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A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education

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Read the news about America’s colleges and universities—rising student debt, affirmative action debates, and conflicts between faculty and administrators—and it’s clear that higher education in this country is a total mess. But as David F. Labaree reminds us in this book, it’s always been that way. And that’s exactly why it has become the most successful and sought-after s Read the news about America’s colleges and universities—rising student debt, affirmative action debates, and conflicts between faculty and administrators—and it’s clear that higher education in this country is a total mess. But as David F. Labaree reminds us in this book, it’s always been that way. And that’s exactly why it has become the most successful and sought-after source of learning in the world. Detailing American higher education’s unusual struggle for survival in a free market that never guaranteed its place in society—a fact that seemed to doom it in its early days in the nineteenth century—he tells a lively story of the entrepreneurial spirit that drove American higher education to become the best.             And the best it is: today America’s universities and colleges produce the most scholarship, earn the most Nobel prizes, hold the largest endowments, and attract the most esteemed students and scholars from around the world. But this was not an inevitability. Weakly funded by the state, American schools in their early years had to rely on student tuition and alumni donations in order to survive. This gave them tremendous autonomy to seek out sources of financial support and pursue unconventional opportunities to ensure their success. As Labaree shows, by striving as much as possible to meet social needs and fulfill individual ambitions, they developed a broad base of political and financial support that, grounded by large undergraduate programs, allowed for the most cutting-edge research and advanced graduate study ever conducted. As a result, American higher education eventually managed to combine a unique mix of the populist, the practical, and the elite in a single complex system.             The answers to today’s problems in higher education are not easy, but as this book shows, they shouldn’t be: no single person or institution can determine higher education’s future. It is something that faculty, administrators, and students—adapting to society’s needs—will determine together, just as they have always done.  


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Read the news about America’s colleges and universities—rising student debt, affirmative action debates, and conflicts between faculty and administrators—and it’s clear that higher education in this country is a total mess. But as David F. Labaree reminds us in this book, it’s always been that way. And that’s exactly why it has become the most successful and sought-after s Read the news about America’s colleges and universities—rising student debt, affirmative action debates, and conflicts between faculty and administrators—and it’s clear that higher education in this country is a total mess. But as David F. Labaree reminds us in this book, it’s always been that way. And that’s exactly why it has become the most successful and sought-after source of learning in the world. Detailing American higher education’s unusual struggle for survival in a free market that never guaranteed its place in society—a fact that seemed to doom it in its early days in the nineteenth century—he tells a lively story of the entrepreneurial spirit that drove American higher education to become the best.             And the best it is: today America’s universities and colleges produce the most scholarship, earn the most Nobel prizes, hold the largest endowments, and attract the most esteemed students and scholars from around the world. But this was not an inevitability. Weakly funded by the state, American schools in their early years had to rely on student tuition and alumni donations in order to survive. This gave them tremendous autonomy to seek out sources of financial support and pursue unconventional opportunities to ensure their success. As Labaree shows, by striving as much as possible to meet social needs and fulfill individual ambitions, they developed a broad base of political and financial support that, grounded by large undergraduate programs, allowed for the most cutting-edge research and advanced graduate study ever conducted. As a result, American higher education eventually managed to combine a unique mix of the populist, the practical, and the elite in a single complex system.             The answers to today’s problems in higher education are not easy, but as this book shows, they shouldn’t be: no single person or institution can determine higher education’s future. It is something that faculty, administrators, and students—adapting to society’s needs—will determine together, just as they have always done.  

30 review for A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education

  1. 5 out of 5

    Neil R. Coulter

    A Perfect Mess was recommended by the Chronicle of Higher Education as an essential read for grad students and anyone involved in higher ed. I think they’re right—though, as I’ll point out later, there are plenty of reasons that CHE would be interested in having a wide spectrum of people read and accept David Labaree’s point of view in the book. Labaree’s research is fascinating. I learned a lot about the development of American higher ed—in particular, the very different roles that it has played A Perfect Mess was recommended by the Chronicle of Higher Education as an essential read for grad students and anyone involved in higher ed. I think they’re right—though, as I’ll point out later, there are plenty of reasons that CHE would be interested in having a wide spectrum of people read and accept David Labaree’s point of view in the book. Labaree’s research is fascinating. I learned a lot about the development of American higher ed—in particular, the very different roles that it has played throughout the nation’s history. The Labaree’s explanations of the characteristics of the system that allowed it to grow and thrive are a very helpful framework for understanding a complex history. There are some gaps in Labaree’s perspective (as I’m sure he himself would readily admit—196 pages is just skimming the surface of this topic!). One is that I think the situation for Christian colleges would yield some different and interesting findings, particularly in the reasons parents send their children to such schools, and what people expect from an education there. There will be a lot of parallels with what Labaree has written, of course, but also some intriguing differences that will complicate the narrative. The other area that is strangely lacking is any consideration of the development of distance-based, online courses. This trend hasn’t yet found its place in the higher ed environment, but it continues to lurk in all the nooks and crannies, ready to adapt and become something that changes the landscape more significantly. Labaree seems to assume that online learning is not even in the same class as a residence university—and in many areas, of course I agree with him—but it is something worth serious consideration, nonetheless. I was glad that in chapter 8, Labaree gives an honest appraisal of the trauma that is now built into the pursuit of higher ed, and especially of a Ph.D. In the current climate, a huge number of people who receive doctorates will never find work in the academia that nurtured them on dreams of the professoriate. The statistics in this chapter should be soberly considered by anyone thinking about a terminal degree. But what Labaree omits is what seems like the most obvious question: Given this situation, which everyone in higher ed is very aware of, why are institutions granting an increasing number of doctorates? How can that irresponsible behavior be justified? It’s no surprise that the American public is less and less willing to support the system of higher ed when it’s producing such excessive superfluity. Chapter 9, the conclusion, is Labaree’s defense of why the American higher ed system needs to remain as it is, against calls for large-scale reform. I found this to be the most unsatisfying, infuriating chapter in the book. Labaree’s conclusion is exactly what you would expect from a late-career tenured faculty member: leave everything the way it is. “The paradox,” he writes,is that the primary benefits of the system of higher education derive from its form, but this form did not arise in order to produce these benefits. We need to preserve the form in order to continue enjoying these benefits, but unfortunately the organizational foundations on which the form is built are, on the face of it, absurd. . . . Awkwardly, this means that the institution depends on attributes that reasonable people would find deplorable: organizational anarchy, professional hypocrisy, and public inscrutability. (190)I found it very odd that in a book that argues that the triumph of American higher ed is its ability to adapt and respond to various needs, the conclusion is that it now needs to resist the pressure to adapt to the current world. Labaree then gives three basic calls for reform, and answers each with the reason that such reform is the wrong idea. Reformers call for transparency: where are the tax and tuition dollars going in the university? Labaree’s response: “the autonomy of the university depends on its ability to shield its inner workings from public scrutiny. It relies on opacity. Autonomy will end if the public can see everything that is going on and what everything costs” (191–192). A second call for reform is to disaggregate the many and tortuous structures and organizations that exist within a university. Why can’t everything be made clear? Labaree responds that “A key organizational element that makes the university so effective is its anarchic complexity” (193). The third area of reform is academic principle. This one is less clearly explained in the book. Basically, it means that hiring in higher ed ought to be done based on principle: is the finalist for this position a scholar whom I respect? Is the work and specialty of this scholar of obvious, clear value? But Labaree counters that “part of what keeps universities healthy and autonomous is hypocrisy. . . . The result is incredibly messy, and it permits a lot of quirky—even ridiculous—research agendas, courses, and instructional programs. . . . It’s exactly the kind of mess we need to treasure and preserve and defend from all opponents” (193–194). Interestingly, “ridiculous” is just the word that came to mind as I read this chapter. Labaree's assertions make sense only to those few who have made to the inner circle of academia. To everyone else, it seems radically out of step with contemporary American society and where we ought to be headed. It makes total sense that the Chronicle of Higher Education wants this book widely read. Unfortunately, though there is great information along the way, the conclusions are off the mark.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Chris

    I’m quite familiar with Labaree’s work on k-12 education, having read a handful of his articles in my (k-12) policy and administration Ph.D. program and having assigned several of them to my own undergrad and Masters students in social foundations of education courses. So many of his themes here are familiar: an institution embodying conflicting values (here, elitism, populism, and practicality), formalism, credentialism and credential inflation, social mobility vs. social efficiency, public goo I’m quite familiar with Labaree’s work on k-12 education, having read a handful of his articles in my (k-12) policy and administration Ph.D. program and having assigned several of them to my own undergrad and Masters students in social foundations of education courses. So many of his themes here are familiar: an institution embodying conflicting values (here, elitism, populism, and practicality), formalism, credentialism and credential inflation, social mobility vs. social efficiency, public goods vs. private goods, access vs. advantage, etc. What is different here is the tone. In his k-12 work (as well as in his book on ed schools), he laments these things, whereas here he celebrates them. The only explanation I can think of for this is that k-12 education is (near) universal and compulsory (so these things are problematic—at least if our primary guiding principle is what, in his k-12 work, he calls “democratic equality”), whereas higher ed is voluntary, so these things are just byproducts of having a diverse market-driven system that can accommodate just about everyone who wants to participate. But what I want from him now is a work that talks across the educational levels. For example, as higher education enrollment becomes the norm and educational credentials further “inflate” in the U.S., will we reach a point at which what he currently sees as advantages of our higher education system become disadvantages, a la our k-12 system? I also (selfishly, as this is my own topic of k-12 interest) would like to know what functions he thinks the high school extracurriculum has historically served (besides simply imitating colleges, which it did), given that so many of the functions he identifies for the college extracurriculum have to do with fostering institutional loyalty and, thereby, donations. As someone with a BA in history and a Ph.D. in education with a specialization in the history of education (which explains why I encountered his work to begin with), I love the thought of liberal education “colonizing” professional schools. However, he doesn’t talk about the fraught position the liberal arts occupy in professional schools—looked down on by both their disciplinary homes for having supposedly “sold out” and by their professional school colleagues for not being practical enough.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Michelle

    One of the best books about higher education, hands down.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Lucy Barnhouse

    This was an informative but also (to me) a depressing read. Labaree is sanguine about a makeshift system that has evolved in response to consumer demand. I am not. This is a history that is full of information, and an impressive work of synthesis. It is uninterested, however, in delving into the experiences of students or faculty below the macro level. It may be informative, but I am unconvinced by its claim that attempting to reform the system as it stands would spell the end of its improbable This was an informative but also (to me) a depressing read. Labaree is sanguine about a makeshift system that has evolved in response to consumer demand. I am not. This is a history that is full of information, and an impressive work of synthesis. It is uninterested, however, in delving into the experiences of students or faculty below the macro level. It may be informative, but I am unconvinced by its claim that attempting to reform the system as it stands would spell the end of its improbable record of success.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Jonna Higgins-Freese

    For a person who didn't know much about the history of higher education in America, this book could serve as a good overview/introduction. Labaree lays out a clear case for the way in which higher education is a mishmash in the US because it's been asked to do several incompatible things at once: to simultaneously stack and sort students to retain the privileges of the elite AND to provide education and opportunity to everyone. He argues that these conflicting tasks have, in fact, been accomplis For a person who didn't know much about the history of higher education in America, this book could serve as a good overview/introduction. Labaree lays out a clear case for the way in which higher education is a mishmash in the US because it's been asked to do several incompatible things at once: to simultaneously stack and sort students to retain the privileges of the elite AND to provide education and opportunity to everyone. He argues that these conflicting tasks have, in fact, been accomplished by smooshing together the English undergraduate college, the German research university, and the American land-grant college (an argument first made, as Labaree cites, by Clark Kerr). There are clear tiers that help with the task of stratification: the ivies, the land grants, the normal schools, and the community colleges. Labaree cites compelling statistics about the way that American higher education has become ascendant in the last century precisely because of this mishmash. And yet his argument that the system is current as it is, and that nothing could improve it, seems vapid and empty to me. Or perhaps only because he didn't articulate what is perhaps one of his unspoken assumptions: the system would work perfectly if there were any remaining paths to the middle class that didn't lead through higher education. Since there aren't, we have to make higher ed more affordable. The fact that this wasn't his conclusion was disappointing to me. He argues that the lack of learning at the undergraduate level is, in fact, a central feature, not a bug, of the university system -- the undergrads are there to pay the bills and provide broad public support for the larger university research agenda (14). This "allows the success of the research university to occur at the expense of the students attending the community college and regional state university. In many ways, the top American universities are so rich and so academically distinguished largely because the institutions at the bottom are so poor and so undistinguished" (23). Rational, Taylor-esque administrative efficiencies (research and development offices, advancement organizations), are laid over "an irreducible element of traditional authority found in the guild-like mode of governance carried over from its medieval origins. We still honor the traditional rituals of collegial decision making in admitting faculty to the guild, deciding on promotion and tenure, approving curriculum, and preserving the artisanal autonomy of the classroom" (20). Labaree points out that the university has been laser-focused on survival, but flexible in the methods it chooses to do so: "At various times, and all at the same time, it has existed in order to promote the faith, enrich developers, boost civic pride, educate leaders, produce human capital, develop knowledge, provide opportunity, promote advantage, supply a pleasant interlude between childhood and adulthood, help people meet the right spouse, expand the economy, and enhance state power. Oh, and yes, it has also served as a minor league for professional sports, a major venue for public entertainment, and a massive jobs program" (182-3). It is simultaneously populist, practical, and elite (184). The system has many strengths. It promotes and protects free speech. "Universities become zones where play is not only permissible but even desirable; it's ok to pursue an idea just because it's intriguing, even though there is no apparent practical benefit that this pursuit would produce" (188).

  6. 5 out of 5

    Herb

    David Labaree has contributed a clear winner to the long literature on higher ed with A Perfect Mess. He lays out the history of American higher ed as a surprising blend of high ideas and raw hucksterism, of civic well-being and individual market position, of egalitarian access and elite exclusivity, all living side by side (by side, by side... an order of magnitude more colleges than all of Europe). I was particularly taken with his notion that, as the concept of "college" was made available to David Labaree has contributed a clear winner to the long literature on higher ed with A Perfect Mess. He lays out the history of American higher ed as a surprising blend of high ideas and raw hucksterism, of civic well-being and individual market position, of egalitarian access and elite exclusivity, all living side by side (by side, by side... an order of magnitude more colleges than all of Europe). I was particularly taken with his notion that, as the concept of "college" was made available to more people, individual colleges didn't expand to accept the masses. Rather, new categories of colleges were invented at layers below the elites. The land-grant A&M's, the normal schools, the community colleges, all entered the game to offer greater access without diluting the privilege of the uppermost old-money schools. And then, once they existed, they tried to emulate the research capacities, the graduate programs, and the "traditions" (often traditions as deep as a Potemkin village) of their elder siblings. In his wonderful book Class, Paul Fussell says that before WWII, about 13% of all American high school grads went to college. Now, it's 43% (this was written about twenty years ago), but really, it's still 13% who go to college, and 30% who go to institutions that call themselves colleges. (In 2017, it's closer to 70%, but the premise still holds.) Labaree's book is a full-length analysis of that proposition, and I enjoyed it immensely.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Scott

    Many good insights, but I consider the main argument to be "a perfect mess" in itself. There are lots of good reasons to read this book. The author is an exceptionally knowledgeable scholar of the history of education. He writes well and clearly, and makes his arguments plain. I fundamentally disagree with the author's assertion that, aside from the Cold War period of increased state funding, higher education was created and exists primarily for a "private good" of the individual and not a "publ Many good insights, but I consider the main argument to be "a perfect mess" in itself. There are lots of good reasons to read this book. The author is an exceptionally knowledgeable scholar of the history of education. He writes well and clearly, and makes his arguments plain. I fundamentally disagree with the author's assertion that, aside from the Cold War period of increased state funding, higher education was created and exists primarily for a "private good" of the individual and not a "public good" for society. The problem is this assertion that American higher education is primarily a private good is the basis for most of the argument in this book-length essay. Essentially, the author and his generation took the public good of mid-Century American higher education, used it for their own advancement, and have pulled up the ladder behind them, in the name of lower taxes, and with the justification (presented here) that traditionally higher ed has been a private good, and our society is returning to "as it should be." This insight on "private good" is supported with evidence, but I'm sure a counter-argument could easily be drawn by considering other resources that have a different perspective than the neoliberal (or even libertarian) slant of this account.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Andrew Careaga

    In a 1982 speech, President Ronald Reagan described status quo as a Latin term for “the mess we’re in.” If that’s the case, then David F. Labaree has no problem with the status quo of higher education. “Why ruin a perfect mess?” Labaree asks at the conclusion of his recent book, A Perfect Mess: The unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education. In this compact but well-sourced book, Labaree, a Stanford professor who specializes in the history of higher education, examines the history of Ameri In a 1982 speech, President Ronald Reagan described status quo as a Latin term for “the mess we’re in.” If that’s the case, then David F. Labaree has no problem with the status quo of higher education. “Why ruin a perfect mess?” Labaree asks at the conclusion of his recent book, A Perfect Mess: The unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education. In this compact but well-sourced book, Labaree, a Stanford professor who specializes in the history of higher education, examines the history of America’s colleges and universities to explain how the U.S. system ascended from its humble and hardscrabble beginnings to become the strongest system of higher education the world has ever seen. (Read the full review at https://andrewcareaga.wordpress.com/2...

  9. 4 out of 5

    John

    A history rather than a scold, this short (could be even shorter, hence the 4 stars) explanation of how the collective set of American Colleges/Universities came to be what they are is quite fascinating. After the first and oldest few, most founding boils down to property speculation (by cities or states) or efforts to grab souls (by competing denominations). A few later begun by gilded age robber barons round out the origin stories. More interesting is the path to survival – which involves mult A history rather than a scold, this short (could be even shorter, hence the 4 stars) explanation of how the collective set of American Colleges/Universities came to be what they are is quite fascinating. After the first and oldest few, most founding boils down to property speculation (by cities or states) or efforts to grab souls (by competing denominations). A few later begun by gilded age robber barons round out the origin stories. More interesting is the path to survival – which involves multiple constituencies which, ideally, don’t know much about what the institution is doing for the others.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Lauren

    This book is a WOW from me. An incredible look into Higher Education, how it was formed and how it became what it is today, completely accidentally. I would highly recommend this book for anyone interested in higher ed in any capacity or who want to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of the system, and why those features are so intertwined. I will say the conclusion of this book is not my favorite but it is fascinating that the author believes that despite everything outlined in this This book is a WOW from me. An incredible look into Higher Education, how it was formed and how it became what it is today, completely accidentally. I would highly recommend this book for anyone interested in higher ed in any capacity or who want to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of the system, and why those features are so intertwined. I will say the conclusion of this book is not my favorite but it is fascinating that the author believes that despite everything outlined in this book, universities should stay exactly the way they way they are. Loss of at least half a star on that one.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Elizabeth

    Labaree provides a structural analysis of the development of our current higher education system. As his title suggests, American higher education is a mess. But, Larabee shows how the mess is what makes it work. Though it's hard to philosophically agree with all of his points, it's also hard to refute what he's ultimately concluding: the stratified system we've created helps create the conditions that make higher education work well, particularly (if not exclusively) for those who end up on top Labaree provides a structural analysis of the development of our current higher education system. As his title suggests, American higher education is a mess. But, Larabee shows how the mess is what makes it work. Though it's hard to philosophically agree with all of his points, it's also hard to refute what he's ultimately concluding: the stratified system we've created helps create the conditions that make higher education work well, particularly (if not exclusively) for those who end up on top.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Grant De Roo

    An interesting history of higher education in the US that focuses on specific periods of development. I especially liked learning about ways that European models of higher ed were woven into our system. At times, the book feels repetitive and a bit bland. But if you’re interested in getting a basic history of higher ed in the country and how it developed, this is a useful book.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Vanessa

    This was a great read! It was the perfect length and provided a great history of the development of the higher education system of the United States as we have it today. I plan to purchase this book for my own shelf in the future and want to reread it at some point.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Beth Endsley

    Great read, but gets a little repetitive in some areas.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Mattyk

  16. 4 out of 5

    Eero Hawkings

  17. 5 out of 5

    Paul Wang

  18. 4 out of 5

    Kate

  19. 4 out of 5

    Josh

  20. 4 out of 5

    Janell

  21. 4 out of 5

    Barry

  22. 5 out of 5

    Darren Lipomi

  23. 4 out of 5

    Kerry

  24. 4 out of 5

    Eric Pecile

  25. 4 out of 5

    Kenton

  26. 4 out of 5

    Laura Cheatham

  27. 5 out of 5

    Rachel Massaro

  28. 5 out of 5

    Klaus-Michael Lux

  29. 5 out of 5

    Henry Deng

  30. 4 out of 5

    Alonzo

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