College, Commercialism, and the Common Good

This weekend I finished Charles Dorn’s For the Common Good: A New History of Higher Education in America (2017) which I had assigned for my graduate seminar on the history of higher education. I was hoping that the book somehow updated the fine narrative histories of higher education offered by L. Veysey’s The Emergence of the American University (1965),or J. Thelin’s A History of American Higher Education (2004), but I was a bit disappointed. At the same time, Dorn seemed to avoid the temptation to write another higher education jeremiad.

Using a series of case studies starting in antebellum period, Dorn observes how higher education has embraced the notion of the “common good” or a sense of explicit civic mindedness.  By the first decades of the 20th century, however, a rising spirit of commercialism complicated calls for universities to promote the common good. This reflected demands of students who saw the university degree as a ticket to the good life as well as administrators loosely following in the footsteps of higher education leader like Andrew White and institutions like Stanford that embraced White’s blending of practical with theoretical learning. The tension between commercial goals of higher education and goals that Dorn associates with the “common good” become most apparent in the land grant universities which constantly negotiated the balance between practical learning designed to promote agriculture and industry in their states and earlier, humanistic ideals of education largely grounded in the liberal arts and including the study of Classics, literature, math, and the sciences. The same tension persisted in the development of normal schools in the U.S. which were established to accomplish the professional goals of training teachers, but, over time, embraced a larger mission that included both education in the liberal arts and more commercially oriented professions.

The strength of Dorn’s book is the detailed case studies which included private and state sponsored colleges in the Early National period (Bowdoin, South Carolina College, and Georgetown), the birth of agricultural and normal schools in the mid-19th century (Michigan State and San Jose State, respectively), and development of a distinctly western vision of higher education (Stanford), of colleges for women (Smith), and to serve African Americans (Howard) in the first half of the 20th century. And, finally, the emergence of the post-WWII university (University of South Florida) and community colleges (in New Mexico and Rhode Island). Dorn proposes that each of these examples manifests particular approaches to the common good from the idealized goals of creating leaders of strong character and morality in the Early National period to practical goals of land-grant schools, and the the economic goals of the 20th century university. At the same time, he returns regularly to trace the growing tension between commercialism and the common good over the course of the 20th century with the goals of individual achievement and affluence superseding the expectation to produce a civic minded graduates who aspire to do the most public good. The transformation of University of South Florida from a school designed to serve the local community, commuters, and the rapidly growing state’s regional needs to a school determined to stand as a top-tier national research institution with a major, residential campus, and a expansive curriculum and research agenda. The transformation of campus culture and goals at USF provides a nice model for how mission creep led to universities changing over time and how public oriented goals that prompted the development of USF gave way to goals more in keeping with commercial, individual, and institutional aspirations for growth, prominence, and wealth.

Unfortunately the narrow focus of most of the case studies in this book obscures the mechanics of these changes at individual institutions. Georgetown and the University of South Carolina (originally South Carolina College) clearly have undergone radical reimagining over their nearly 200 years of existence, but Dorn’s focus on their origins make it impossible to know how these schools developed into their current states. Moreover, Dorn doesn’t return to these types of schools later in his book leaving the reader to wonder how large, state, “flagship” universities and national comprehensive private universities encountered the challenges to their original public-oriented missions. The history of Smith College or even Howard University, while interesting and unique, does little to help us understand University of South Carolina, Michigan State, or Bowdoin. 

I also wish that Dorn had unpacked more critically the tension between individual aspirations for affluence and the growing commercialism of the university and the changing notion of the public good and civic mindedness. Over the past four decades a view of the market as promoting civic good and the common good has become so prevalent in the thinking about the public sphere and higher education that they two cannot be neatly separated. For many universities, the goals of “workforce development” and the public, common good are fundamentally the same owing to changes in the public discourse concerning the role of public institutions, the state, and individual engagement with the market. The absence of any discussion of neoliberalism and its impact on the character of higher education left the distinction between the public and private to stand like a 19th century strawman as irrelevant to higher education in the 21st as the liberal and Classical educational goals of 19th century universities.

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s