The (Perfect?) Mess That is US Higher Education

The State of US Higher Educations

David Labaree assesses the state of US higher education in his interesting book — A Perfect Mess. I enjoyed his take on higher ed. It seemed like he had an appreciation for the complexities of it. He is mostly positive about US education but not so positive that he doesn’t recognize significant problems. For example, he discusses the balancing act in US education between the need to be broadly popular — to justify political support — while also not alienating those at the top of the hierarchy of educational institutes. (I find the excessive hierarchy in academia disappointing but you would have to be foolish not to recognize that it isn’t a massive part of university life). Even now university plays a role in conveying middle class standing — a safer/more widespread route than a trade or a family business.

To Labaree US higher ed. institutes balance the popular (mass education), with the practical (education in relatively “useful” subjects) and the elite (being internationally respected as high quality scholarly institutes). This balance he suggests came about by chance. The need to be practical and popular was driven by the requirement to gain tuition and political support. The need to be elite was driven by academic incentives to go up in the system. He suggests that US universities were initially looked down upon — the German model adopted by some early research institutes did not see educating undergraduates as worthy of a research institution. Yet the fact that most US universities took (had to take for practical reasons) undergraduates created sufficient scale and resources to support the research.

He talks about how all institutions try and go up in the hierarchy. This is partly because prestigious universities train most PhDs. Most PhD graduates are downwardly mobile to get a job and they want to try and replicate their training institutions by raising the status of their new place of work.

Mutual Subversion

Perhaps the most interesting area for business schools concerned mutual subversion. He talks of how liberal ideas have infused the professional training schools. So although professional training schools (business, law etc…) seem to be taking over universities (it is where growth is) liberal training is taking over their curriculum. This is partly because students want the broadness that this gives them and maybe partly because academics want the kudos of being broad, big thinkers, not just teaching practical skills. “The master’s in business administration (MBA) in most business schools is remarkably abstract and academic, largely cut off from practices in the real world of business” (Labaree, 2017, page 77). Fort good or ill this seems about true to me.

He suggests that we have professional education increasing taught using liberal educational content. Add to this the rise of credentialism which means that the students don’t really care what is taught — they just want the certificate — and are therefore happy to do more fun “liberal” classes. He has a largely positive tone but it seemed possible to spin this as hardly ideal.

Overall the book is a fascinating history. I get his basic idea that the US system is messy but it is precisely the lack of a single vision that allows it to cope with changes and draw in a wide range of resources. The recommendations somewhat let the book down — and boil down to basically “all is good so leave it alone”. Although to be fair recommendations aren’t the purpose of the book and it is definitely a worthwhile read.

Read: David F. Labaree (2017) A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education, The University of Chicago Press