BRUNSWICK, Maine (NEWS CENTER) “Higher education in America,” writes Bowdoin College Professor Charles Dorn, “is against the ropes.” Critics complain that college is, depending on their point of view, too expensive, too coddling, too trendy, too out of touch, too exclusive or too inclusive. Most of those complaints have been around for decades, sometimes centuries, as Dorn points out in his new book, “For the Common Good: A New History of Higher Education in America.”

Dorn’s history begins 200 years ago when nearly all colleges and universities shared a common mission, a commitment “to the public welfare or the common good or the public good. It was phrased in different ways,” he says, “but it was almost always present.” By the middle of the 19th century the focus of higher education began to turn to practical learning, as states created universities that taught agriculture and engineering. The 1990s brought a new shift, the start of an amenities arms race in which colleges competed to build the plushest dorms, the most state-of-the-art gyms, the most bling-filled football stadiums.

Dorn surveys the changes with a clear eye and warns against imagining an idealized past that never existed. When Nathaniel Hawthorne was attending Bowdoin College, for instance, students in all classes studied Latin and Greek, rhetoric and elocution. A golden age of classical learning, right? Well, maybe not. In 1823, the college fined Hawthorne “twenty cents for ‘absence from college for one night,’ fifty cents for ‘neglect of declamation,’ and twenty cents for ‘absence from public worship.’ “ Total fine: ninety cents—significant money at a time when tuition for a full term was eight dollars.