If your college student ever threatens to party like it’s 1825, be afraid. Be very afraid.

Going to college in the 19th century was not all somber black robes and quills scratching away at paper. As former Richmond Times-Dispatch reporters Rex Bowman and Carlos Santos vividly illustrate in their excellent “Rot, Riot and Rebellion,” a campus crawling with adolescent, privileged young men away from home for the first time was as horrifying a prospect 200 years ago as it is now.

In fact, it was worse. After a lifetime of work on the project, Thomas Jefferson saw his University of Virginia open in 1825, only to watch helplessly as it seemed to head down the wrong path. One wants to have been a fly on the wall at the school-wide meeting called that year to try to quell the anarchy, with Jefferson and another former U.S. president, James Madison, in attendance. When Jefferson stood up to speak, he burst into tears.

The resulting student remorse was short-lived. Among the vices rampant at the Charlottesville school from which I graduated: gambling, fighting, whoring and vandalizing. Students looked for any reason to riot, whether it was the early-rising rule (first lecture at 5:30 a.m.); the uniform rule, which failed spectacularly to eliminate the young men’s popinjay wardrobes; or the faculty’s attempt to exert its authority over the student military company, which nearly ended in all-out armed rebellion. Only after the murder of a professor on the school’s Lawn in 1840 and the creation of the student-enforced honor code in 1842 did the tide — slowly — begin to turn.

’Rot, Riot, and Rebellion: Mr. Jefferson's Struggle to Save the University That Changed America’ by Rex Bowman and Carlos Santos. (Univ. of Virginia. 216 pp. $24.95). (University of Virginia Press)

Yes, this is the same place that is now consistently ranked as one of the country’s top public universities. Why spend so much time focusing on the early chaos? It certainly makes for fun reading. More important, it shows how higher education as we know it almost didn’t happen. The school broke ground in allowing students to choose their courses. Professors had to lecture and not just read from textbooks. And in a radical departure from religiously affiliated schools at the time, U-Va. was completely secular.

Of course, these are freedoms and practices college students now take for granted, but critics were waiting in the wings as U-Va. launched — and its implosion would have given them all the ammuntion they needed to end what Bowman and Santos portray as a precarious experiment. For centuries colleges had been run in certain way, and if U-Va. failed, wouldn’t that prove that Jefferson’s idealistic, egalitarian plan was hooey?

Fortunately, the trend-setting university prevailed.

— Becky Krystal

Mr. Jefferson’s Struggle to Save the University That Changed America

By Rex Bowman and Carlos Santos

Univ. of Virginia. 216 pp. $24.95