Recommending ‘For the Common Good’ to All Students of Higher Education

Wrapping our minds around what came before in order to imagine what might come next.

May 24, 2021

For the Common Good: A New History of Higher Education in America by Charles Dorn

Cornell University Press, published in June 2017

Every student of the future of higher education must start with the past. We can't claim to say anything sensible about where we may be going if we don't know where we've been.

My desire to make sense of higher ed's future brought me to Charles Dorn's excellent For the Common Good.

Dorn's approach in this single-volume history of U.S. higher education stands in contrast (or perhaps in complement) to Thelin's A History of American Higher Education. Thelin's approach is to describe the history of higher education around nine time periods (from the colonial era to 2010 onward), with data and illustrative examples from a wide variety of institutions. In contrast, Dorn describes four separate periods, with deep dives into two or three institutions for each era.

The periods and schools in which Dorn explores include:

  • The early national period: Bowdoin College (where Dorn teaches), South Carolina College (present-day University of South Carolina) and Georgetown College (now University)
  • The antebellum and Civil War era: The Agricultural College of the State of Michigan (now Michigan State University) and the California State Normal School (present-day San José State University)
  • Reconstruction through the Second World War: Stanford University, Howard University and Smith College
  • The Cold War through the early twenty-first century: The University of Southern Florida and the Community College of Rhode Island

Dorn's method of dividing higher education into four transformational periods and then exploring the contours of each era through the lens of a handful of institutions proves to be an effective strategy. Not only does the reader learn much about each of the schools profiled, this approach also provides a structure in which the themes, contradictions and long-run implications of each era can be fully explored.

By restricting the historical sample to only a few institutions, Dorn created some space to do a deep dive into the archives and other primary sources related to each school. The result is, in some ways, the best of both worlds. We get both the advantages of cross-institutional comparisons and the long-run picture that comes when the experiences of individual institutions are examined over time.

The other advantage of Dorn's approach to writing the history of American higher education is the way in which the schools he examines mirror the broader postsecondary ecosystem. We learn about the origins of various institution types, from small liberal arts colleges to land-grant and public teacher education institutions, women's and historically Black colleges, Roman Catholic institutions, elite research universities, public urban universities, and community colleges.

The theme that runs through time and across all these institutions can be found in the book's title. These nonprofit institutions were created and evolved to meet the needs of a diverse set of (mostly local) stakeholders. The particular needs of learners, communities, employers and regions have changed -- with these long-run trends impacting the growth and development of the postsecondary ecosystem.

How schools change over time can help illuminate the broader economic, social, demographic, political and cultural trends of places in which colleges and universities are embedded.

For the higher ed futurist, one takeaway from For the Common Good may be to keep in mind how much things can change.

We tend to think of colleges and universities as relatively static places. The more we learn about the history of higher education, however, the more we are convinced that the conventional wisdom about colleges and universities is dead wrong.

The schools that Dorn profiles in For the Common Good have changed in almost every way imaginable. Along nearly every dimension that we might examine, from how students learn and how professors teach to the size and scale and scope of university operations -- the story of higher ed has been one of dramatic shifts and turns.

Perhaps a good rule of thumb for thinking about the future of higher education is to adopt a similar cadence of periods as Dorn. Instead of looking at 2025 or 2030, let's give the period we are in a few decades to unfold. It may be that change comes faster in the digital age. What once took 50 years may now take half that time.

However long a period we allow ourselves to look into the future, we should be open to the possibility that our higher education system will undergo as much change as was witnessed in previous eras.

Reading history can help us unstick our minds from the present day. Thinking about change is easier if we understand how far we've already come.

Learning the history of higher education makes it easier to imagine a very different future.

What are you reading?


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