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Capital of Mind

The Idea of a Modern American University

The second volume of an ambitious new economic history of American higher education.

Capital of Mind is the second volume in a breathtakingly ambitious new economic history of American higher education. Picking up his account where the first volume, Exchange of Ideas, ended, Adam R. Nelson looks at the early decades of the nineteenth century, explaining how the idea of the modern university arose from a set of institutional and ideological reforms designed to foster the mass production and mass consumption of knowledge, an “industrialization of ideas” that mirrored the industrialization of the American economy and catered to the demands of a new industrial middle class for practical and professional education. From Harvard in the north to the University of Virginia in the south, new experiments with the idea of a university elicited intense debate about the role of scholarship in national development and international competition, and whether higher education, in periods of fiscal austerity, should be supported by public funds. The history of capitalism and the history of the university, Nelson reveals, are intimately intertwined—which raises a host of important questions that remain salient today. How do we understand knowledge and education as commercial goods? Should they be public or private? Who should pay for them? And, fundamentally, what is the optimal system of higher education for a capitalist democracy?

480 pages | 6 x 9

Education: Higher Education

History: American History, History of Ideas


"Should American colleges and universities serve the public good? It all depends on what we mean by 'the public,'of course, and what we imagine would be 'good'   for it. Adam Nelson has produced the first full history of how Americans established and funded higher education, and--especially--of how they deliberated its fundamental purposes. From now on, anyone who wants understand that debate--or to enter into it themselves--will have to consult this groundbreaking book."

Jonathan Zimmerman, University of Pennsylvania

Table of Contents


Part I: The Idea of a “University,” 1812–18
1. A Plan of a University in Virginia
2. The Literary Fund
Cambridge (via Göttingen)
3. Our Young Geniuses in Boston
4. The State of Literature in Germany
5. Every Science Deemed Useful
6. No One Will Buy What No One Has Offered to Sell

Part II: The Economy of Knowledge, 1818–24
7. The Late Riot at Göttingen
8. The Inadequacy of the Funds for the University
Controversies . . . and Curricula
9. A Professor of Political Economy
10. The Science of Wealth
11. If We Can Ever Have a University at Cambridge
12. Intellectual Economy

Part III: The Industrialization of Ideas, 1824–30
13. To Improve Our Science, as We Have Done Our Manufactures, by Borrowed Skill
14. Filled by Foreigners
15. Modern Views of Liberal Education
16. Friedrich List
17. Intellectual Power
18. An Honorable Competition with the Universities of Europe


Bibliographic Essay

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