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KULCHURAL AFFAIRS                 


Charles Dorn. FOR THE COMMON GOOD. A New History of Higher Education in America. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 320 pp. $35.     

review by Rhett Forman




Pound notoriously exchanged punches with American higher education and, despite losing that fight, continued to take pot-shots at the institution as a poet-scholar in exile. In his quest to “know more about poetry than any man living,” he “fought every University regulation and every professor who tried to make [him] learn anything except [poetry], or who bothered [him] with ‘requirements for degrees’” (“How I Began”). In fact, it’s a good thing Pound never amounted to anything in academia because without his failures at UPenn and his dismissal from Wabash College, it is unlikely that we would have benefitted from his success as a poet. And despite his own repeated attempts (and his family’s very recent ones) to get accepted into the American academy, Pound still contributed greatly to the world as a scholar, a vocation which is perhaps a different thing than being an academic. As for the traditional canon upheld by so many colleges and universities, Pound tried to “make it new,” rewriting the tradition in ABC of Readingand calling us all fools for “read[ing] classics because [we] are told to and not because [we] like them.”

In many ways, the higher education system Pound contended with both is and is not recognizable in today’s American university. In order to understand the academic milieu Pound came of age in, we must learn about the growth and variety of American universities, a subject concerning which Charles Dorn’s new book, For the Common Good: A New History of Higher Education in Americais indispensable. As a Professor of Education at one of America’s oldest institutions, Bowdoin College, Maine, Dorn reveals that Pound underwent his formal training in an age when commercialism dominated American life, including life at the university.

Dorn divides the history of American higher education into four time periods representing four attitudes. He argues that during “The Early National Period,” America’s reverence for civic-mindedness molded its first universities, including Bowdoin College, South Carolina College (now the University of South Carolina), and Georgetown College (now Georgetown University). However, a shift toward practicality in “The Antebellum and Civil War Eras” encouraged the establishment of agricultural and mechanical universities and teachers’ colleges such as the Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State University) and the California State Normal School (now San Jose State University), while a growing emphasis on commercialism during “Reconstruction through the Second World War” led to the founding of business and career-centric programs at Stanford University, Smith College, and Howard University. Finally, Dorn argues that for the past seventy years from “The Cold War Through the Twenty-First Century” our perception that a university education procures a life of affluence and consumerism has resulted in such institutions as the University of South Florida and in the expansion of the community college system, including the Community College of Rhode Island and Santa Fe Community College. Of course, the four types of universities predicated upon these four principles of civic-mindedness, practicality, commercialism, and affluence continue to coexist and influence each other.

Dorn seeks to correct oversights in what has heretofore been the definitive history of American higher education, Laurence Veysey’s The Emergence of the American University, first published in 1965. Though undeniably interesting and well-written, Veysey’s book leads us to believe that the American university has remained unchanged since the decades immediately following the Civil War. As a result, Dorn surveys a greater variety of universities than Veysey includes in his work. While Veysey’s book might have been sufficient in the latter half of the last century, few would disagree that Dorn’s contribution is necessary now given the financial and ideological plagues currently descending upon American universities. In order to deal with our current troubles, Dorn suggests that “we can’t know why higher education functions as it does in the present without fully comprehending what it was in the past. This book resolves that problem” (2).

Indeed. Dorn has quenched our curiosity concerning why so many different types of programs count as higher education in America, but he has not helped us solve any of the problems that we currently face. Dorn seems to overlook the fact that his four attitudes can really be distilled into two types of education, liberal and utilitarian. It would have been helpful of him to have used those words. Allow me to do so in his stead. Dorn teaches us that once upon a time higher education was for the elite and concerned itself with molding boys into gentlemen. It was a liberal education, meaning it was free from worrying about whether it advanced its pupils’ careers. Ever since then, however, it has been utilitarian, that is, enslaved to either “practicality,” “commercialism,” or “affluence.” So higher education is either liberal and elitist or slavish and democratic. It is either not obsessed with money, in which case it is only for the rich, or it is obsessed with money, in which case loans are available for everyone to pay for it. So now we have a deeper understanding of the problem, but Dorn very obviously abstains from taking a stand on how to solve it, rendering the book rather unsatisfying and inconclusive.

The tension I have just pointed out, namely, that between a liberal, elitist education, and a commercial, democratic one is important and very much defines the world of higher education in a country where small, private liberal arts colleges must compete with huge public universities and where cheap community colleges are subservient to expensive research institutions. Dorn does a fine job of teaching us how this condition came about. He does a poor job of offering anything at all in the way of what we might do about it. In all fairness, he perhaps did not view this book as the right forum for offering up solutions, but his hesitancy or humility—whichever it is—gets the better of him. He reads like someone who is very knowledgeable and wise and who must know something, but who never reveals what his secret is.

What Dorn does offer us, though, is the comfort of knowing that the troubles facing the American university now—student protests, curriculum changes, debates about inclusivity and diversity, and operating costs—have always been around. In the first decades of our nation students at South Carolina College revolted and vandalized professors’ homes in an act of violence and hostility that even overshadows the recent uproars at Evergreen State, Middlebury, UChicago, UC Berkeley, etc. It is comforting to know that everything is generally the same as it always has been and that, while no progress has been made, we at least have not digressed. Or have we? As Dorn’s book implicitly demonstrates, what hasn’t always been around is the immense chasm of debt U.S. college students and graduates are increasingly incapable of crawling out of, a very new issue which is perhaps even more important than the perennial issues that American higher education has thus far successfully endured. Dorn does mention this development in his epilogue, but again leaves it up to us to provide the solutions.

Of course, Pound’s criticisms focused more on curriculum than cost, but we can certainly envision how the two might go hand in hand. Especially now, why would we suffer the exorbitant cost of a university education when, as Pound argued, that education is itself stifling to those who, like Pound, already know precisely what they want to do in the world. What of those of us who are successful academics? Have we been duped? Have we fallen for the trap of luxury and prestige provided by positions in the academy at great cost to our treasure and time? In any case, our positions and our prowess now depend on our ability to upright the wobbly structure of higher education. But of course, like Dorn, I am merely explicating the problem. You will have to look elsewhere for the solution or, like Pound, we will all be forced to go out and make it new.