Bowdoin College professor: Doing good unites higher-ed institutions

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BRUNSWICK — The nation’s crisis is higher education?

So claims Bowdoin College professor Charles Dorn in his new book, “For the Common Good: A New History of Higher Education in America.”

The professor of education and former social studies teacher said his book resists the notion that today’s “crisis” is unprecedented – that while new obstacles may beset the nation’s system of higher education, challenges are nothing new.

Instead, Dorn argues, institutions of high education have proved resilient against the changing pressures of American society, and adapted accordingly and creatively to meet its educational needs.

That reason for that, he says, is an optimistic one: because despite their flaws, colleges and universities have ultimately had a unifying commitment to advancing the welfare of society.

His book is available at the Bowdoin College bookstore and online on Amazon and from Cornell University Press.

“The central claim in the book is that the one thing that actually unites the many kinds of institutional types we have in the U.S. that we call higher education … is their almost universal claim to promote the common good,” Dorn said in an interview earlier this month.

When he initially began research for the project, he intended to investigate the ways that colleges and universities have made that claim over time.

But in charting the past, what he discovered was a sequence of institutional responses to shifting cultural and corporate priorities.

Today’s “crisis,” for instance, is marked by a half century of corporate interests shaping the world of higher education into a “marketplace” of active competition. The result, Dorn said, is steep student debt, cost-prohibitive admission costs, and technological disruptions that have rocked curriculum and administrations.

He doesn’t discount the severity of those problems, either. But as a historian, he said, “the grand narrative of higher education” has shown that “we’ve managed to succeed in navigating those troubled waters” – that the colleges in existence today are actually solutions to old problems.

While colleges are and have been sculpted by seemingly adverse external forces – financial, corporate, or cultural – their ultimate mission to preserve a sense of civic duty, he argues, led to the creation of new kinds of institutions that uphold access and education opportunity.

He supports his argument through case studies, which unfold over four chronological phases, each associated with a “social ethos” that served as an influence for change.

“So the obvious present-day argument is, what comes next?” Dorn asked rhetorically. “What’s going to be established in response to what’s occurring now?”

Dorn said he didn’t write the book to make specific predictions (although he acknowledged his inability to deny the role new technologies will likely play in the future of education).

Rather, the book suggests a more abstract reassurance: that today’s problems are surmountable, and the solutions will be geared toward a common social good.

Looking back at history, Dorn said, they always have been.

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 100, or Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.


Reporting on municipal, school, and community news in Brunswick and Harpswell. Bowdoin graduate, Wild Oats sandwich-eater. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100, or