A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education, by David F. Labaree

Book of the week: Howard Segal on an ‘appreciation’ of an unwieldy creature that is the envy of the world

May 25, 2017
American students
Source: Getty/Alamy

At first glance, the title of David Labaree’s excellent and comprehensive historical analysis of US higher education would appear to presage a resolutely negative account, with “Perfect” added for emphasis, as in Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm. Even Labaree’s subtitle doesn’t reveal that his is a basically positive tale of how, despite the absence of government directives and the heavy presence of non-educational objectives, higher education in the US became the envy of the rest of the world.

What began before the American Revolution as a group of nine small colleges primarily seeking denominational expansion and civic boosterism rather than academic excellence would grow into 250 liberal arts institutions by the Civil War. All were funded primarily by students’ tuition fees. If only a few of them became first rate, all were viewed as a private good.

Beginning in the 1790s, there arose a number of public universities – North Carolina, Georgia, Michigan and Virginia – that offered a first-rate undergraduate education to significantly more students with modest wealth, and without regard to their religious beliefs.

As Labaree emphasises on the subject of autonomy, US institutions, in contrast to their typically far older European counterparts, enjoyed relatively weak state and federal government controls, firm separation of church and state (unlike, say, Catholic Italy) and a vigorous free market. Moreover, then as now, no European country comes remotely close to the US in the sheer number of higher education institutions.

The 1862 Morrill Act created the land-grant movement that focused on agriculture and engineering but did not ignore the liberal arts. Eventually, every state outside the former Confederacy had a land-grant college (later designated a university). After Southern states rejoined the Union, under the 1890 Morrill Act, every one opted to have racially segregated land-grant institutions rather than a single desegregated institution.

In the eyes of the foremost liberal arts colleges and the leading older public universities, nearly all land-grant institutions were viewed as academically inferior. But land grants garnered crucial legislative and citizen support, thanks to their booming enrolments, their lack of pretension and their ethos of providing practical service to their state and nation.

If US higher education’s evolution were not already complex enough, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, fully fledged research universities emerged from existing institutions, among them Harvard, Yale and Princeton as well as Michigan, Wisconsin and the University of California, Berkeley. These institutions established both graduate schools and professional schools.

To complicate matters further, “normal schools” focused on teacher training were founded by most states in the late 19th century. Answering to consumer demands, they evolved into more broadly based institutions, including comprehensive state colleges and, beginning in the 1960s, regional state universities.

To complicate matters further still, in the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s, the German model of primarily graduate education leading to the PhD became the hallmark of several new US universities, including Johns Hopkins, Chicago, Clark and Stanford. But both these and the older institutions with growing graduate and professional schools needed undergraduates to sustain themselves financially. Hence the simultaneous creation of attractive, typically Gothic Revival, campuses; fraternities and sororities; athletics, including football above all; and homecoming and other alumni events and networks. Tuition payments by undergraduates who relished these (invented) traditions helped considerably, even as state legislatures increased funding for state schools. But new efforts in both fundraising and development were no less crucial to public and private institutions alike.

As Labaree notes, it is common to lament the passing of the “golden age” of American higher education that flourished during the Cold War. As the US competed against the Soviet Union for world leadership, federal funds for public and private institutions alike grew at an unprecedented rate. True, much of the funding was for science and technology, but not all. No less important, during the 1950s and early 1960s higher education was widely – if temporarily – seen as a public good.

This complicated arrangement allowed undergraduates to obtain the credential of a bachelor’s degree that set them apart from mere high school graduates in the business and professional worlds. Those from working-class backgrounds now had entry into the middle class. And in the pervasive corporate environment of Cold War America, a liberal arts education provided undergraduates with the analytical tools and critical thinking necessary for a successful non-academic career.

Meanwhile, as Labaree also makes clear, in the ensuing years many leading professional schools have increasingly incorporated a de facto liberal arts curriculum even as traditional liberal arts programmes and majors are blasted by government officials and ordinary citizens alike as insufficiently vocational. In contrast, leading professional schools have become more abstract and theoretical.

The final layers of Labaree’s hierarchy are community colleges and for-profit schools. Both sectors have grown enormously in recent decades, but the latter have been subject to many lawsuits for failing to meet their stated objectives of providing education of sufficient quality to lead to gainful employment, and to the kinds of jobs that justify their high tuition fees. Indeed, Donald Trump’s now-defunct Trump University exemplifies these failings, with many of its former students left in debt and seeking graduate-level jobs in vain.

In contrast, community colleges have generally met their goals, both for students who seek only associate degrees before entering the workforce, and for those who move on to four-year public colleges, usually within the same state. Community colleges are invariably less expensive than four-year institutions and so are especially appealing to those from families of modest means. Despite their lack of prestige, they are akin to the higher tier four-year colleges in being deemed a private good for their graduates.

Taken together, the US “system” balances populist democracy with elitism. Some form of higher education is open to almost all, as exemplified by community colleges, but access to elite colleges, universities and graduate and professional schools is not. Labaree calls this America’s version of “stratification”.

Although the story Labaree tells is complicated, he rightly refuses to simplify any of it. Yet his prose is always clear and crisp, with occasional humorous lines. If he perhaps repeats his basic arguments a bit too often, he no doubt does so to make sure that the reader grasps his multilayered argument that higher education in the US has always been a mess.

In making his case for the overall supremacy of America’s older and wealthier private institutions over most of its public ones, Labaree relies above all on rankings by various US publications such as U. S. News & World Report. He does not appear to show any scepticism about the non-quantitative aspects of those rankings, which also give considerable weight to academic leaders’ subjective assessments of peer institutions.

Nevertheless, his compelling defence of US higher education against its contemporary critics – a growing cohort of legislators, business people and, not least, institutions’ trustees and regents – should be widely read. Even if it is no longer widely viewed as a public good, America’s unsystematic higher education system remains the envy of the rest of the world by any measure: whether for the proportion of the population entering higher study, foremost scholarship in most fields, most Nobel prizes, or the largest endowments. In eschewing the temptation to pen yet another critique of the sector, Labaree has instead offered “an appreciation” for which readers ought to be most grateful.

A Perfect Mess should become a classic, to be put on the same shelf as Frederick Rudolph’s The American College and University: A History (1962), Laurence Veysey’s The Emergence of the American University (1965) and Burton Bledstein’s The Culture of Professionalism: The Middle Class and the Development of Higher Education in America (1976).

Howard P. Segal is professor of history, University of Maine, and editor of a forthcoming history of the institution’s past half-century as a modernising land-grant school.

A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education
By David F. Labaree
University of Chicago Press, 240pp, £19.00 and £12.50
ISBN 9780226250441 and 6250588 (e-book)
Published 22 May 2017

The author

David Labaree

David Labaree, Lee L. Jacks professor of education and (by courtesy) history at Stanford University, is a native of Philadelphia.

 “Both of my parents were preachers’ kids (their fathers were Presbyterian ministers), so I grew up in a middle class family with lots of cultural capital and modest economic capital,” he says. “This gave me a strong bias toward education and launched me into the family business. In addition to being ministers, my grandfathers were also both professors at a historically black college, Lincoln University.”

 He was, he admits, an “overly studious child, which I’ve been trying to overcome ever since. My mother helped in this. Whereas my father was earnest, my mother was ironic; and I’ve infused this ironic worldview into my work. In my view, education is filled with too much earnestness. My mission is to draw attention to the myriad ironies that infuse this institution.”

 Labaree attended Harvard University as an undergraduate. “With a long tradition of higher education on both sides of the family, the only question was which college I would attend. Getting to Harvard was a relief, because it was finally ok to be an intellectual, a role that is socially dangerous for an American high school student. Harvard also taught me how to get by with a minimum effort; it was hard to get into but impossible to get thrown out of, barring a major felony. That training has been useful in my scholarship, since it trained me to eschew being a hard worker and instead focus on finding a shortcut to the really interesting stuff.”

 He recalls his undergraduate years fondly. “For a shy studious kid, it was a pleasure for me to find myself in a strong peer group of intellectuals who enjoyed politics and having a good time. It was the 1960s, and I spent a lot of my time working with Students for a Democratic Society in opposition to the Vietnam War.”

 Does he believe that degree study should be free in the US as it is in countries such as Germany? “I am strongly opposed to free tuition for US higher education. All this does is provide a public welfare for the families who can afford to pay the full freight. The biggest advantages that allow upper middle class students to succeed in college do not come from wealth but from cultural capital, social capital, and a strong high school education. Free tuition does nothing to eliminate these advantages; indeed, it rewards them with an unwarranted subsidy.”

 What would he change, if he could, about Stanford University? “I love being at Stanford. It’s the best job I will ever have and the most supportive setting imaginable for my scholarship. Colleagues and students are great. What I would change is the attitude a lot of us have. We’re not here because we deserve it, but because we lucked out. The large majority of us had enormous unacknowledged advantages that increased our probability of success every step of the way from birth to a position at an elite university. It’s nice to be here, but it’s healthy to admit that the fix was in from day one.”

Asked what accomplishment he is proudest of as an academic, Labaree says, “For me, writing is everything. The thing I worked hardest at over the years was developing my voice as an academic writer. This meant weaning myself of the bad habits I picked up in graduate school, where I learned that it is more important to sound like a disembodied professional than to say something interesting, much less – heaven forbid – say it in an engaging manner. I teach a course on academic writing for grad students, where I encourage students to merge the personal and the professional in their voice as authors.”

 What gives him hope? “The accountability police, who have terrorised global primary and secondary education for the past three decades, are now knocking down the door to college,” Labaree warns. “They want us to clean up our act, adopt corporate management styles, submit to tests of our effectiveness, and unbundle the messy array of organisational forms and social functions that characterise us. What makes me hopeful is that universities have been around as long as any human institution on earth, and in the process they have developed a remarkable ability to fend off intruders and keep doing their thing. And hurray for them. 

“What I found in writing A Perfect Mess is that it’s the very messiness of the university that makes it work. Let a bunch of smart people play with ideas while buffered from external interference and good things happen. Universities are useful, but not in the simplistic and short-sighted utilitarianism of the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development. Universities are places that solve problems that haven’t even been discovered yet.”

Karen Shook


Print headline: The untidy path to excellence

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Reader's comments (1)

David : Please do not call it " mess " I am from Stanford too . I am ashamed to see your your words " mess " Yes HE in the USA has many problems. Due to mismanagement and cost . Please please see the reality EVERY PROBLEM IN THE WORLD HAS BEEN SOLVED BY TECHNOLOGY . Education is not an exception . Solution must be declared by good managers: 1.- There are at least 200 good , first class universities in the USA . 2.- Have these universities provide online courses for credits and degrees 3.- Let the price of online courses reduced by 80 % ( See Georgia Tech they did it ) All these will increase the capacity of these schools by 2 . 4.- Let other 3.800 schools alone . They will close themselves. 5.- Graduates of these 200 schools will find good jobs. 6.- No Federal loans are needed. 7.- Just convince the presidents of Harvard, Stanford and MITY for this solution.