From “Liberal Professions” to “Lucrative Professions”: Bowdoin College, Stanford University, and the Civic Functions of Higher Education
by Charles Dorn - 2011
Background/Context: Over the past three decades, Americans’ conception of higher education has shifted from a public good to a private one. Wary of colleges and universities’ increasing commodification, proponents of higher education’s civic engagement have responded with a reform agenda that, they argue, reflects an earlier era during which colleges and universities enthusiastically embraced wide-ranging public purposes. Using Bowdoin College and Stanford University as cases, this study investigates: (1) whether such an era ever existed, (2) how colleges and universities articulated and enacted their civic functions, (3) whether students’ reasons for pursuing higher education aligned with institutional priorities, and (4) how, if at all, those priorities influenced graduates’ career trajectories.
Purpose/Objective: Although their curricular programs differed greatly, Bowdoin College (founded in 1794) and Stanford University (established in 1885) sought to “qualify” students for “direct usefulness” in life. Nevertheless, these two institutions adopted contrasting civic functions, with Bowdoin officials emphasizing graduates’ “peculiar obligations” to exert their talents “for the public good” while Stanford University’s founders asserted that the “object” of their university was “to qualify its students for personal success.” What led to this shift in higher education’s central purpose?
Research Design: Historical analysis of two cases—Bowdoin College and Stanford University—during their founding decades.
Conclusions/Recommendations: This study contends that during the early national period, America’s social ethos was infused by preferences and attitudes that rewarded civic virtue and a commitment to the public good—what political theorists and historians have come to collectively call “republicanism.” By the late 19th century, however, political, economic, and social forces, including the rise of commercialism and the development of an urban, industrial, class-stratified society, refashioned this ethos into one that emphasized citizens’ personal advancement at least as much as the common good. As a result, colleges and universities’ institutional priorities, as well as students’ reasons for engaging in higher learning, changed over time.
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