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For the Common Good: A New History of Higher Education in America

reviewed by Christopher Kirk & David Guthrie - April 05, 2019

coverTitle: For the Common Good: A New History of Higher Education in America
Author(s): Charles Dorn
Publisher: Cornell University Press, Ithaca
ISBN: 0801452341, Pages: 320, Year: 2017
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Critics claim that higher education in the United States is in a state of crisis, citing troubling issues such as skyrocketing tuitions, increasing incivility, and decreasing accessibility. Two questions often arise in these critiques: Is higher education’s contribution to society worth the investment? And how does higher education contribute to society? Charles Dorn, in For the Common Good: A New History of Higher Education in America, argues that before either question can be answered, it is critical to understand how colleges and universities have contributed to American society throughout history. Dorn, a Professor of Education and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at Bowdoin College, analyzes over 200 years of U.S. higher education history to uncover how colleges and universities have consistently adapted themselves to changing conditions in society in order to advance the common good. Beginning with Bowdoin College in 1794 and ending with the rise of the present-day community college systems, Dorn repeatedly underscores how higher education institutions have mirrored but also responded to changes in American society.

The book, excluding the prologue and epilogue, is divided into four sections, each devoted to an era in U.S. history. Dorn labels these: “The Early National Period” (1789-1837), “The Antebellum and Civil War Eras” (1837-1863), “Reconstruction Through the Second World War” (1863-1946), and “The Cold War Through the Twenty-First Century” (1946-present). Each section also highlights a specific social ethos representative of each era: civic-mindedness, practicality, commercialism, and affluence, respectively. Each section is composed of two to three chapters that feature particular institutions that Dorn chose to illustrate each era, “including public, private, parochial, single-sex, coeducational, racially segregated, racially integrated, and two- as well as four-year colleges and universities” (p. 6). These not only represent the present array of institutional types in U.S. higher education, but Dorn also uses them to illustrate how shifts in American society led to the variety of institutional types.

Utilizing a mix of primary and secondary sources in each chapter, Dorn first contextualizes the founding of each university within the given era. He does this by providing an analysis of the rhetoric used by each institution’s founders, which also reveals how an era’s social ethos shaped each institution. This rhetoric, moreover, shows how an institution sought to advance the common good. Chapter Four, which centers on the founding of the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan (later Michigan State University) in 1855 during the era of practicality (1837-1863), provides a good example of this approach. In this chapter, Dorn provides many examples of the rhetoric used by Michigan State’s founders to demonstrate society’s emphasis on practicality as reflected in the institution. In one case, Dorn notes that Michigan’s Agricultural Society was quite vocal in requesting the state legislature to found a practical educational institution in Michigan. In another case, Dorn cites John C. Holmes, a secretary in the Agriculture Society, who advocated for Michigan State’s founding by saying, “The great aim, is to send out into the country, to spread throughout the land, an army of practical men” (p. 78). Dorn actually uses this same quote to title the chapter, capturing the sentiment of practicality espoused in this era. He repeats this for each chapter, using a different quote encapsulating the era’s sentiment to title each chapter.

In addition to the founders’ rhetoric, Dorn probes the policies, pedagogies, and curricula of each institution, which not only illustrates the transformation of higher education over time, but also how each institution was shaped by the social ethos within each given time period. In Chapter Two, for example, Dorn features South Carolina College (later the University of South Carolina), which was founded during the age of civic-mindedness (1789-1837). As Dorn explains, higher education in this era relied heavily on classical education, routinized schedules, and strict regulation of student behavior, which was believed to encourage civic-mindedness of students. In contrast, Chapters Nine and Ten highlight two institutions shifting curriculum and pedagogies to provide a low-cost education to the rising numbers of student commuters, reflecting the increasing emphasis on higher education as a ticket to increase individual wealth.

As Dorn moves from chapter to chapter within each historical period, he compares and contrasts institutions with others from the same period. For instance, after examining Bowdoin College in Chapter One, Dorn analyzes South Carolina College, which like Bowdoin was dedicated to educating civic-minded students, but due to differences in its geographical location offered a different approach to instilling civic-mindedness. For example, South Carolina College also utilized strict rules, routine, memorization, and recitation; however, in contrast to Bowdoin’s strictness, which aligned well with New England culture, South Carolina College students chafed at the institution’s control over their lives and challenged its regulations.

Dorn argues throughout the book that shifts in the prevailing social ethos had a profound effect on U.S. higher education, as was evidenced in the growth and changes in institutional types, curriculums, policies, and pedagogies. Despite these shifts in higher education and society, Dorn contends that higher education’s commitment to serving the common good has never changed, “even as social, political, and economic forces pushed it in an opposing direction” (p. 234). As Dorn walks us through the history of U.S. higher education, however, the direct connection between each era’s social ethos and the common good is not always clear.

Dorn openly admits this in the epilogue when he points out how a focus on civic-mindedness is more naturally connected to the common good than an era which emphasizes individual wealth and prestige attainment, as is the case in the era of affluence. However, Dorn rightly notes that during the era of civic-mindedness, “relatively few students ever gained admission to these institutions,” as higher education was only open virtually exclusively to affluent white males (p. 234). By contrast, Dorn’s historical analysis reveals an American higher education that has become increasingly more inclusive, more accessible, and more service-oriented, all the while continuing to serve a society that increasingly prioritizes individual gain and wealth attainment. Dorn thus concludes that contemporary American higher education does serve the common good despite the current societal ethos of affluence.

Dorn, in what he terms a “new history of higher education,” provides a strong response to contemporary critics questioning higher education’s value and ability to contribute to the common good. As Dorn demonstrates throughout the book, understanding higher education’s value in society requires analyzing society’s context and the ways colleges and universities both reflect and respond to the pressures society places on them. For those who are invested in questions surrounding higher education’s value and contribution to society throughout U.S. history, Dorn provides a compelling account of the ways in which American higher education has continuously been devoted to the common good.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 05, 2019
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22749, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 7:56:28 AM

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About the Author
  • Christopher Kirk
    Penn State University
    E-mail Author
    CHRISTOPHER KIRK is a PhD student in the higher education program at Penn State University, and serves as a research assistant there in the Center for the Study of Higher Education. His research interests include student engagement, and pedagogy.
  • David Guthrie
    Penn State University
    E-mail Author
    DAVID GUTHRIE is an associate professor in the higher education program at Penn State University, and a research associate in the Center for the Study of Higher Education. His continuing interests concern the confluence of religion, higher education, and society.
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