to do more to introduce young people to Wilson's life and legacy. One is Steven David, who directs the Woodrow Wilson Undergraduate Fellowship Program. He told me, "I would like to see more of a sense of what Wilson meant and of his time on campus." David's aptly named program offers a generous stipend for an elite group of undergraduates to do research for four years, "we hope in a manner consistent with Wilson's teaching." "Research, creating knowledge, shouldn't be left to the faculty," David adds. The Woodrow Wilson Undergraduate Fellowship Program seems a fittingly dynamic memorial to the man who published his most important book while still enrolled here as student.
Although Wilson was unhappy at Hopkins, he later came to feel great affection for the place and was a proud alumnus. At the 25th anniversary of the university in 1902, he received an honorary doctorate. He told the audience he felt that Hopkins had given him and fellow graduates "an ideal which has lifted their lives to a plane they might not otherwise have attained." But he pointedly redefined that ideal as not the "service of truth," but "the service through truth of the country." In other words, not mere scientific specialization and dry facts, but broad, lofty ideas that lead to national service. One hundred years later, as Johns Hopkins deliberately tries to strengthen its undergraduate instruction in the humanities, the questions that Woodrow Wilson raised still seem timely: How can a teacher best stimulate young people to study? How can he or she fill them with great ideas and worthy purposes? How to draw them out of themselves and make them to become forces in the world?
W. Barksdale Maynard lectures in the Department of the History of Art. He is the author of Architecture in the United States, 1800-1850 (Yale, 2002), Walden Pond: A History (Oxford, 2004), and Buildings of Delaware in the Buildings of the United States series (Virginia, 2008).