2008 Honors Day Address: Charles Dorn

Story posted May 07, 2008

From "Liberal Professions" to "Lucrative Professions": The Civic Functions of Higher Education in America
by Charles Dorn, Assistant Professor of Education
May 7, 2008


Thank you, President Mills, and congratulations to all of you receiving awards tonight; it's a really terrific accomplishment.

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Charles Dorn

Recently, the Association of American Colleges and Universities conducted a series of focus groups with college-bound high school students, as well as college juniors and seniors, in an effort to gauge their understanding of the meaning of the term "liberal education." Describing the results of their sessions as "serious and sobering," the researchers noted that students ranked "civic responsibility" as a college education's least important outcome and that students demonstrated little, if any, interest in a course of study that would prepare them to contribute to society. "Today's students," the research team concluded, "understand that college is important to their success in the work force, but they do not recognize its role in preparing them as citizens, community participants and thoughtful people. They do not expect college to enable them to better understand the wider world; they view college as a private rather than a public good." Reflecting this narrow conception of higher education, a high school student, recently profiled in The New York Times, claimed that she wanted to go to a "good" college because, "It's, like, a really big deal to go into a lucrative profession so that you can provide for your kids, and they can grow up in a place like the place where you grew up."

As with a host of social critics and scholars, including members of the Association of American Colleges and Universities research team, I find the increasing commodification of higher learning, as well as students' conception of college education as a consumer good, particularly troubling. I've also become aware, however, that my reasons for opposing this trend seem to differ a bit from others', because my concern is not that students hope to capitalize on the relationship between college and "their success in the work force" or even that they anticipate higher education helping them get ahead in life — I tend to think that's a perfectly reasonable expectation. My concern is that treating higher education solely as a private good has the effect of relieving students of what I believe is an historic obligation to contribute to society through the occupational pursuits they choose.

And so, let me explain tonight specifically what I mean by sharing with you what I've learned over the past few years about Bowdoin College's historic civic functions, as well as Bowdoin's efforts to educate students, not for membership in lucrative professions, but for membership in what have traditionally been called the "liberal professions."

As many of you know, Bowdoin's first president, the Reverend Joseph McKeen, used his inaugural address to identify the central reasons for establishing a "literary institution" in the District of Maine. "That the inhabitants of this district," he said, "may have of their own sons to fill the liberal professions among them, and particularly to instruct them in the principles and practice of our holy religion, is doubtless the object of this institution...."

As McKeen made clear, preparing students for the ministry was one of Bowdoin College's founding purposes. He also claimed, however, that educating students for the other "liberal professions" — which included medicine, teaching, law, and what we might call statesmanship — was an equally important part of the college's mission. Yet McKeen's primary — his central — interest could not have been in students' occupational advancement, for he was well aware that practicing the "liberal professions" in the early 19th century did not require an undergraduate liberal arts degree. McKeen, therefore, continued his address by emphasizing the social obligation he believed students' incurred upon enrolling at Bodwdoin. "It ought always be remembered," McKeen insisted:

[T]hat literary institutions are founded and endowed for the common good, and not for the private advantage of those who resort to them for education. It is not that they may be enabled to pass through life in an easy or reputable manner, but that their mental powers may be cultivated and improved for the benefit of society. If it be true, that no man should live to himself, we may safely assert, that every man who has been aided by a public institution to acquire an education and to qualify himself for usefulness, is under peculiar obligations to exert his talents for the public good.

Asserting an especially broad institutional mission — advancing the "common good" — McKeen nevertheless identified a tangible mechanism through which to achieve this goal: graduates' virtuous participation in the liberal professions.

"Now, OK, that's fine," you may say, but what did Bowdoin graduates think about all this? Well, I think it's fair to say that many of us would not be shocked if we discovered Bowdoin students doing the opposite of what their college president suggested. Which is why, perhaps, it's a bit puzzling to find evidence revealing that, in fact, a large majority of the college's early graduates did, indeed, do precisely what McKeen proposed. Of the Class of 1810's twelve graduates, for instance, five became ministers (three after having served as school teachers); four became lawyers (one after having served as a school teacher and another who later served as a Maine State Legislator); one became a physician; one became a soldier (and later editor, civil servant, and philanthropist); and one worked in his family's mercantile business. Similarly, of the five members of the class of 1813, three became lawyers (one eventually serving as Maine State Attorney General and another serving as a Maine State Senator, U.S. Congressman, U.S. Attorney for the District of Maine, and Mayor of Portland); one became a school principal; and one became a merchant.

"But, wait a minute. That's fine, also. But maybe these early graduates weren't doing what McKeen proposed. Perhaps they simply fulfilled social responsibilities while on the road to personal success?" Well, it turns out that there is very good reason to believe that the College's early graduates eagerly pursued personal advancement. And we know this because a large number of Bowdoin's early students were poor, relying on charity and paid employment to finance their tuition, room and board. As younger sons of farmers who typically practiced primogeniture, for instance, many college students rightly believed that higher education, although in no way a prerequisite for career success, would provide an advantage in establishing themselves in a profession. Of course, none of the liberal professions promised significant financial gain. Through occupational mobility, however, graduates with extremely limited means could escape their potential future as landless hired hands, or city laborers, or clerks, and achieve a degree of financial security and social stature otherwise unattainable.

For instance, of the 114 students enrolled at Bowdoin in 1829, over half were poor. Of the 64 students who relied on financial support from sources other than their families or benefactors, 43 acquired grants from the College (after providing documentation of their indigence), 6 received financial support from the American Education Society (an organization that provided scholarships to young men interested in becoming ministers) and 45 supported themselves by "keeping school" during winter break; in other words, they taught at rural grammar schools over winter break, occasionally taking leaves of absence during the academic term to continue their work. In fact, so many Bowdoin students taught in rural schools that in 1834 they formed the "Teachers' Association of Bowdoin College," the purpose of which was "the mutual improvement of the members in their vocation, as teachers."

Undoubtedly, then, a significant proportion of Bowdoin students believed that higher education afforded greater access to occupational success than they otherwise would have had. However, it would be a mistake to assume that this belief was incompatible with students' acceptance of the civic obligations that McKeen had described. Indeed, evidence suggests that many students during Bowdoin's early decades were extremely concerned that they become "useful" citizens and serve the public good through their life pursuits.

Moses Parker Cleaveland, for instance, graduated from Bowdoin in 1827, eventually serving as a physician in New Hampshire. During his time at the College, Cleaveland kept a diary of essays called "Dissertations and Sunday Pieces," throughout which he expressed his desire to become "eminent" and achieve distinction in his occupational endeavors. He also clearly believed, however, that one's eminence relied upon being a "valuable member of society." Reflecting on education's primary goals, for instance, Cleaveland wrote, "To promote the happiness of man, and to render him a valuable member of society by the discharge of all his social and religious duties are the great objects of Education...."

The importance Cleaveland repeatedly attached to an individual's "value," "service" and "usefulness" appear throughout many of the surviving diaries from Bowdoin's early decades. George F. Talbot, Class of 1837, for instance, consistently wrote of his plans to make a meaningful contribution to society. "Amidst the din of contending passions and the outbreakings of unsatisfied desires," he wrote, "consciousness lifts up his voice and calls us to forsake the pursuits which cannot give real happiness...and pursue some real good...."

As an undergraduate, Talbot frequently pondered his future occupational pursuits as well as the responsibilities he incurred by receiving a college education. "I began a boy at home, a home from which I had never been absent," Talbot wrote towards the middle of his senior year at Bowdoin, "since then I have passed into a somewhat higher situation and have experienced all the joys and sorrows, pleasures and responsibilities of college life, and at its close I find myself almost ready to leave these scenes, and enter upon the still more active duties of busy life. Increase of knowledge brings increase of responsibilities, and the higher we rise the more is expected of us, the more we expect of ourselves." Becoming a lawyer in Maine's Washington County, Talbot eventually served as U.S. District Attorney for the State of Maine and U.S. Solicitor of the Treasury.

And so, in conclusion, I've reached the point in this address where I'm obliged to practice what I preach to my seminar students by making an effort to explain how any of this matters? Who cares, after all, what Bowdoin students did 200 years ago? Well, I'm certainly not proposing that we resuscitate a 200-year-old model for Bowdoin's civic functions. The College's own history, however, does seem to suggest that we should at least question our current conceptions of occupational success and service to society as being in tension, or even worse, as being in opposition to one another. Through recent conversations, I've come to understand many Bowdoin students as believing that their career trajectories are dichotomous. They can either get ahead in life — which may look something like consulting work or investment banking — or they can serve society — which may look something like non-profit work or teaching — but they can't do both. And rarely do they acknowledge an ethical or professional obligation to advance the common good regardless of their career choice. That is to say, many students believe that a Bowdoin education provides the knowledge and skills necessary to contribute to society in some meaningful way, but whether or not they actually apply those skills in some civic-minded fashion is a personal choice rather than, as Joseph McKeen insisted, a peculiar obligation.

As I understand it, choices and obligations are two very different things. Thanks for listening.


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