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  • For the Common Good: A New History of Higher Education in America by Charles Dorn
  • David B. Levy
Charles Dorn. For the Common Good: A New History of Higher Education in America. Ithica, New York: Cornell University Press, 2017. 320 pp. Hardback: $35.00 ISBN 9780801452345

In the book, Dorn wants to use the model he sketches in history to shed light on the so-called crisis in Higher Education (HE) today. This method has implications for policy and funding to better understand the nature of HE and its history, which can inform and guide decision making in HE today. A purpose of the book is to examine the stated purposes of HE institutions and to shed more light on HE and its relationship to the common good, whereby the common good includes intellectual thriving.

Dorn seeks to go to deeper issues. As much debate in HE today asks superficially whether the purpose of HE is individual job preparation, or occupational training vulgarized in marketing statements such as "learn to earn," or on the opposite spectrum some nobler notion of contributing to the common good and an end beyond the individual private interests that envisions some form of community. Thus, the private economic gain that some view as success and the broader public good are in tension. Does the University have an obligation to promote public welfare, and if so how does one define public welfare? What is its mission historically and how does this guide today's crises in HE? Who defines these goals and purposes of HE, and what is their framework? Are students the dog that wags the tail of HE in the consumer model? What is the role of government in setting standards and curriculum? Dorn notes the book asks key questions such as:

Why did colleges and universities extol promoting the public good as a central purpose? How did HE leaders articulate this objective? What forces influenced its adoption? How did policies and curricula evolve to help schools achieve it? How did students respond, if at all, to the assertions that they were obliged to use higher learning for the benefit of the public good? And, perhaps most importantly, what challenges have colleges and universities confronted in maintaining this commitment?

(p. 3)

The book gives a historical perspective over a span of 200 years of 11 HE institutions and how they manifested a particular ethos as a reflection, not only of their time periods, but as a result of changing economic-social-political developments. The book illustrates the ways in which four socially widespread preferences and attitudes--civic-mindedness, practicality, commercialism, and affluence--proved influential in shaping U.S. colleges and universities between the late eighteenth and early twenty-first centuries, especially their dedication to the common good. Dorn writes, "As each ethos gained predominance at different moments in the nation's history, it reshaped the terms of institutional debates and propelled change in HE more broadly, playing an especially influential role in Colleges and Universities commitment to the common good" (p. 234).

Dorn does not offer a doomsday critique of HE, but he wants the reader to recognize that positive gains have led the last century in HE to expand access to include poor and working class students, women, and racial and ethnic minorities, making possible what he calls "democratized" HE that characterizes the modern day (p. 234). Dorn calls on HE institutions to be more inclusive to meet societal needs of the common good in service to society. Dorn admires Stanford President Ray Lyman Wilbur, who, when facing rapid industrialization, corporate greed, immigration, political corruption, labor unrest, and income inequality in 1916 proclaimed, "Knowledge education was necessary for Americans to work together for the common ends and for the common good" (p. 235). However, Dorn is in favor of privileging "ethical engagement," defined as concern and empathy for others, over only academic excellence and intellectual knowledge attainment (p. 235).

Dorn argues that during the Early National period in America, the common good was the major ethos of Bowdoin, South Carolina, and Georgetown, to foster "the good order and harmony of the whole community" (p. 67). Dorn writes, "… they would have agreed...


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