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Exchange of Ideas

The Economy of Higher Education in Early America

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

Exchange of Ideas launches a breathtakingly ambitious new economic history of American higher education. In this, the first volume, Adam R. Nelson focuses on the early republic, explaining how knowledge itself became a commodity, as useful ideas became saleable goods and American colleges were drawn into transatlantic commercial relations. Earlier, scholars might have imagined that higher education could sit beyond the sphere of market activity—that intellectual exchange could transcend vulgar consumerism—but already by the end of the eighteenth century, Americans insisted that ideas were commodities and that it was the function of colleges to oversee the complex process whereby knowledge was priced and purchased. The history of capitalism and the history of higher education, 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?

448 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: From Mercantilism to Republicanism
Academic Mercantilism
1. “Hearts and Purses”
2. “Of the Rise and Progress of the Arts and Sciences”
3. “Bethesda College” and “Hampshire College”
A Republic of Knowledge
4. “A Center of Intelligence”
5. “The University of the State of Pennsylvania”
6. “A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge”

Part II: From Republicanism to Nationalism
Intellectual Independence
7. “Educated in His Own Country”
8. “Knowledge . . . Has Been the Least of Our Importations”
9. “An Equal Diffusion of Literature”
The Idea of a (National) University
10. “Here, the Human Mind Is in a State of Fermentation”
11. “The Rights and Duties of Neutral States”
12. “To Supersede the Necessity of Sending the Youth of This Country Abroad”

Part III: From Nationalism to Liberalism
Imported Ideas . . . Imported Infidelity
13. An Essay on the Best System of Liberal Education
14. “All the Wisdom of the World”
15. “University of North America”
A “Liberal” Education?
16. “Of the Profits of the Man of Science”
17. “The State Offers Very Inconsiderable Motives for the Acquisition of Knowledge”
18. “A Utopian Dream”


Bibliographic Essay

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