Counting on the Common Good

Marcus L. Sheffield

In 2010, a chance encounter on a golf course between Barry Mills, the president of Bowdoin, a small but highly selective private college in Brunswick, Maine, and philanthropist Tom Klingenstein led to a public dispute about the state of higher education in the United States. Klingenstein, a board member of the National Association of Scholars, commissioned a study of Bowdoin’s academic program and campus culture, which was published in 2013 under the title What Does Bowdoin Teach? How a Contemporary Liberal Arts College Shapes Students.1

The study’s authors, Peter Wood and Michael Toscano, relying on evidence from official Bowdoin sources, found that Bowdoin does not so much shape its students as misshape them. The college has no intelligible philosophy of education, and many classes are quirky extensions of professors’ specialized interests. Students graduate from Bowdoin with no common knowledge, no increase in critical thinking skills, and a predilection for boozing and hedonism. The one consistent outcome is a profound sense of America’s sexism, racism, and homophobia.

For the Common Good: A New History of Higher Education is designed to defend higher education from attacks by naysayers, but in reality, author Charles Dorn, associate dean for academic affairs and professor of education at Bowdoin, pays little attention to any detailed criticisms of colleges and universities. Particularly surprising is the lack of reference to Richard H. Sander and Stuart Taylor Jr.’s superbly researched and written Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit It (2012). The prologue of Dorn’s book spends one and a half pages rehearsing a few of the common indictments of higher education by detractors such as Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa (Academically Adrift, 2010): schools are playgrounds, students are coddled and unprepared for the real world, the liberal arts are dead, classes are trendy. He asks, “Are the critics right?” and spends the next 225 pages assuming the answer is no.

The Four Stages

For the Common Good begins the history of American higher education at the birth of the United States, which precludes any discussion of colonial higher education. However, it must be acknowledged that higher education historians generally expend most of their efforts on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries just as Dorn does, for obvious reasons—this period saw the great development and consolidation of higher education as we know it today. There is no generally agreed-upon historical beginning for a study of higher education in America.

In Wisdom’s Workshop: The Rise of the Modern University (2016), James Axtell devotes a third of his book to the period from 1200 to 1800, and Robert Maynard Hutchins makes passing reference to the Middle Ages in The Higher Learning in America (1936), but focuses on what for his time was current higher education. Roger L. Geiger’s first chapter of The History of American Higher Education (2015) is titled “The First Century of the American College, 1636–1740,” and Frederick Rudolph also gives readers a short chapter on “The Colonial College” in The American College and University: A History (1990). In his entry in American Education in the 21st Century (2016), an essay collection edited by Michael N. Bastedo, Philip G. Altbach, and Patricia J. Gumport, Geiger creates a tidy nomenclature for the history of higher education that he calls “The Ten Generations.” Generation 1 is from 1636 to the 1740s, and generation 10 is from 1975 to 2010. Of this group of scholars, Christopher J. Lucas does the most detailed investigation of education before 1787. He reaches back to ancient Mesopotamia! (American Higher Education: A History, 2006).

Dorn chooses to divide American higher education in two ways: chronology and emphasis. “The Early National Period” is a time period but also an outlook. This period shows its character by the development of Georgetown College (1789), Bowdoin College (1802), and South Carolina College (1805). Dorn indicates that this period was dominated by “civic-mindedness,” a term meant to summarize the curriculum of these schools (Latin and Greek classics, rhetoric, mathematics, logic, oratory, and Christian apologetics) as well as their emphasis on character development (through a virtuous dedication to public service and the common good).2

“The Antebellum and Civil War Eras” covers a time when educators wanted a more “practical” college curriculum. One institution stands out as the apotheosis of this new sort of education: the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan (1855; later, Michigan State University), the first of the Morrill Land-Grant schools. Practicality did not mean abandoning the ideals of the Early National Period, including the dedication to the common good; instead, reformers sought to turn book knowledge into useful knowledge. For instance, students at Michigan Agricultural College (as it was colloquially known) engaged in physical labor, experimentation, and field trips to local geological formations. The new emphasis on practicality led to the founding of the now-massive California State University system of twenty-three campuses and 460,000 students. That system began in 1857 as a single “normal school” (now San Jose State University) for the education of public school teachers, who were taught not only what to teach, but how to teach.

The era from “Reconstruction through the Second World War,” the third division in Dorn’s history of higher education, was a time when apparently impractical college degrees were to be transformed into keys to worldly success. According to Dorn, “When Stanford University opened to students in 1891, it served as a conspicuous manifestation of commercialism’s rise in American higher education.”3 Emphasis turned from public service to personal success. Students became concerned about what sort of job they might be able to land. Stanford met these concerns with offerings of education in such areas as law, medicine, nursing, and business. The Stanford Business School was among the first of its kind in the nation. Observers at the time noted that professionalism was lessening students’ interest in learning for its own sake.

Dorn’s final section, “The Cold War through the Twenty-First Century,” shows commercialism gone viral. Students became consumers and faculty became cogs in a corporate wheel. The University of South Florida (USF) is Dorn’s perfect model of higher education in the Age of Affluence. Opened in 1960, USF was a hothouse flower of spectacular growth and nearly immediate success. Although it was founded on old-fashioned notions of learning for its own sake and a desire for the common good, USF’s students were actually driven by another motive—a desire for personal gain. Located near the large metropolitan area of Tampa, Florida, USF offered nontraditional students access to higher education, and they came by the thousands.

But within ten years, USF quickly expanded its graduate school offerings and set off on a path to national university status through a much greater dependence on external funding. Consequently, USF’s commitment to undergraduates began to fade while its academic ranking soared. Along with other massive institutions of higher learning across the nation, USF became a profit center where industry and education together sought entrepreneurial glory. Not only were students after affluence, so were universities. USF did in a few years what it took other major research universities more than a century to accomplish via government largesse such as land grants and the GI Bill. Yet, for all this, Dorn still sees the common good. USF became a producer of knowledge useful to the nation.

Is the Common Good Still Common?

In his epilogue Dorn admits that higher education in America has gone through dramatic changes. But rather than analyze these changes for patterns of intellectual, social, or spiritual profit or loss, Dorn characterizes all change as relatively benign. Things are what they are because of the exigencies of each era. What is important for Dorn is not the success or failure of particular approaches to founding, maintaining, and guiding the development of educationally sound colleges and universities. What Dorn depends on is his belief that educational institutions continue striving “for the common good.”

Fundamentally, Dorn unifies disparate emphases found in two centuries of American higher education with an attitude that remains important to this day—a deep desire for the common good. Dorn’s approach is a new and helpful insight that provides a reasonable leitmotif that higher education lacks. In Frederick Rudolph’s 1977 study of the development of higher education curriculum in the United States,4 he asserts rather humorously that the American higher education curriculum has been an incoherent mess from the beginning. Perhaps Dorn has provided a new hope for the development of a sense of unity of purpose.

Dorn’s claim is problematic in one sense, however. The phrase “for the common good” no longer has the explanatory power it once had during the nineteenth century, when the expression would have been thoroughly Christian at both public and private colleges. In The Shape and Shaping of the College and University in America (2016), Stephen J. Nelson writes that “[t]he passage of time over the last four decades from the mid-1970s has resolved few if any of the problems spawned by the 1960s. Today, the politics are perceived as more coarse, more tense, and more polarized. In the academy, numerous issues kicked off in the 1960s have persisted as problems and as failures of a search for common ground.”5

Yet Dorn does not offer a definition of “the common good.” Clearly, twenty-first-century America is no longer exclusively or even mainly Christian in its outlook; however, this change does not free current educators from defining their guiding principles. Dorn seems leery of openly praising the traditional underpinnings of American culture, which would seem vital to the common good.

By rejecting so much of Western civilization as fatally flawed by sexism, racism, and various sexual phobias, both faculty and students today cut themselves off from the very sources they need to work toward the common good. No society can truly work for the common good if it rejects or ignores the universals established in the past—universals supporting that common good. A society with no firm vision of goodness, morality, truth, or political rights and responsibilities cannot possibly avoid slipping from the wisdom of the past into new sorts of ignorance.

What critics of higher education see today is a precipitous decline into nonreason. Dorn does not see a decline. He writes, “As long as they hold true to this ideal [of the common good], colleges and universities will produce more than just knowledge that contributes to the next great technological innovation or a workforce that successfully competes in a global economy. They will foster the civic capability and commitment to the public good necessary for American democracy not to simply survive but to flourish for decades to come.”6

Only the future can tell if Dorn has been too sanguine. I, for one, am not so sure that higher education is on an ever-upward path to glory.

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