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A Perfect Mess

The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education

A Perfect Mess

The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education

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.

240 pages | 1 table | 6 x 9 | © 2017

Education: Education--Economics, Law, Politics, Higher Education

History: American History

Sociology: Formal and Complex Organizations


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).” 

Times Higher Education

"[A] course in American higher-ed history that you can hold in your hand."

Chronicle of Higher Education

“How did a ragbag of colleges become a towering assemblage of world-class universities? In this deft history, David Labaree tracks the evolution of the US higher-education system, an unwieldy array that nevertheless produced 40% of Nobel laureates between 1901 and 2013. US economic ascendancy, the rise of English as a lingua franca, and postwar research funding all played a part; but the fulcrum was the autonomy and strangely effective ‘anarchic complexity’ of the system itself. As Labaree asks, ‘Why ruin a perfect mess?’”


“Unlike several longer histories of higher education, Labaree always keeps the reader oriented as he develops an argument rather than piles on details.… The result is a series of graceful essays reminiscent of Burton Clark, David Riesman, and Martin Trow, three scholars who tackled huge issues in a few pages without oversimplifying or distorting.”

American Journal of Education

A Perfect Mess is a concise history that has a point. Labaree argues there is method to America’s higher education madness, and we are well advised to stay the course, however madcap that course can be. Well written, erudite, thoughtful, and engaging.”

William Tierney, past president for the American Educational Research Association and Association for the Study of Higher Education

“Nearly five million international students attend US universities, more than in any other country, yet Labaree’s book on the history of American higher education is called A Perfect Mess. This contradiction is one of many paradoxes that Labaree takes up in clear, crisp language. US universities are populist yet elitist, extend opportunity yet protect privilege, and are a public good yet also a private one offered to American young adults. Labaree’s parsing of these historical paradoxes becomes a yellow flashing light to anyone with plans to transform US universities. Understanding how American universities, the envy of the world, became A Perfect Mess should give pause to those reform-minded policymakers and politicians who, uninformed by the past, want to alter the landscape and mechanics of American higher education.”

Larry Cuban, author of Teaching History Then and Now

“This book will be of interest to anyone concerned with the state of higher education in the United States—especially to those who are open to seeing the usual opinions strongly challenged. In fluid prose Labaree presents new and compelling insights into the dynamics behind the success of the American system—or non-system—of higher education, several of which will be sure to raise eyebrows and prompt debate.”

Paul Reitter, coeditor of The Rise of the Research University

“American higher education evolved under pressures (and opportunities) from multiple sources, not under a single authority. Labaree provides a fine review of this history, showing how it generated a great and expansive dynamism. Applying this perspective to the present situation, he shows how the apparent disorder of current higher education can be seen as enabling continuing adaptation rather than breakdown. His ideas will be of great interest to all those concerned with the evolution of higher education in this country.”

John W. Meyer, Stanford University

Table of Contents

1 A System without a Plan: Elements of the American Model of Higher Education
2 Unpromising Roots: The Ragtag College System in the Nineteenth Century
3 Adding the Pinnacle and Keeping the Base: The Graduate School Crowns the System, 1880–1910
4 Mutual Subversion: The Liberal and the Professional
5 Balancing Access and Advantage
6 Private Advantage, Public Impact
7 Learning to Love the Bomb: America’s Brief Cold War Fling with the University as a Public Good
8 Upstairs, Downstairs: Relations between the Tiers of the System
9 A Perfect Mess

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