New books from UW–Madison historian Adam Nelson uncover roots of debate over higher education for the public good

By Laurel White

Should institutions of higher education receive financial support from government? Is higher education a public or a private good? How do institutions of higher education handle periods of heightened polarization? These questions have deep historical roots, according to a pair of new books from a School of Education faculty member.

The two books by Adam Nelson, the Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of Educational Policy Studies and History, examine the beginnings of American higher education from the late colonial period through the war for national independence and into the early 19th century.


Nelson says his books aim to show how early Americans defined the purposes of higher education during a period of profound social change — and how they planned to pay for it.

“I hope these books, which blend the history of higher education with new histories of capitalism and democracy, will help readers understand the political economy of knowledge — basically, the relationship between political interests, economic forces, and education — in early America,” Nelson says. 

The first in the duo of new releases, Exchange of Ideas: The Economy of Higher Education in Early America,” was released by The University of Chicago Press on December 5. The second, Capital of Mind: The Idea of a Modern American University,” will be released by the same publisher on January 5.  

Image courtesy The University of Chicago Press

In “Exchange of Ideas,” Nelson shows how Americans’ rebellion against British colonial rule in the late 18th century sparked key debates about governance — including debates about the governance of higher education. 

“Their rebellion represented not only a separation from England but also the introduction of revolutionary ideas about self-government, including what it meant to govern the production and distribution of knowledge,” Nelson said. 

As Nelson explains, some of the nation’s founders felt that each newly independent state ought to support a single college. Others felt that colleges should be liberated from government entirely — even if it meant they had to fund themselves solely with private tuition or donations. 

“Their debates were similar to ours today,” Nelson said. “We can learn from the past about our current quandaries over public aid to higher education.”

Nelson notes that, as wartime unity dissipated after the revolution, increased partisan disputes made it harder and harder for colleges to win public aid. Still, even amid the political rancor, all parties seemed to agree that higher education should prioritize economic as well as academic interests.  

Both sides of the debate framed college as a commercial good, Nelson writes, and both fought to keep costs low. For example, to please their patrons, institutions competed aggressively to award bachelor’s degrees in the shortest period of time — in some cases, just one year.

“Colleges did that because they understood the discussion was not just about, ‘What is a good education?’ but perhaps more pressingly ‘What does the market want?’” Nelson explained.

The move toward what Nelson calls a “consumerization and commodification of higher education” accelerated during the early 19th century, the period covered in his second new release.

Image courtesy The University of Chicago Press

In “Capital of Mind,” Nelson examines a parallel between the rise in mass production of manufactured goods, made possible by innovations like the water loom, and the mass production of “mental goods,” made possible by new learned institutions, most famously the modern university.

A key characteristic of the modern university, born during this era, was a shift to allow students to choose more of their courses. Nelson says this move had a profound effect.

“On the one hand, students could select the subjects that interested them,” he said. “On the other hand, professors abandoned individual recitations in favor of lectures so they could deliver ideas efficiently to larger groups of fee-paying students.”

Some professors embraced this change, but others worried about its consequences. Nelson cites an early debate about what happens when markets fail to support knowledge that might be needed to advance particular social goods.

“Some people noticed that subjects related to long-term scientific or social development were neglected when the curriculum was set by student demand, including subjects like advanced mathematics or certain aspects of moral philosophy — or even the study of history itself,” he explained. “The question was how to ensure that ideas undervalued by the market would still receive support. In many ways, the whole conversation about the political economy of knowledge — and the relationship between higher education and the public good — begins there.”

While he admits that his new books deal with a seemingly distant past, Nelson says he hopes they will help readers understand the deep roots of educational debates that are still relevant today.  

“How Americans frame the relationship between higher education and the public good — and what that means for who pays for education, and how much —  has been top of mind for our country’s leaders for hundreds of years,” Nelson said. “And it is likely to remain so for many years to come.”

More information about “Exchange of Ideas: The Economy of Higher Education in Early America,” is available here and about “Capital of Mind: The Idea of a Modern American University” here.

Note for media: Adam Nelson is available for interviews about these books and issues upon request. Please contact Jody Moen at for more information. 

Pin It on Pinterest