Leonard Cassuto

Professor at Fordham Univ

Scholars, Know Thy History: Higher Ed Has 'Always' Struggled to Survive in the U.S.

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Image: Kevin Van Aelst for The Chronicle

If I were a graduate-school dean, I would propose that every doctoral student be required to take a course on the history of American higher education.

Schools of education already offer such a course but it’s mostly for their own students. It’s not a seminar that most graduate students in the arts and sciences have either the incentive or the opportunity to take.

But now there’s another option: Graduate students can read David F. Labaree’s A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education, published last year by the University of Chicago Press. The book is a course in American higher-ed history that you can hold in your hand.

A Perfect Mess grew out of a higher-education history course that Labaree developed and taught as a professor of education at Stanford University. The book reads like a series of lectures, in fact — which is both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, Labaree can be a bit pedantic at times, repeatedly returning to and stressing his main ideas. On the other hand, like the good lecturer I imagine he must be, Labaree is very, very clear. A Perfect Messtells a complicated story with a lot of moving parts, but he makes it gratifyingly easy to follow.

It’s a history of our national higher-education agglomeration — a unique mixture that encompasses large and small, public and private, colleges and universities. Our system has no architect and no plan, but Labaree argues that it works in most ways, most of the time — hence the "perfect mess" of the title.

The mess accreted and developed over decades in response to changing American needs. Some important characters have played big roles in its creation — people like Charles William Eliot, who as president of Harvard devised the elective-based curriculum, or Clark Kerr, who designed the giant, multitiered University of California system.

But individuals never stay on Labaree’s stage for very long. Instead, this is a book about structures, especially the evolving relation between academe and the American market economy. Labaree stresses that we should view the development of higher education in the United States as a Darwinian contest in which colleges and universities have had to fight for their economic places, or else go extinct. We still see that dynamic playing out today as financially strapped campuses struggle for survival; our mistake is in assuming the phenomenon is new.

Within a competitive context, A Perfect Mess traces the constant shifting of the tectonic plates of American higher education. The question then and now: How do colleges balance the quest for wider prestige with the need to appeal to the local students who fill most of the seats at most of the country’s institutions?

In Labaree’s telling, such exigencies led to a dynamic, always-changing balance in U.S. higher education between the "elite element" (graduate-level research) and the "populist element" (undergraduate education and football). The research university arose in America to balance the student-centered orientation of college and to add intellectual credibility to the academic enterprise.

Credibility was required, Labaree writes, because of the rise in 19th-century America of a new middle class that sought, and received, practical training at colleges and universities. That utility-driven move (which included the introduction of electives to serve the students’ specific needs) threatened to make "the college more like a department store than a cathedral of learning." The addition of graduate education rebalanced the equation.

Such developments call necessary attention to the middle-class orientation of U.S. higher education — which prevailed, Labaree writes, even when a relatively small percentage of the U.S. population attended college. Long before the G.I. Bill increased the college-going population in the 1950s, the expansion of American higher education was underway, driven by the needs of a growing middle class and by the influential ethos of land-grant institutions, whose mission combined the practical and the liberal.

His book also injects some perspective into today’s curricular struggles between liberal learning and practical instruction. Those keening tensions might persuade some observers that the U.S. system is about to collapse, but Labaree points out that the debate over the practical "has been going on in American education at all levels over the last 150 years."

Professors today are fond of dismissing demands from lawmakers and other public gadflies for "useful" curriculum — that is, work-force training that leads to particular jobs — but our contempt ill-serves our own interests. Along with the push for intellectual and cultural advancement, utility has been a driving force in the development of American colleges and universities from their beginnings, as A Perfect Mess makes clear.

Public interest in a "useful" college degree didn’t originate with the right-wing populists who espouse it today.

Labaree traces the evolution of the utility-based core of American higher education, but from enough of a distance to make some paradoxical observations — such as his point that, as liberal education has professionalized (a gain for utility-based thinking), professional education has liberalized. Law students, Labaree points out, are typically taught critical thinking, which derives from the liberal arts and shows the persistence of liberal values in our education system.

A wide-angled view is key to understanding the continuing struggle for the liberal arts in colleges and universities today.

A Perfect Mess argues that the U.S. system of higher education is the result of evolution, not goal-oriented planning. It’s an assemblage of parts that arose and glued themselves together in particular places — like in the small towns that harbored most early colleges and helped provide their identities.

Like Laurence Veysey, who drills for the core values that shaped American higher education in his 1965 classic, The Emergence of the American University, Labaree seeks the essential ingredients of the "random system" of American colleges and universities.

Market-based logic has driven the system from the beginning, Labaree writes. Unlike Europe — where universities arose before the age of industry, at the intersection of church and state — the American system enshrines an economic relation between students and institutions, in which the needs of each continually influence the other.

There’s plenty to criticize in our system, and no shortage of critics. Labaree isn’t one of them — not here, anyway. A Perfect Mess is, in his words, "an appreciation" rather than an attack. But that doesn’t mean that the author succumbs to blind optimism. We live in hard times, and he writes, in an era when "proposed reforms could kill" the enterprise. Yet and still, with its "organizational complexity, multiple functionality, and breadth of support," American higher education "inspires awe."

Graduate students need to know where they came from, and the larger history of the institutions that train them. All academic professionals do. We need to see the position that we occupy in relation to the society we serve, and which serves us. We should consider requiring all doctoral students to take a course in the history of our workplace. Until we do, though, A Perfect Mess is a substitute — and a useful one.

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