Posted in Educational Research, Higher Education, Scholarship

We’re Producing Academic Technicians and Justice Warriors: Sermon on Educational Research, Pt. 2

This is a followup to the “Sermon on Educational Research” that I posted last week.  It’s a reflection on two dysfunctional orientations toward scholarship that students often pick up in the course of doctoral study.

We’re Producing Academic Technicians and Justice Warriors:

A Sermon on Educational Research, Part 2

David F. Labaree

Published in International Journal of the Historiography of Education, 1-2019

Download here

            In 2012, I wrote a paper for this journal titled “A Sermon on Educational Research.”  It offered advice to doctoral students in education about how to approach their work as emergent scholars in the field.  The key bits of advice were:  be wrong; be lazy; be irrelevant.  The idea was to immunize scholars against some of the chronic syndromes in educational scholarship – trying to be right instead of interesting, trying to be diligent instead of strategic, and trying to focus on issues arising from professional utility instead of from intellectual interest.  Needless to say, the advice failed to take hold.  The engine of educational research production has continued to plow ahead in pursuit of validity, diligence, and relevance.

So here I am, giving it another try.  This time I take aim at two kinds of practices among doctoral students in education that are particularly prominent right now and also particularly problematic for the future health of the field.  Most students don’t fit in either category, but the very existence of these practices threatens to pollute the pool.  One practice is the effort to become a hardcore academic technician; the other is the effort to become a hardcore justice warrior.  Though at one level they represent opposite orientations toward research, at another level they have in common the urge to serve as social engineers intent of fixing social problems.  The antidotes to these two tendencies, I suggest, are to take a dose of humility every day and to approach educational research as a form of play.  Let’s play with ideas instead of being hell-bent on tinkering with the social machinery.

The Academic Technician

One role that education doctoral students adopt is academic technician.  In practice, this means concentrating on learning the craft of a particular domain of educational research.  Not that there’s anything wrong with craft.  Without it, we wouldn’t be a profession at all but just a bunch of amateurs.  The problem comes from learning the craft too well.  That means apprenticing yourself to an expert in your subfield and adopting all the practices and perspectives that this expert represents.

One flaw with this approach is that it treats educational research as a field whose primary problems are technical.  It’s all about immersing yourself in cutting-edge research methodologies and diligently applying these to whatever data meets their assumptions.  Often the result is scholarship that is technically expert and substantively deficient.  Your aim is to be able to defend the validity of your findings more than their significance, since at colloquia where this kind of work is presented the arguments are mostly focused on whether the methodology warrants the modest claims made by the author.

The focus on acquiring technical skills diverts students from engaging with the big issues in the field of education, which are primarily normative.  Education is an effort to form children into the kinds of adults we want them to be.  So the central issues in education revolve around the ends we want to accomplish and the values we hold dear.  The key conflicts are about purpose rather than practice.  Technical skills are not sufficient to explore these issues, and by concentrating too much on acquiring these purportedly hard skills we turn our attention away from the normative concerns that by comparison seem awfully squishy.

Another problem that arises from the effort to become academic technicians is that it turns students into terrible writers.  You populate your text with jargon and other forms of academic shorthand because you are speaking to an audience so small it could fit in a single seminar room.  You’re trying to do science, so you model your writing after the lifeless language of the journeyman scientific journal article.  This means using passive voice, abandoning the first person (“data were gathered” – who did that?), avoiding action verbs, loading the text with nominalizations (never use a verb when you can turn it into a noun), and at all costs refusing to tell an engaging story.  If you make an effort to draw the reader’s interest, it’s considered unprofessional.  In this style of writing, papers are built by the numbers.  Using the IMRaD formula, papers need to consist of Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion.  You can read them and write them in any order.  Every paper is just an exercise in filling each of these categories with new content.  It’s plug and play all the way.

The Justice Warrior

Another scholarly role that doctoral students adopt is justice warrior.  If the first role ranks means over ends, this one canonizes ends and dispenses with means altogether.  All that matters is your frequently expressed commitment to particular values of social justice.  You can’t express these values too often or too vehemently, since the mission is all important and the enemies resisting the mission are legion.  As a result, your position is perpetually atop the high horse of righteous indignation.  The primary targets of your scholarship are sexism, racism, and colonialism, with social class coming in a distant fourth.

If people seek to question your position because of a putative failure to construct a compelling argument or to validate your claims with clear evidence and rigorous methods, they are only demonstrating that they are on the wrong side.  It’s ok to dismiss any text or argument whose author might be accused of betraying a tinge of sexism, racism, or colonialism.  Everything that follows is fruit of the poisonous tree.  You can say something like, “Once I saw he was using the male pronoun, I couldn’t continue reading.”  Nothing worthwhile comes from someone you deem a bad person.  This simplifies your life as an emergent scholar, since you can ignore most of the literature.  It also means you seek out like-minded souls to serve on your committee and like-minded journals to place your papers.

This approach incorporates a distinctive stance toward intellectual life.  The academic technician restricts intellectual interest to the methods within a small subfield at the expense of engaging with interesting ideas.  But the justice warrior on principle adopts a position that is whole-heartedly anti-intellectual.  You need to shun most ideas because they bear the taint of their sinful origins.  Maintaining ideological purity is the key focus of your academic life.  The world is black and white and only sinners see shades of gray.

For justice warriors, every class, colloquium, meeting, and paper is an opportunity to signal your virtue.  This has the effect of stifling the conversation, since it’s hard for anyone to come back with a critical comment without looking sexist, racist, or colonialist.  Once you establish the high ideological ground, it’s easy to defend your position without having to draw on data, methods, or logic.  Being right brings reliable rewards.

Some Common Ground: Becoming Social Engineers

These two tendencies within the educational research community appear to be opposites, but in one way they are quite similar.  Both show a commitment for scholars in the field to become engineers whose job it is to fix social problems.  For the academic technicians, this means a focus on creating data-driven policies for school reform, where the aim is to bring school and society in line with the findings of rigorous research.  Research says do this, so let it be so.  For justice warriors, this means a focus on bringing school and society in line with your own personal sense of what is righteous.  Both say:  I know best, so get out of my way.

The problem with this, of course, is that exercises in social engineering so often go very badly, no matter how much they are validated by science or confirmed by belief.  Think communism, fascism, the inquisition, eugenics, the penitentiary, and the school.  Rationalized scientific knowledge can be a destructive tool for tinkering with the emergent, organic ecology of social life.  And moral absolutism can easily poison the soil.

A Couple Antidotes

One antidote to the dual diseases of academic technicalism and justice fundamentalism is a dose of humility.  What most social engineers have in common is a failure to consider the possibility that they might be wrong.  Maybe I don’t know enough.  Maybe my methods don’t apply in this setting.  Maybe my theories are flawed.  Maybe my values are not universal.  Maybe my beliefs are mistaken.  Maybe my morals are themselves tainted by inconsistency.  Maybe it’s not just a case of technique; maybe ends matter.  Maybe it’s not just a case of values; maybe means matter.

Adopting humility doesn’t mean that you need to be tentative in your assertions or diffident in your willingness to enter the conversation.  Often you need to overstate your point in order to get attention and push people to engage with you.  But it does mean that you need to be willing to reconsider your argument based on evidence and arguments that you encounter through with other scholars – or with your own data.  This reminds me of a colleague who used to ask faculty candidates the same question:  “Tell me about a time when your research forced you to give up an idea that you really wanted to hold on to.”  If your own research isn’t capable of changing your mind, then it seems you’re not really examining data but simply confirming belief.

Another way to counter these two baleful tendencies in the field is to approach research as a form of intellectual play.  This means playing with ideas instead of engineering improvement, instead of pursuing methodological perfection, instead of pursuing ideological perfection.  Play lets you try things out without fear of being technically or ideologically wrong.  It keeps you from taking yourself too seriously, always a risk for academics at all levels.  Play will keep you from adopting the social engineering stance that assumes you know better than they do.  This doesn’t mean abandoning your commitments to rigor and values.  Your values will continue to shape what you play with, serving to make the stories you tell with your research meaningful and worthwhile.  Your technique will continue to be needed to make the stories you tell credible.

Playing with ideas is fundamental to the ways that universities work.  Ideally, universities provide a zone of autonomy for faculty that allows them to explore the intellectual terrain, unfettered by concerns about what’s politically correct, socially useful, or potentially ridiculous.  This freedom is more than a license to be frivolous, though it’s tolerant of such behavior.  Its value comes from the way it opens up possibilities that more planful programs of research might miss.  It allows you to think the unthinkable and pursue the longshot.  Maybe most such efforts come to naught, but that’s an acceptable cost if a few fall on fertile soil and grow into insights of great significance.  Play is messy but it’s highly functional.

In closing, let me note for the record that most doctoral students in education don’t fall into either of the two categories of scholarly malpractice that I identify here.  Most are neither academic technicians nor justice warriors.  Most manage to negotiate a position that avoids either of these polar tendencies.  That’s the good news, which bodes well for the future of our field.  The bad news, however, is that this often leaves them feeling as though they have fallen between two stools.  Compared to the academic technicians they seem unprofessional, and compared to the justice warriors they seem immoral.  That’s a position that threatens their ability to function as the kind of educational scholars we need.

Posted in Educational Research, Writing

Sermon on Educational Research

This is a piece I published in 2012, drawing on my experience over the years working with doctoral students in education.  The advice, basically, is to approach your apprenticeship in educational research doing the opposite of what everyone else tells you to do.  Enjoy.

A Sermon on Educational Research

David F. Labaree

Published in 2012 in Bildungsgeschichte:

 International Journal for the Historiography of Education, 2:1, 78-87

            Why would anyone want to deliver a sermon on educational research?  After all, sermons are usually reserved for subjects of the highest importance, such as morality and faith.  But for most people, educational research as a form of professional practice doesn’t rise to that level.  It’s a marginal activity – ignored by the public, resented by educators, and used by policymakers only when it aligns with their political agendas.  But I am not giving this sermon to most people; I am directing it exclusively at that small group of stalwarts who are setting out on careers as educational researchers.  For those of you in this group, the field is not some marginal enterprise; it’s going to be your profession.

Like most sermonizers, my aim is to give you advice about how to live your life (in this case, as educational researchers) and to offer reflections on the larger meaning of this life.  Neither the advice nor the reflections are likely to be things that you will be hearing from your advisor, dean, or journal editor.  Both parts of the message go against the dominant norms in the field.  So why should you listen?  Certainly not because I have any special authority to make these claims.  I don’t.  I speak not as a role model for how to do educational research but as a survivor of 30 years in the field, who has learned the hard way, through trial and especially through error, that I was sadly misinformed about the nature of the enterprise.  So this is not a success story but a cautionary tale.  These are things I wish someone had told me early in my career, but having this knowledge probably wouldn’t have made things any easier.  For one thing, I probably wouldn’t have believed it, and (I assume) neither will you.  For another, knowing what is going on in your domain of professional practice doesn’t reduce its difficulties; such knowledge only helps you rationalize why you strayed from the path that the traditional principles of the profession were pressing you to follow.

Every sermon needs a text, and here is mine.  Emerging scholars in the field of education should keep these counter-principles of professional practice in mind:  Be wrong; be lazy; be irrelevant; and think of your work as an effort to balance the values of truth, justice, and beauty.  Let me explain.

Be Wrong

Trying to be right can get scholars in trouble.  Too often it leads them to work so hard to avoid being wrong that they end up being boring.  The truth is that if you are not speaking at the very edge of your data then you are probably not saying anything interesting.  This is the problem with most dissertations, which concentrate analytical attention of the elements of the story that have rock-solid grounding in the evidence and therefore push all the interesting issues to the margins.

The thing to keep in mind here is that for scholars the function of writing is to work out complex intellectual problems that you can’t resolve in your head.  When you start writing a paper, you have some ideas about where you think the analysis will go and an outline that props up these ideas.  But you won’t know if this plan is viable until you work through the argument step-by-step in writing.  Only this process allows you to reflect on each element of the argument, find out how these elements fit together, and discover where they all lead.  Often as not, you find yourself straying from the outline, as your original plans don’t work out and as the details of the analysis on paper lead you gradually in a different direction.  This feels like you failed somehow, because your original plan was wrong; but that is just the way real writing works.  You are not writing out an idea that is already fully formed; that’s not writing, it’s transcribing.  Instead, real scholars develop their ideas as they write.  It is easy to have a great idea in your head about the nature of schools or the history of education, but having such an idea and even telling it to someone over lunch is not doing scholarship.  It’s like singing in the shower.  It may sound good, but the real test comes when you go into the studio, record your voice, and then listen to it on replay.  That’s what writing does for scholars.  It’s our reality check.  Talking a good game doesn’t matter; working out an idea on paper is the only thing that counts for us.

What this means is that scholars learn from their own writing.  It’s only when they get to the end that they finally figure out what their point is, which then means they need to redraft the entire paper in order to make that point clear.  Keep in mind that if you don’t learn from writing the paper then no one is going to learn from reading it.  The implications of this, however, are rather scary.  You never know when you start a paper (or a dissertation, or a book) whether it is really going to work.  Writing is a high-wire act with no safety net, where the possibilities for disaster loom at every step in the process, arising from every effort to define your point, support it, and connect it to the next point.  It is risky business; and if you try to avoid the risk and move toward hard ground, you give up on the possibility of doing something interesting.  You regress to the mean of the field and find yourself repeating what we already know.  Why would you want to be safely boring, whether for a whole career or for a single paper?  Instead you should reconcile yourself to being wrong over and over, learning from your mistakes, and moving ahead in an effort to develop ideas that are worth considering.

One last benefit that derives from embracing the risk of wrongness is that it frees you from one of the worst pathologies of the earnest scholar:  the unwillingness to declare a project finished.  Howard Becker (2007) calls this the problem of never getting the paper out the door.  If you are obsessed with being right, you are never finished:  there is always another study to do, another book to read, another theory to explore.  But if your aim is not to be right but to be interesting, then it’s ok to let go when the paper is sufficiently engaging to be a contribution to the literature.  Remember, your job is not to nail down the subject for all time.  There is a name for people who pursue this goal:  unpublished scholar.  Instead, your aim is to inject into the scholarly conversation an idea, an example, a body of evidence, a perspective that is not already out there and that provides an interesting new way to see an old problem.  You want your contribution to be sufficiently logical, grounded in literature, and/or validated by data to be credible, so readers can’t easily dismiss it.  But it doesn’t need to be beyond reproach.  Let others develop alternative arguments and introduce alternative data.  Let them point out where you are wrong.  That’s ok.  Being wrong in this way advances the conversation in a field and provides fresh ways of understanding the field’s issues.  As scholars, that, after all, is what we’re trying to do.

Be Lazy

If trying to be right is a problem for scholars, so is trying to be diligent.  In education and other research domains, we put too much value on hard work.  If you plan to study a subject, we  are told, you need to lay out a detailed plan that requires you to read every article and book that is remotely related to the subject and then gather and analyze a mountain of data on it.  If you’re doing quantitative work, you need to code all available information, use this to develop a massive database, and then explore every nook and cranny of this database using the full range of  available statistical tools.  If you’re doing qualitative work, you need to sift through every dusty box of records in the archives, interview every possible subject several times over, transcribe every word of these interviews, and develop a complex system for coding and commenting on every component of the data.

Sound familiar?  My advice is:  Don’t do it.  The point of carrying out research is not to master every piece of trivial data on a subject and treasure every word of the related scholarly literature.  Instead, the point is to find something in the data and in the literature that might be enlightening – to an academic or practitioner or policymaker or citizen.  And in pursuing this goal, it is helpful to have a broad streak of laziness.  The best strategy is not to plow down the middle of all the data but to look for a shortcut to the good stuff.  Look for the workaround rather than the plodding path; keep focused on the interesting material and don’t get lost in the minutiae; focus on telling an interesting story, drawing on the evidence for support rather than relying on the data to be the story.

The sad fact is that data don’t tell us what they mean, so we have to dig it out of them.  Put another way, data are noise, and our job as scholars is to find the music.  You can’t do this by wallowing in your data for an extended period of time.  That is a waste of effort.  Instead, you need to use your knowledge and skill – reinforced by that streak of laziness – to figure out how to move through the cacophony of data listening for a melody.  Use strategy to do this rather than bull effort.  It makes no more sense for a researcher to plow into the middle of his data, hoping for the best, than it does for a general to order a frontal assault on the enemy’s strongest position.  Better to probe for a weak spot, find a back door, feint left and go right.  There is no honor in losing half your army when you can win a battle by being smart.  You don’t want to be a plodding scholar but a smart one, using your resources sparingly and with telling effect, thinking your way around a research problem rather than plunging into the fray with guns blazing.

If educational researchers show too much dedication to diligence, they also show too much dedication to complexity.  Overvaluing complexity has a lot in common with overvaluing validity.  If you’re obsessively worried about being right, you feel compelled to keep piling up data and references to support your argument, and as a result the story you are telling becomes increasingly complex to the stage when it reaches a state of unintelligibility.  At this point you are left unable to tell a clear and coherent story about your research.  Instead, you find yourself saying that “the story is really complicated.”  There is too much going on in your data, which means it is hard for you to say anything about your research without so qualifying it with exceptions and so undercutting it with alternative interpretations that it is impossible for the reader to come away from it with any new insights at all.  It becomes a series of statements on the order of “On the one hand there’s this, but on the other hand there’s that.”  I’m arguing that you should vow to be a one-handed scholar.  Let someone else give the other side of the story.

At heart, research is a stimulus for thought.  Your job as a scholar is to tell your own story in your own way in order to insert a stimulating idea into the scholarly conversation.  This means you need to look for ways to simplify the story you are telling.  This story – which is another word for a theory or an interpretation – is an analytical slice through a complex array of issues and data.  To make such a slice you don’t want a comprehensive analytical approach that is shaped like a beach ball.  Instead you want analytical tools that are as thin and sharp as a razor.  This will allow you to show something new and interesting in the domain you are studying.  It will allow you tell a story that is focused and lean, which leaves out almost everything in your data except the few things that are really worth considering.


Be Irrelevant


A third problem with the canonical way of doing educational research is that we’re supposed to be striving for relevance.  This is an issue in most domains of scholarship, but it is particularly strong in a professional field like education.  We have been assigned responsibility for an institutional arena that is enormous in size and scope, ruinously expensive to fund, and highly consequential for both the individuals who inhabit it and the society that depends on it.  Under these conditions, we educational scholars find ourselves under a great deal of pressure to make ourselves useful.  We don’t want to be part of the problem but part of the solution.  We want to make schools better, improve the lives of students and teachers, and promote a more equitable and efficient society through education.

My advice is to resist this pressure and instead pursue a course of scholarly irrelevance.  Why?  Because the pursuit of relevance leads, ironically, to irrelevance.  Let me borrow from the analysis of the subject by Mie Augier and James March (2007) to explain why.

As they show, one problem with the pursuit of relevance is that it promote myopia.  It encourages you to examine a problem that arises from the arena of education with the aim of providing an analysis that might be helpful in fixing this problem.  This puts the emphasis on understanding the problem in a particular time and place rather than considering it in a broader context that bridges across time and space.  In brief, it promotes short-sightedness.  It asks us to pull the educational problem in close in order to understand it, but in the process we are losing sight of the broader social context within which the problem is embedded and the broader historical context within which it developed.  It encourages you to look at the case as a unique problem requiring a tailored fix, which keeps you from stepping back to see what it is a case of.  Even if you do come up with a good analysis and a workable fix, it is likely to be irrelevant by the time the study comes out.  In the interim the situation in the particular site of study has changed, so the analysis no longer applies; and it is unlikely to be applicable to other settings, since you developed it in a very context-specific manner.  Conversely, the most apparently irrelevant theoretical exercise may suddenly become enormously useful because it turns out to apply across time and space.  So in the long run it is more useful to focus on developing general understandings of education than to focus on developing solutions to current problems.

A second difficulty with the pursuit of relevance is that relevance is inherently ambiguous.  We want our research to be useful, but useful for whom?  It depends on which educational actor you are talking about – teacher, student, administrator, parent, policymaker, employer.  What is useful for one person may be irrelevant or even harmful to another.  For example, research developing value-added tests to measure teacher effectiveness may be quite useful for policy makers and administrators, but may be seen as useless or anti-educational by teachers, students, and parents.  In addition, the usefulness of research depends on which goal for schooling you are using as the criterion.  Radically different goals for school lead to radically different definitions of relevance and usefulness.  Depending on our position and perspective, we may want education to create productive workers, or raise test scores, or promote individual opportunity, or preserve individual advantage, or maintain good citizenship, or spur intellectual growth, or any number of other socially and individually salient ends.  What is useful for one of these purposes may be useless or dysfunctional for other purposes.  And since the range of purposes for education is so wide, you are likely to produce more of the latter than of the former.


Scholarship as an Effort to Balance the Values of Truth, Justice, and Beauty[1]


So far this sermon has focused on giving advice about what not to do in pursuing your chosen careers as educational researchers.  But now I want to turn in a different direction in order to offer some reflections about what gives the work of doing educational research its meaning.  Before you commit yourself to this career, you need to ask yourself, “Why do I want to do educational research?”  And you want to keep asking yourself that question as you launch every new scholarly project.  Why do I want to do this?  What makes the work worthwhile?  What good can come from having me write this paper and from having others read it?  Is this a reasonable way for you to live your life?  If so, what valued ends does this form of professional practice serve?

Of course, one explanation for doing research is that it is your job.  Publishing research papers is how you win a job as a university professor, and continuing to publish is how you gain promotion, tenure, and performance pay.  The number of papers we publish in high-ranked journals is the key measure of our productivity as scholars and thus of how good we are at our jobs.  If you don’t publish, you perish; if you do publish, and do so in the right places, your career will win for you the extrinsic rewards of pay, position, and prestige.  This is certainly a major motivation for all of us in the business of educational research.  As a practical matter, it would be crazy for any emerging scholar to ignore the fact that scholarly life is much more pleasant if you can write your way into the upper levels of the academic hierarchy.

These extrinsic motives for doing scholarship are a necessary part of educational research as a form of work, but they are not sufficient to justify it as a way of life.  Without a larger meaning and purpose, educational research constitutes just another form of alienated labor.  In the classic Marxist understanding of alienation, workers sell their labor to an employer who then controls their time and owns what they produce during that time.  But the form of alienation experienced by academic careerists is far worse.  Assembly line workers are renting their hands, but their minds are free – free to write poetry, dream of a better life, or plot a union action against the boss.  Alienated scholars are renting their minds.  They are harnessing their consciousness to the meaningless tasks of doing research and publishing papers – as defined not by the researchers themselves but by the norms of their field, the productivity standards of their institution, and the demands of their editors – all simply in order to earn a pay check.  If you are thinking this way about a career in educational research, I urge you to do yourself a favor and walk away now while your mind is still your own.  Better to drive a cab with a free mind than to sit at a computer cranking out papers like so many widgets.

If you are going to pursue a scholarly career, therefore, you need to figure out what makes such a pursuit intrinsically worthy.  You need to decide what satisfactions you can derive from it and what meaningful ends it serves for you and for others.  When I ask doctoral students in education why they want to become educational researchers, they usually come up with answers that fall into two broad categories.  One goal they see for their work is truth; a second is justice; to these I add a third, beauty.  I want to argue that a scholarly life is most rewarding and most meaningful when you seek to balance all three of these values in the course of your work.  Concentrating on only one or two can bring negative consequences.  Instead, I call on you to think broadly about your scholarly work, allowing yourself the full range of possible satisfactions and sources of meaning that are inherent in this work and holding yourself to high standards in all three of these domains.


First, there is truth.  For the most part educational researchers tend to define themselves as social scientists.  A key part of their mission, therefore, is to develop a rigorously scientific understanding of education and its role in society.  This means they learn research methodologies that will allow them to develop valid claims about schooling.  They design and carry out studies that will sort truth from fiction, showing how things really work rather than how we might hope they work.  They expose half-truths, blow up misconceptions, and counter false claims.  Their dedication is to pursue the truth whatever the consequences for preexisting beliefs and vested interests.

The pursuit of truth in educational research is not easy, however.  A number of perils threaten to derail this mission.  One comes from politics, another from ideology.  The political threat is that it is always more convenient to come up with research results that are in line with major policy objectives.  Policy necessarily drives a lot of educational research, since the governments and foundations that fund most research do so in order to inform policy decisions and solve educational problems.  Policymakers want clarity about what to do.  But the most rigorous research tends to complicate the policy picture, by showing how the wide array of variables and contingencies that shape the process of schooling make it difficult to come to clear-cut answers about the relationship between policy initiatives and educational outcomes.  In order to get funding, it is tempting for researchers to make promises about the relevance and clarity of their research that they cannot realistically keep.  And in order to maintain a stream of funding, it is tempting to frame research results in a way that fits policy demands better than it fits the data.  A common way we do this is by reifying the measures used in our studies (test scores, graduation rates, lifetime earnings), claiming that these limited and unreliable measures effectively represent the complex outcomes of education.  In short, educational researchers have a strong incentive to lie, or at least to shade the truth.

Another threat to truth telling comes from ideology.  Researchers have their own sense of what is right and wrong in the educational system and their own ideals about what role school should play in society.  These personal commitments can make it easy for us to come up with research findings that match our ideals.  Too often we find what we are looking for instead of finding what is really going on.  We care about social justice and find that schooling reinforces injustices of race, class, and gender.  We care about teachers and find that policies undercut teacher professionalism.  We care about progressive pedagogy and find that these ways of teaching are the most effective in the classroom.  In the name of high ideals we undermine the validity of our own research, since we are reluctant to follow the line of argument in our own studies to conclusions that will make us uncomfortable.  This is a natural tendency but it is one you need to resist vigorously, since the end result is abandon the role of truth teller for that of spin doctor.


To approach educational research as the pursuit of truth helps give meaning to this work, but unless linked to the pursuit of justice this work lacks heart.  After all, education is the most normative of human endeavors, by which we seek to instill the young with the capacities and dispositions we value.  We use schools as a way to solve social problems, realize social goals, and build a just society.  For educational researchers, seeking truth is not sufficient since it focuses on the technical issues of schooling – how it works, what its consequences are, which approaches are more effective – without ever dealing with the normative question of what education should try to accomplish.  Yes, we need to understand the educational machinery and free ourselves from misconceptions and false hopes; but we also need to address the broader questions of purpose and meaning that we invest in the educational enterprise.  As Max Weber (1918/1958) explained in “Science as a Vocation,” scientific research can improve our understanding of the world around us but it can’t tell us how to live a good life.  So researchers need to supplement their analytical skills with their philosophical commitments.  They need to keep asking themselves:  What kind of society do we need and how can schooling help us realize such a society?  What role can my research play in making a better system of school and society, or at least not making one that is worse?

To fail to ask such questions means to segregate your role as a social scientist from your role as a human being, and no good can come from that.  The difficulty, however, is in trying to establish the right balance between the two.  If you give primacy to truth over justice, you run the danger of unwittingly reinforcing a structure of schooling that is unfair.  For example, you may find yourself working with great skill and diligence to produce more effective pedagogies, curricula, teacher training programs, testing systems, and organizational structures that help produce outcomes you find abhorrent.  Efficient means are a good thing only if they lead to ends that are morally desirable.  So researchers need to be on guard that they not implicated in making schooling more harmful for teachers, students, and society at large.  And they should pick subjects of study that seem likely to help make schools better in the normative as well as the technical sense.

On the other hand, if you give primacy to justice over truth, you can find yourself so committed to a social mission that you forget about your responsibility to follow the analysis wherever it leads.  I talked about this in the previous section, showing how our political and ideological commitments can blind us to disconfirming evidence and predispose us to find what he are hoping for.  Educational research, like any other human endeavor, is prone to confirmation bias.  So we need to fortify the validity of our findings with rigorous methods and solid evidence as a safeguard against out natural tendency to adopt the conclusion that best matches our preferences.

This is a particularly important concern for educational researchers because of our deep-seated desire to make schools better.  If our commitment to truth leaves us prone to the sin of diligence, then our commitment to justice leaves us vulnerable to the sin of earnestness.  The discourse that infuses meetings of educational researchers often has less in common with science than religion.  We seem to spend more time attesting to our faith than testing that faith against the evidence.  We chant mantras without examining their validity:  All children can learn; school is the answer; constructivism is the answer; teachers are the answer.

In light of these concerns, I urge you, as emerging scholars in the field, to harbor a healthy skepticism about the articles of faith in the educator creed.  Push back against the Pollyanna tendency keep finding light at the end of the tunnel.  Sometimes there is no end in sight and someone needs to say so.  It is important work for scholars to uncover problematic processes in education and explain where they came from and how they work.  In pursuing this work, you would do well to nurse a fondness for irony, since education is a field that is filled with it.  Efforts to expand access to education for some students frequently lead to increased advantage for others.  Reforms that deploy curriculum standards and testing targets to improve teaching and learning frequently end up undermining the quality of both.  A century-long effort to make schooling more progressive has had a huge impact on teacher talk and very little on teacher practice.  In short, as James March (1975) pointed out in “Education and the Pursuit of Optimism,” educators (and educational researchers) would do well to combine their optimism about the role of education in promoting a better world with a recognition that there is little hope this end is going to be realized any time soon.


And then there is beauty.  What, you may well ask, does that have to do with educational research?  Truth and justice have a certain face validity as goals for scholarship in our field, but in comparison beauty seems would seem to be a side issue – nice if you can work it in, but ultimately unnecessary and even possibly a distraction from the main missions for the profession.  In addition, when you look around at the published work in the field, you can find evidence of scholars pursuing the first two missions but little for the third.  Much of this work is tone-deaf, lifeless, and esthetically repellent.  Reading your way through academic literature in education is only rarely a pleasure to the esthetic senses.  Often this task is only tolerable if you first numb those senses with a little scotch.

So let’s go back to where I began, asking yourself why you might want to get up in the morning and spend the day doing educational research.  Why good can come from this kind of pursuit?  What makes it worthy and meaningful?  Digging out the truth about schools can help make the world a little less dishonest; supporting a more just social role for schools can help make the world a little less unfair; and promoting beauty in schooling can help make the world a little less ugly.  Research can and should be simultaneously an effort to understand, improve, and beautify.  Each of these pursuits brings its own meanings and pleasures to the practitioners.  For the third, the satisfactions come from your ability to use your research to make schooling more beautiful for others and also your willingness to make the process of doing research an exercise in esthetic expression for yourself.

In many ways, the effort to make schools more beautiful is an extension of the justice goal.  For example, why should schools for the disadvantaged be places that focus on drilling students in basic skills for the purpose of improving test scores while schools for the advantaged allow a much richer experience of broad cultural learning and personal expression?  But the school effects extend beyond the issue of fairness.  For researchers it means making sure that your work, in the name of promoting the effectiveness or social mission of education, is not inadvertently contributing to the process of squeezing most of the esthetic pleasures from the school experience.  Teachers may get higher evaluations and students may get more right answers following our research-based guidelines for educational practice, but both may find that the process of schooling has thus become an academic exercise in sensory deprivation and personal repression.  Too often researchers help turn student learning into a meaningless job and help turn the performance art of teaching into a utilitarian trade.

In addition to using our research to make the lives of teachers and students more lovely, we also need to do the same for our own lives as researchers.  To return to the earlier theme of researcher alienation, we not only want to avoid subordinating our minds to someone else’s project but also to avoid subordinating our esthetic gratifications to the mission of serving truth and justice.  These other missions are important, but so is the mission to use our scholarship as a way to sculpt our own works of art.  Academic writing can be and should be a medium for personal expression and artistic creation.  In our work we should be exploring the elegance of schooling as a cultural ideal and as a social construct, and we should be telling rich stories about school and society as a window on the human condition.

In the last analysis, the esthetic component of being an educational researcher comes down to writing.  To engage this part of the role we need to approach writing not just as a way to tell truth and promote justice but also as a way to construct art.  This need not be high art, though having such aspirations is a good thing.  There is no need to freeze yourself into wordlessness for fear of not being able to write with poetic flair.  Instead, I am talking about remaining conscious of the esthetic form of your writing as well as its academic content.  Be observant of style as you read both inside the academic literature and more broadly in other genres.  Notice how some authors write sentences that sound good, draw the reader into the account with clarity and grace, nail a point and move on.  Look for the rhythms that are pleasing and those that are not; find the music in the way words come together and in the way they surge to a crescendo and then subside gracefully into silence.  Try applying these insights to your own writing, training yourself to edit your work for sound and rhythm as well as for clarity and validity.  Try reading a passage out loud; if it doesn’t sound right, then you need to change something.  Keep in mind that being an educational researcher is being a writer, and in this role you are not just writing journal articles but you are contributing to literature in the fullest sense of the word.  You want to ensure that this contribution leaves the world a little bit lovelier.

As emerging scholars in the field of educational research, I urge you to follow these lessons.  Be wrong, be lazy, be irrelevant; and work to balance your work in the pursuit of truth, beauty, and justice.  Amen.


Augier, Mie & March, James G.  (2007).  The pursuit of relevance in management education. California Management Review, 49:3 (Spring), 129-146.

Becker, Howard S. (2007). Writing for social scientists: How to start and finish your thesis, book, or article (2nd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

March, James G. (1975). Education and the pursuit of optimism. Texas Tech Journal of Education, 2:1, 5-17.

Weber, Max. (1919/1958). Science as a vocation. In H. H. Gerth & C. Wright Mills, From Max Weber (pp. 129-156). New York: Oxford University Press.



[1] I am borrowing the trio of truth, beauty, and justice – and much more in this discussion – from my colleague Jim March, who uses this trio as the default topic of conversation in his Monday Munch seminars at Stanford.  His work shows that is it possible to balance these three values in scholarship and to perform each at the highest level.

Posted in Educational Research

The Lure of Statistics for Educational Researchers

This is a paper I published Educational Theory back in 2011 about the factors shaping the rise of quantification in education research.  It seems relevant to a lot of  issues in the field educational policy. 


The Lure of Statistics for Educational Researchers


David F. Labaree

Published 2011 in Educational Theory, 61:6

Philosophy is written in this grand book, the universe, which stands continually open to our gaze, but the book cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and read the letters in which it is composed.  It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these, one wanders about in a dark labyrinth.[1]


During the course of the twentieth century, educational research yielded to the lure of Galileo’s vision of a universe that could be measured in numbers.[2]  This was especially true in the United States, where quantification had long enjoyed a prominent place in public policy and professional discourse.  But the process of reframing reality in countable terms began eight centuries earlier in Western Europe, where it transformed everything from navigation to painting, then arrived fully formed on the shores of the New World, where it shaped the late-blooming field of scholarship in education.  Like converts everywhere, the new American quantifiers in education became more Catholic than the pope, quickly developing a zeal for measurement that outdid the astronomers and mathematicians that preceded them.  The consequences for both education and educational research have been deep and devastating.

In this paper I explore the historical and sociological elements that have made educational researchers dependent on statistics – as a mechanism to shore up their credibility, enhance their scholarly standing, and increase their influence in the realm of educational policy.  I begin by tracing the roots of the urge to quantify within the mentality of measurement that arose in medieval Europe, and then explore the factors that have pressured disciplines and professions over the years to incorporate the language of mathematics into their discourse.  In particular, this pattern has been prominent for domains of knowledge and professional endeavor whose prestige is modest, whose credibility is questionable, whose professional boundaries are weak, and whose knowledge orientation is applied.  I show that educational research as a domain – with its focus on a radically soft and thoroughly applied form of knowledge and with its low academic standing – fits these criteria to a tee.   Then I examine two kinds of problems that derive from educational researchers’ seduction by the quantitative turn.  One is that this approach to educational questions deflects attention away from many of the most important issues in the field, which are not easily reduced to standardized quanta.  Another is that by adopting this rationalized, quantified, abstracted, statist, and reductionist vision of education, education policymakers risk imposing reforms that will destroy the local practical knowledge that makes the ecology of the individual classroom function effectively.  Quantification, I suggest, may be useful for the professional interests of educational researchers but it can be devastating in its consequences for school and society.

The Roots of Quantification in Educational Research

Alfred Crosby locates the roots of quantification in Western Europe in the thirteenth century.[3]  What it gradually displaced was a worldview without standardized modes of measurement, which he labels the “venerable model.”  From the perspective of this model, the world was heterogeneous, where differences were qualitative rather than quantitative and thus reality could not be reduced to common units of measurement.  Fire rose and rocks fell because that was their nature, with fire returning to the sphere of fire and rocks to the sphere of earth in a four-sphere universe where air and water separated them from each other.  Measuring the distance between spheres was as nonsensical as measuring the distance between God and man.  Time and space also had a qualitative character.  Numbers were difficult to work with, since they were recorded using the first letter of the Latin word for each quantity, which meant that quantities were words and formulas were sentences.

Crosby says that quantification arose in Europe because of efforts by ordinary men to solve practical problems.  Factors like growing trade, increased travel, and an emerging cash economy urged the process forward.  As time started to become money, merchants called for reliable measures of distance, time, and accounts, which pushed sailors to develop new measures of navigation, mechanics to develop clocks, and merchants to develop double-entry bookkeeping.  They needed to keep accurate accounts, and they needed figures that could be easily manipulated, so Arabic numbers gradually made headway.  But at the heart of this process, according to Crosby, was a fundamental shift in mentality toward thinking of the world in quanta.  The quick spread of factors like cash transactions and church-tower clocks began to educate the populace in a new quantitative world in which things could be measured in fixed units.

Theodore Porter picks up the story in the 19th century, exploring how professions became quantifiers.[4]  The move toward quantification, he shows, was not the preferred option for most professionals.  Left to their own devices, professional groups over the years have generally chosen to establish their authority through consensus within the professional community itself.  But this approach only works if outsiders are willing to cede a particular area of expertise to the profession and rely on the soundness of its judgment.  He argues that what drove the professions to adopt quantification was a growing set of challenges to their professional authority.  Quantification allows a professional community to make arguments that carry weight and establish validity beyond a particular time, place, and community of authorship.[5]

Democracies in particular are suspicious of claims of elite authority, unwilling to bow to such claims as a matter of professional judgment without an apparently objective body of evidence that establishes their independent credibility.  The United States embraced numbers early in its history, for political and moral reasons as well as concerns about elite authority.  The decennial census was a central mechanism for establishing the legitimacy of representative government, and in the early 19th century counting became a means for assessing the state of public morality.  By the 1830s, the U.S. experienced an explosion of the quantification of public data, with the proliferation of statistics societies and quantitative reports.[6]

For our understanding of the eventual conversion of educational research to the credo of measurement, however, Porter’s most salient insight is that the adoption of quantification by a profession is a function of its weakness.[7]  If a profession has sufficiently strong internal coherence and high social status, it will assert its right to make pronouncements within its domain of expertise on its own authority.  To resort to supporting one’s claims with numbers is to cede final authority to others.  Only those professions that are lacking in inner strength and outer esteem must stoop to quantify.  In particular, Porter notes that the professions and academic disciplines that are most prone to deploying numbers in support of their claims are those whose domain of knowledge is the most applied.  Compared with a domain of pure knowledge, where the boundaries between its zone of expertise and the practical world are sharply defined, applied fields find themselves operating in a terrain that is thoroughly mingled with practical pursuits and thus difficult to defend as an exclusive territory.[8]  Here professionals find themselves subject to the greatest external pressures and the strongest need to demonstrate the credibility of the claims through quantitative means.  Such is the terrain of educational research.

American educational researchers in the early 20th century took the plunge into quantification.  This was the era of Edward L. Thorndike and Lewis Terman; of the proliferation of intelligence tests and other standardized assessments in schools; and of the development of scientific curriculum, which built on testing to track students into suitable studiesIt was the period chronicled by Stephen Jay Gould in The Mismeasure of Man and by Nicholas Lemann in The Big Test.[9]  I argue that  educational research took the quantitative turn so early and so deeply of its position as a domain of knowledge that is both very soft and very applied.  As a result of this situation, educational researchers have been hard pressed to accumulate knowledge, defend it from outsiders, develop a coherent account of the field, build on previous work, and convince policymakers to take their findings seriously.  Quantification brought the hope of shoring up professional authority.[10]

The difference between hard and soft fields of study is familiarly understood in terms of distinctions like quantitative and qualitative, objective and subjective, and definitive and interpretive approaches.  Of course, the hard-soft distinction is difficult to establish philosophically, but one thing we do know for sure is that the so-called hard sciences have an easier job of establishing their claims of validity than their soft knowledge colleagues.  In this polarity, the knowledge that educational researchers develop is perhaps the softest of the soft fields, which prevents them from being able to make strong claims about their findings much less to accumulate those claims.  Like other social science domains, they have to deal with willful actors operating within extraordinarily complex social settings.  But in addition, educational researchers are stuck trying to understand matters like teaching and learning within an organizational structure that is both loosely coupled and deeply nested, which makes it very hard to generalize across contexts.

The difference between pure and applied fields of study is generally understood in terms of distinctions like theoretical and practical, intellectually oriented and application oriented.  Of course, every pure discipline has claims to usefulness and every applied field has aspirations to theory.  But the key difference in practice is that pure disciplines are more in control of their intellectual work and less dependent on context, whereas  applied fields are stuck with the task of pursuing whatever their knowledge domain demands.  For educational researchers this means tackling the problems that arise from the professional problems of schooling the populace.  Instead of exploring issues for which their theories might be effective, they have to plunge into problems for which their theories and methods are inadequate.  Unlike researchers in pure domains, educational scholars have to do what is needed rather than what they are good at.

The relentlessly soft and applied character of the knowledge domain that educational researchers occupy helps explain the lowly status of the field within the university; and it also helps us understand why scholars in other academic fields, educational practitioners, and educational policymakers all feel free to offer their own opinions about education without bowing to the authority of its anointed experts.  This situation also helps us understand why educational researchers have been so eager to embrace the authority of statistics in their effort to be heard and taken seriously in the realms of university, practice, and policy.  If numbers are the resort of the weaker professions, as Porter argues, then educational research has the very strongest of incentives to adopt quantitative methods.  So the field has done what it can to cloak itself in the organizational and methodological robes of the hard-pure disciplines.

Educational researchers have come to the altar of quantification out of weakness, in the hope that their declarations of faith in the power of numbers will grant them newfound respect, gain them the trust of practitioners and policymakers, and enable them to exert due influence in the educational domain.  But this 20th century conversion has not come without cost.  I focus on two major problems that have emerged from the shift to numbers in education.

One Problem with Quantifying Educational Research:

Missing the Point

            The first problem with the quantitative turn in educational research is that it provides researchers with a strong incentive to focus on what they can measure statistically rather than on what is important.  It is a case of what Abraham Kaplan called the Drunkard’s Search, in which a drunk is looking for lost car keys – not in the dark where he lost them but under the streetlight where he can see better.[11]  It allows researchers to be methodologically sophisticated at exploring educational issues that do not matter.  Theodore Porter argues that this problem has been particularly pronounced in the United States, where the public policy process unduly demands, and is distorted by, quantitative “methods claiming objectivity,” which “often measure the wrong thing.”  He goes on to explain:

As an abstract proposition, rigorous standards promote public responsibility and may very well contribute to accountability, even to democracy.  But if the real goals of public action must be set aside so that officials can be judged against standards that miss the point, something important has been lost.  The drive to eliminate trust and judgment from the public domain will never completely succeed.  Possibly it is worse than futile.[12]

As an educational researcher, I have had my own experience with the problem of measuring the wrong thing.  This case can serve as a cautionary tale.  My first book, which emerged from my doctoral dissertation, was grounded in data with a strong quantitative component.  The numbers I constructed in the data-gathering and analysis phase of the study enabled me to answer one question rather definitively.  But it took a very long time to develop these quanta, which was particularly galling since it turned out that the most interesting questions in the study were elsewhere, emerging from the qualitative data.

The book, The Making of an American High School, was a study of the first public high school in Philadelphia, from its opening in 1838 to its reconfiguration in 1939.[13]  Funded as part of a large grant from the National Institute of Education (NIE) to my advisor, Michael Katz, this study called in part for coding data from a sample students attending the school over an 80-year period and then linking these students to their family’s records in the federal census manuscripts, where individuals could be found by name and address.  A key reason that NIE was willing to fund this project in 1979 (at $500,000, it was the largest historical grant they had ever made) was the prime place in the grant proposal given to a rigorous quantitative analysis of the relationship between school and work in the city during this period.  For the study I selected a sample of Central High School students in every federal census year from 1840 to 1920, a total of 1,948 students.  I supervised a crew of 10 research assistants in the tedious task of coding data from school records for these students and then the enormously complex task of locating these students in census manuscripts and city directories for that year and coding that information as well.  In the next step, I punched all of the information on IBM cards (those were the days), worked with the data using several statistical packages (especially SPSS and SAS), created a variety of variables, tested them, and finally was able start data analysis.  I spent a total of four years working on my dissertation, from initial data gathering to the final manuscript, and fully half of that time I devoted to coding and analyzing my quantitative student data.

These quantitative data proved most useful for examining one issue about high school education in the period, the factors that shaped student attainment.  What kind of influence did factors like social class, country of origin, birth order, prior school, and academic grades have on the ability of Central High school students to persist at the school and even graduate?  To analyze this issue, I used multiple classification analysis,  a form of multiple regression using dummy variables that allows the research to consider the impact of non-interval data such as social class as well as interval data such as grade point average.  The dependent variable in the key equations was the chance of graduation (1 = yes, 0 = no) and the independent variables were major factors that might help explain this outcome.  The primary finding was that social class had no significant impact on graduation; the graduation rates were comparable for students across the class scale.  The only factor that significantly influenced graduation, in fact, was student grades.

This was not an uninteresting finding.  It was certainly counterintuitive that class would not be a factor in 19th century educational success, since it proved to be a very important factor in 20th century schooling.  And I could not have found this out without turning my data into quanta and analyzing them statistically.  So in my dissertation I proudly displayed these quantitative data spread across no fewer than 49 tables.[14]  As I worked for the next several years to write a book based on the dissertation, I sought to include as much of the number crunching information as I could.  This was in line with an old Hollywood adage:  If you spent a lot of money on a film, you need to show it on the screen.  As a result, I crammed as many tables as I could in the book manuscript and then asked my colleague, David Cohen, to read it for me.  His comments were generous and helpful to me in framing the book, but it was his opening line that knocked me back.  “All of these tables and the analysis that goes with them,” he said, “seem to add up to a very long footnote in support of the statement:  Central High School had meritocratic attainment.”

So I had spent two years of my life on a footnote.  That would not have been such a bad thing if the point being footnoted was the central point of the book.  But it was not.  It turned out that the most interesting issues that emerged from the book were elsewhere, having nothing to do with the quantitative data I had so laboriously constructed and so dutifully analyzed.  The core insight that emerged from the Central case was not about meritocracy but about the way the American high school in the late 19th and early 20th centuries emerged as both object and subject in the larger struggle between the liberal and the democratic for primacy in the American liberal democracy.  Established in order to express republican values and promote civic virtue, the high school quickly developed a second role as a mechanism for establishing social advantage for educational consumers seeking an edge in the competition for position.  At the same time that the common school system was established in the 1830s, allowing everyone in the community to gain public education under the same roof, the high school was established as a way provide distinction for a fortunate few.  And when the common schools filled up in the late 19th century and demand for access to high school became politically irresistible, the school system opened up high school enrollment but at the same time introduced curriculum tracking.  This meant that access for the many did not dilute advantages for the few, who ended up in the upper track of the high school where they were on a trajectory for the exclusive realm of the university.  So the real Central High School story is about the way schools managed both to allow open access and to preserve exclusive advantage in the same institution.  In this way schools were not just responding to social pressures but also acting to shape a new liberal democratic society.

The point of this story for the purposes of the paper is that statistical work can lure educational researchers away from the issues that matter.  In many ways, statistical analysis is compellingly attractive to us as researchers in education.  It is a magnet for grant money, since policymakers are eager for the kind of apparently objective data that they think they can trust, especially when these data are coming from a low-status and professionally suspect field such as education.  It therefore increases our ability to be players in the game of educational policy, which is critically important in a professional field like ours.  At the same time it enhances our standing at our home institutions and in the broader educational research community, by providing us with the research assistants, doctoral advisees, travel budgets, and prospects for publication that serve as markers of academic status.  It provides us with a set of arcane skills in cutting edge methodologies, which are a major point of professional pride.  And once we have invested a lot of time and energy in developing these skills, we want to put them to good use in future projects.  The path of least resistance is to continue in the quantitative vein, looking around for new issues you can address with these methods.  When you are holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Another Problem with Quantifying Educational Research:

Forcing a Rectangular Grid onto a Spherical World

            So quantification is an almost irresistible fact of life in modern professional and disciplinary work.  This is especially true in a democracy, and even more so in a democracy like the U.S., where both professional and governmental authority are suspect.  The bias toward the quantitative is strongest in a professional domain that is low in status and applied in orientation – most particularly in the discounted field of education, afflicted with low status and a radically soft-applied arena of knowledge.  So educational policymakers have a preference for data that seem authoritative and scientific and that present a certain face validity.  Statistics are best suited to meet these needs, allowing policymakers to preface their proposals with the assertion that “research says” one policy would be more effective than another.  Since policymakers want these kinds of data, educational researchers feel compelled to supply them.

This is understandable, but the consequences for educational policy are potentially devastating.  One problem with this, as we saw in the last section, is that quantification may deflect researcher attention away from educational issues that are more important and salient.  Another problem, however, is that quantifying research on education can radically reduce the complexity of the educational domain that is visible to policymakers and then lead them to construct policies that fit the normalized digital map of education rather than the idiosyncratic analog terrain of education.  Under these circumstances, statistical work in education can lead to policies that destroy the ecology of the classroom in the effort to reform it.

In his book Seeing Like a State, James Scott explores the problems that arise when states instigate social reforms based on a highly rationalized, abstracted, and reductionist knowledge of society.[15]  His analysis provides a rich way to understand the kind of damage that educational policy, informed primarily by quantitative data, can do to the practice of schooling.  The connection between statistics and the state is both etymological and substantive.  The Oxford English Dictionary identifies the roots of the word “statistic” in the term “statist,” with the earliest meanings best rendered as “pertaining to statists or to statecraft.”[16]  Daniel Headrick shows that statistics first emerged in public view in the 17th century under the label “political arithmetic,” arising in an effort to measure public health and the mercantilist economy.[17]  So over the years, seeing like a state has come to mean viewing society through statistics.

Following Scott, I argue that the statistical view of education takes the form of a grid, which crams the complexities of the educational enterprise into the confines of ledgers, frequency tables, and other summary quantitative representations that are epistemic projections from the center of the state to the periphery of educational practice.  Scott notes that part of the appeal of the grid for states is its esthetic: it looks neat, clean, and orderly, like modernist architecture.  In part the appeal is power: the ability to impose the unnatural grid on the world is an expression of the state’s ability to impose its own order.  In part the appeal is rationalization: the grid reflects a plan for how the world should be as the projection of a rational plan instead of as the result of chance, negotiation, or social compromise.  And in part the appeal is its utility: the grid allows for easy measurement, identification, and infinite subdivision. The key problem with this attraction to the grid is that policymakers tend to take these representations literally, which leads to reforms in which they seek to impose the rectangular grid of their vision onto the spherical world of education.

The image that comes to mind in thinking of both the utility and the danger of the grid is the Mercator projection in cartography, which is the example with which Crosby (1997, pp. 236-7) closes his book on The Measure of Reality.[18]  This map was developed to help solve a particular problem, which was to find a way so that sailors on the open sea could construct the shortest course between two points with a straight line using bearings of a compass.  Since such a course in reality would be an arc on the surface of the earth, this posed a real difficulty on a two dimensional map.  Mercator’s answer was to make lines of longitude, which converge toward the poles, instead run parallel to each other, thus increasingly exaggerating the east-west dimension as one approached the poles.  And in order to maintain the same proportions in the north-south direction, he extended the distance between lines of latitude proportionally at the same time.  The result is a map that allows navigators to plot an accurate course with a straight line, which was an enormous practical benefit.  But in the process it created a gross distortion of the world, which has convinced schoolchildren for centuries that Greenland is enormous and Africa is tiny.[19]

Like Mercator’s projection, quantitative data on education can be useful for narrow purposes, but only if we do not reify this representation.  However, the temptation to reify these measures is hard to resist.  So policymakers routinely use scores in standardized tests as valid measures of meaningful learning in school.  They use quantifiable characteristics of teachers (pay, years of graduate education, years of experience, certification in subject) as valid measures of the qualities that make them effective.  They use measures of socioeconomic status and parental education and gender and race to “control for” the effects of these complex qualities on teaching and learning.  When they put all of these quantitative measures together into a depiction of the process of schooling, they have constructed a mathematical map of this institution that multiplies the distorting effect of each reification by the number of such variables that appear in the equation.  The result is a distorted depiction of schooling that by comparison makes the Mercator projection look like a model of representation.  Recall that Mercator only distorted two variables, longitude and latitude, for a real practical benefit in navigational utility; and you can always look at a globe in order to correct for the representational distortion in his map.  But the maps of schooling that come from the quantitative measures of educational researchers incorporate a vast array of such distortions, which are multiplied together into summary measures that magnify these distortions.  And there is no educational globe to stand as a constant corrective.  The only counter to the mounds of quantitative data on schooling that sit on the desks of educational policymakers is a mound of interpretive case studies, which hardly balances the scales.  Such studies are easy to dismiss in the language of objective measurement, since they can be depicted as subjective, context bound, and ungeneralizable.  They can neither be externally validated nor internally replicated.  So why take them seriously?

In addition to the danger of reification that comes from the use of statistics for educational policy, there is the danger of giving primacy to technical knowledge and in the process discounting the value and validity of local practical knowledge.  Technical knowledge is universalistic, abstracted from particular contexts, and applicable anywhere.  It allows us to generalize the real world by abstracting from the gritty complexities of this world according to rationalized categories and quantifiable characteristics that are independent of setting.  Its language is mathematics.  As a result, technical knowledge is the natural way for the modern state to understand its domain.

In local settings, however, knowledge often takes a less rationalized and more informal character.  Understandings arise from the interaction among people, their work, and the contexts within which they live.  These understandings incorporate experience from the past, social arrangements that have developed from this experience, and a concern about applying these understandings to recurring problems and serious threats.  This kind of knowledge, says Scott, focuses on matters that are too complex to be learned from a book, like when to plant and harvest crops.  It arises when both uncertainty and complexity are high and when the urgency to do something is great even though all the evidence is not yet in.  It involves not rules but rules of thumb, which means it depends on judgment to decide which rule of thumb applies in a particular case.  It relies on redundancy, so there are multiple measures of where things stand, multiple ways to pursue a single end, and multiple mechanisms for ensuring the most critical outcomes, so that life will not depend on a single fallible approach.  It is a reliable form of knowledge for the residents of the local ecology because the residents have a stake in the knowledge (it is not “academic”), it captures the particular experience of the local context over time, and it is the shared knowledge of the community rather than the knowledge of particular experts.

Scott’s depiction of local practical knowledge arises in particular from anthropology and the knowledge of peasants tilling the soil in the ecology of a village, but it applies equally well to the work of teaching and learning in the ecology of the classroom.  The knowledge required to survive and thrive in that setting is enormously complex, uncertainty is high, rules of thumb (instead of technical laws) dominate, context is everything, and redundancy of measures and actions is essential in order to know what is going on and to avoid doing harm.  The craft of teaching in the modern classroom in this sense is similar to the craft of farming in a premodern village.  And one key commonality is the incompatibility between the local practical knowledge in this setting and the technical knowledge of the nation state.  When the state intervenes in either setting with a plan for social reform, based on a reified quantified vision of how things work, little good can result.

When the state takes the quantified depiction of schooling that educational researchers provide and uses it to devise a plan for school reform, the best we can hope for is that the reform effort will fail.  As the history of school reform makes clear, this is indeed most often the outcome.  One reform after another has bounced off the classroom door without having much effect in shaping what goes on inside, simply because the understanding of schooling that is embodied in the reform is so inaccurate that the reform effort cannot survive in the classroom ecology.  At worst, however, the reform actually succeeds in imposing change on the process of teaching and learning in classrooms.  Scott provides a series of horror stories about the results of such an imposition in noneducational contexts, from the devastating impact of the collectivization of agriculture in the Soviet Union to the parallel effect of imposing monoculture on German forests.  The problem in all these cases is that the effort to impose an abstract technical ideal ends up destroying a complex distinctive ecology that depends on local practical knowledge.  The current efforts by states across the globe to impose abstract technical standards on the educational village bear the signs of another ecological disaster.


[1]  Quoted in Alfred W. Crosby, The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society, 1250-1600  (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 240.

[2] An early version of this paper was presented at the conference on “The Ethics and Esthetics of Statistics” of the research group on Philosophy and History of the Discipline of Education: Faces and Spaces of Educational Research, Catholic University Leuven, Belgium, November, 2009.  A later version was published as a chapter in Paul Smeyers and Marc Depaepe (Eds.), Educational Research: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Statistics (Dordrecht: Springer, 2010).

[3]  Crosby, The Measure of Reality.

[4] Theodore M. Porter, The Rise of Statistical Thinking, 1820-1900 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986); Theodore M. Porter, Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

[5]  Porter, The Rise of Statistical Thinking, ix, 225.

[6]  Porter, Trust in Numbers, 195-7.  Daniel R. Headrick, When Information Came of Age: Technologies of Knowledge in the Age of Reason and Revolution, 1700-1850  (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 78,87.

[7]  Porter, Trust in Numbers, xi, 228.

[8]  Porter, Trust in Numbers, 229.

[9]  Stephen J. Gould, The Mismeasure of Man (New York: Norton, 1981); Nicholas Lemann, The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000).

[10]  In this discussion, I draw on the work of Tony Becher (1989) and my own application of his analysis to education (Labaree, 1998; 2004, chapter 4).

[11] Abraham Kaplan, The Conduct of Inquiry: Methodology for Behavioral Science (San Francisco: Chandler, 1964).

[12]  Porter, Trust in Numbers, 216.

[13] David F. Labaree, The Making of an American High School: The Credentials Market and the Central High School of Philadelphia, 1838-1939 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988).

[14] David F. Labaree, “The People’s College: A Sociological Analysis of Philadelphia’s Central High School, 1838-1939” ( PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania. 1983).

[15] James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

[16] Oxford English Dictionary (London: Oxford University Press, 2002).

[17]  Headrick, When Information Came of Age, 60.

[18] Crosby, The Measure of Reality, 236-7.

[19] Mercator projection map, (accessed October, 2009).

Posted in Higher Education, History, Systems of Schooling

An Unlikely Triumph: How US Higher Education Went from Rags in the 19th Century to Riches in the 20th

This is a piece I published in Aeon in October, 2017.  It provides an overview of my book that came out that year, “A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education (University of Chicago Press).

From the perspective of 19th-century visitors to the United States, the country’s system of higher education was a joke. It wasn’t even a system, just a random assortment of institutions claiming to be colleges that were scattered around the countryside. Underfunded, academically underwhelming, located in small towns along the frontier, and lacking in compelling social function, the system seemed destined for obscurity. But by the second half of the 20th century, it had assumed a dominant position in the world market in higher education. Compared with peer institutions in other countries, it came to accumulate greater wealth, produce more scholarship, win more Nobel prizes, and attract a larger proportion of talented students and faculty. US universities dominate global rankings.

How did this remarkable transformation come about? The characteristics of the system that seemed to be disadvantages in the 19th century turned out to be advantages in the 20th. Its modest state funding, dependence on students, populist aura, and obsession with football gave it a degree of autonomy that has allowed it to stand astride the academic world.

The system emerged under trying circumstances early in US history, when the state was weak, the market strong, and the church divided. Lacking the strong support of church and state, which had fostered the growth of the first universities in medieval Europe, the first US colleges had to rely largely on support from local elites and tuition-paying student consumers. They came into being with the grant of a corporate charter from state government, but this only authorised these institutions. It didn’t fund them.

The rationale for starting a college in the 19th century usually had less to do with promoting higher learning than with pursuing profit. For most of US history, the primary source of wealth was land, but in a country with a lot more land than buyers, the challenge for speculators was how to convince people to buy their land rather than one of the many other available options. (George Washington, for instance, accumulated some 50,000 acres in the western territories, and spent much of his life unsuccessfully trying to monetise his holdings.) The situation became even more desperate in the mid-19th century, when the federal government started giving away land to homesteaders. One answer to this problem was to show that the land was not just another plot in a dusty agricultural village but prime real estate in an emerging cultural centre. And nothing said culture like a college. Speculators would ‘donate’ land for a college, gain a state charter, and then sell the land around it at a premium, much like developers today who build a golf course and then charge a high price for the houses that front on to it.

Of course, chartering a college is not the same as actually creating a functioning institution. So speculators typically sought to affiliate their emergent college with a religious denomination, which offered several advantages. One was that it segmented the market. A Presbyterian college would be more attractive to Presbyterian consumers than the Methodist college in the next town. Another was staffing. Until the late-19th century, nearly all presidents and most faculty at US colleges were clergymen, who were particularly attractive to college founders for two reasons. They were reasonably well-educated, and they were willing to work cheap. A third advantage was that the church just might be induced to contribute a little money from time to time to support its struggling offspring.

Often the motives of profit and faith converged in the same person, producing a distinctive American character – the clergyman-speculator. J B Grinnell was a Congregational minister who left the church he founded in Washington, DC, to establish a town out west as a speculative investment. In 1854 he settled on a location in Iowa, named the town Grinnell, gained a charter for a college, and started selling land for $1.62 an acre. Instead of organising a college from scratch, he convinced Iowa College to move from Davenport and assume the name Grinnell College.

This process of college development helps to explain a lot of things about the emergent form of the US higher-education system in the 19th century. Less than a quarter of the colleges were in the strip of land along the eastern seaboard where most Americans lived. More than half were in the Midwest and Southwest: the sparsely populated frontier. If your aim is to attract a lot of students, this was not a great business plan, but it was useful in attracting settlers. The frontier location also helps to explain the nominal church support for the colleges. In the competitive US setting where no church was dominant, it was each denomination for itself, so everyone wanted to plant the denominational flag in the new territories for fear of ceding the terrain to the opposition. Together, land speculation and sectarian competitions help to explain why, by 1880, Ohio had 37 colleges – and France just 16.

The sheer number of such college foundings was remarkable. In 1790, at the start of the first decade of the new republic, the US already had 19 institutions called colleges or universities. The numbers grew gradually in the first three decades, rising to 50 by 1830, and then started accelerating. By the 1850s they had reached 250, doubling again in the following decade (563), and in 1880 totalled 811. The growth in colleges vastly exceeded the growth in population, with a total of five colleges per million people in 1790, rising to 16 per million in 1880. In that year, the US had five times as many colleges as the entire continent of Europe. This was the most overbuilt system of higher education the world had ever seen.

Of course, as European visitors liked to point out, it was a stretch to call most of these colleges institutions of higher learning. For starters, they were small. In 1880, the average college boasted 131 students and 10 faculty members, granting only 17 degrees a year. Most were located far from centres of culture and refinement. Faculty were preachers rather than scholars, and students were whoever was willing to pay tuition for a degree whose market value was questionable. Most graduates joined the clergy or other professions that were readily accessible without a college degree.

For American students, it was often a choice of going to high school or to college

On the east coast, a small number of colleges – Harvard, Yale, Princeton, William and Mary – drew students from families of wealth and power, and served as training grounds for future leaders. But closer to the frontier, there were no established elites for colleges to bond with, and they offered little in the way of social distinction. The fact that every other town had its own college led to intense competition for students, which meant that tuition charges remained low. This left colleges to operate on a shoestring, making do with poor facilities, low pay, struggles to attract and retain students and faculty, and continual rounds of fundraising. And it meant that students were more middle- than upper-class, there for the experience rather than the learning; the most serious students were those on scholarship.

Another sign of the lowly status of these 19th-century colleges is that they were difficult to distinguish from the variety of high schools and academies that were also in abundance across the US landscape. For students, it was often a choice of going to high school or to college, rather than seeing one as the feeder institution for the other. As a result, the age range of students attending high schools and colleges was substantially the same.

By the middle of the century, a variety of new forms of public colleges arose in addition to the independent institutions that today we call private. States started establishing their own colleges and universities, for much the same reasons as churches and towns did: competition (if the state next door had a college, you needed one too) and land speculation (local boosters pushed legislatures to grant them this plum). In addition, there were the colleges that arose from federal land grants and came to focus on more practical rather than classical education, such as engineering and agriculture. Finally came the normal schools, which focused on preparing teachers for the growing public school system. Unlike the privates, these newer institutions operated under public control, but that did not mean they had a steady flow of public funding. They didn’t start getting annual appropriations until the start of the 20th century. As a result, like the privates, they had to rely on student tuition and donations in order to survive, and they had to compete for students and faculty in the larger market already established by their private predecessors.

By 1880, the US system of higher education was extraordinarily large and spatially dispersed, with decentralised governance and a remarkable degree of institutional complexity. This system had established a distinctive structure early in the century, and then elaborated on it over the succeeding decades. It might seem strange to call the motley collection of some 800 colleges and universities a system at all. ‘System’ implies a plan and a form of governance that keeps things working according to the plan, and that indeed is the formal structure of higher-education systems in most other countries, where a government ministry oversees the system and tinkers with it over time. But not in the US.

The system of higher education in the US did not arise from a plan, and no agency governs it. It just happened. But it is nonetheless a system, which has a well-defined structure and a clear set of rules that guides the actions of the individuals and institutions within it. In this sense, it is less like a political system guided by a constitution than a market-based economic system arising from an accumulation of individual choices. Think urban sprawl rather than planned community. Its history is not a deliberate construction but an evolutionary process. The market systems just happen, but that doesn’t keep us from understanding how it came about and how it works.

People did try to impose some kind of logical form and function on to the system. All US presidents until Andrew Jackson argued for the need to establish a national university, which would have set a high standard for the system, but this effort failed because of the widespread fear of a strong central government. And a number of actors tried to impose their own vision of what the purpose of the system should be. In 1828, the Yale faculty issued a report strongly supporting the traditional classical curriculum (focused on Latin, Greek and religion); in the 1850s, Francis Wayland at Brown argued for a focus on science; and the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862 called for colleges that would ‘teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts … in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life’. These visions provided support for a wide array of alternative college missions within a diversified system that was wed to none of them.

The weaknesses of the college system were glaringly obvious. Most of the colleges were not created to promote higher learning, and the level of learning they did foster was modest indeed. They had a rudimentary infrastructure and no reliable stream of funding. They were too many in number for any of them to gain distinction, and there was no central mechanism for elevating some of them above others. Unlike Europe, the US had no universities with the imprimatur of the national government or the established church, just a collection of marginal public and private institutions located on the periphery of civilisation. What a mess.

Take Middlebury College, a Congregational institution founded in 1800, which has now become one of the premier liberal arts colleges in the country, considered one of the ‘little Ivies’. But in 1840, when its new president arrived on campus (a Presbyterian minister named Benjamin Labaree, my grandfather’s grandfather), he found an institution that was struggling to survive, and in his 25-year tenure as president this situation did not change much for the better. In letters to the board of trustees, he detailed a list of woes that afflicted the small college president of his era. Hired for a salary of $1,200 a year (roughly $32,000 today), he found that the trustees could not afford to pay it. So he immediately set out to raise money for the college, the first of eight fundraising campaigns that he engaged in, making a $1,000 contribution of his own and soliciting gifts from the small faculty.

Money worries are the biggest theme in Labaree Snr’s letters (struggling to recruit and pay faculty, mortgaging his house to make up for his own unpaid salary, and perpetually seeking donations), but he also complained about the inevitable problems that come from trying to offer a full college curriculum with a small number of underqualified professors:

I accepted the Presidency of Middlebury College, Gentlemen, with a full understanding that your Faculty was small and that in consequence a large amount of instruction would devolve upon the President – that I should be desired to promote the financial interests of the Institution, as convenience and the duties of instruction would permit, was naturally to be expected, but I could not have anticipated that the task of relieving the College from pecuniary embarrassment, and the labor and responsibility of procuring funds for endowment for books, for buildings etc, etc would devolve on me. Could I have foreseen what you would demand of me, I should never have engaged in your service.

At one place in the correspondence, Labaree Snr listed the courses he had to teach as president: ‘Intellectual and Moral Philosophy, Political Economy, International Law, Evidences of Christianity, History of Civilization, and Butler’s Analogy’. US college professors could not afford to have narrow expertise.

Colleges survived by hustling for dollars from prospective donors and marketing themselves to prospective students

In short, the US college system in the mid-19th century was all promise and no product. Nonetheless, it turns out that the promise was extraordinary. One hidden strength was that the system contained nearly all the elements needed to respond to a future rapid expansion of student demand and burgeoning enrolments. It had the necessary physical infrastructure: land, classrooms, libraries, faculty offices, administration buildings, and the rest. And this physical presence was not concentrated in a few population centres but scattered across the landmass of a continental country. It had faculty and administration already in place, with programmes of study, course offerings, and charters granting colleges the ability to award degrees. It had an established governance structure and a process for maintaining multiple streams of revenue to support the enterprise, as well as an established base of support in the local community and in the broader religious denomination. The main thing the system lacked was students.

Another source of strength was that this disparate collection of largely undistinguished colleges and universities had succeeded in surviving a Darwinian process of natural selection in a fiercely competitive environment. As market-based institutions that had never enjoyed the luxury of guaranteed appropriations (this was true for public as well as private colleges), colleges survived by hustling for dollars from prospective donors and marketing themselves to prospective students who could pay tuition. They had to be adept at meeting the demands of the key constituencies in their individual markets. In particular, they had to be sensitive to what prospective students were seeking in a college experience, since they were paying a major part of the bills. And colleges also had a strong incentive to build longstanding ties with their graduates, who would become a prime source for new students and for donations.

In addition, the structure of the college – with a lay board, strong president, geographical isolation, and stand-alone finances – made it a remarkably adaptable institution. These colleges could make changes without seeking permission from the education minister or the bishop. President were the CEOs of the enterprise, and their clear mission was to maintain the viability of the college and expand its prospects. They had to make the most of the advantages offered to them by geography and religious affiliation, and to adapt quickly to shifts in position relative to competitors concerning such key institutional matters as programme, price and prestige. The alternative was to go out of business. Between 1800 and 1850, 40 liberal arts colleges closed, 17 per cent of the total.

Successful colleges were also deeply rooted in isolated towns across the country. They represented themselves as institutions that educated local leaders and served as cultural centres for their communities. The college name was usually the town’s name. The colleges that survived the mid-19th century were well-poised to take advantage of the coming surge of student interest, new sources of funding, and new rationales for attending college.

US colleges retained a populist aura. Because they were located in small towns all across the country and forced to compete with peers in the same situation, they became more concerned about survival than academic standards. As a result, the US system took on a character that was middle-class rather than upper-class. Poor families did not send their children to college, but ordinary middle-class families could. Admission was easy, the academic challenge moderate, the tuition manageable. This created a broad popular foundation for the college that saved it, for the most part, from Oxbridge-style elitism. The college was an extension of the community and denomination, a familiar local presence, a source of civic pride, and a cultural avatar representing the town to the world. Citizens did not have to have a family member connected with the school to feel that the college was theirs. This kind of populist base of support came to be enormously important when higher education enrolments started to skyrocket.

One final characteristic of the US model of higher education was its practicality. As it developed in the mid-19th century, the higher-education system incorporated this practical orientation into the structure and function of the standard-model college. The land-grant college was both an effect and a cause of the cultural preference for usefulness. The focus on the useful arts was written into the DNA of these institutions, as an expression of the US effort to turn a college for gentlemen or intellectuals into a school for practical pursuits, with an emphasis on making things and making a living, rather than on gaining social polish or exploring the cultural heights. And this model spread widely to the other parts of the system. The result was not just the inclusion of subjects such as engineering and applied science into the curriculum but also the orientation of the college itself as a problem-solver for the businessmen and policymakers. The message was: ‘This is your college, working for you.’

All of this was quite popular with consumers, but it didn’t make US colleges centres of intellectual achievement and renown. That, however, began to change in the 1880s, when the German research university burst on to the US educational scene. In this emerging model, the university was a place that produced cutting-edge scientific research, and provided graduate-level training for the intellectual elite. The new research model gave the institutionally overbuilt and academically undistinguished US system of higher education an infusion of scholarly credibility, which had been so clearly lacking. For the first time, the system could begin to make the claim of being the locus of learning at the highest level. At the same time, colleges received a large influx of enrolments, which remedied another problem with the old model – the chronic shortage of students.

The system had to make students happy, which meant an academic programme that was not overly challenging

But the US did not adopt the German model wholesale. Instead, the model was adapted to US needs. The research university was an add-on, not a transformation. The German university was an elitist institution, focused primarily on graduate instruction and high-level research, which were possible only with a strong and steady flow of state support. Since such funding was not forthcoming in the US, graduate education and scholarly research could exist only at a modest level and only if grafted on to the hardy stock of the US undergraduate college. It needed the financial support that comes from a large number of undergraduate students, who paid tuition and drew per-capita appropriations for state institutions. It also needed the political support and social legitimacy that came from the populism and practicality of the existing US college. High-level graduate learning depended on an undergraduate experience that was broadly accessible and not too demanding intellectually. In short, it needed students. And in the 20th century, the students arrived.

By then, the US higher-education system was in a strong position to capitalise on the capacities it had built during its competitive struggle for survival in the preceding years. Compared with the much older and more distinguished European institutions, it enjoyed a broad base of public support as a populist enterprise that offered a lot of practical benefits. It felt like our institution rather than theirs. To survive, the system had to go out of its way to make students happy, which meant providing a rich array of social entertainments – including fraternities, sororities and, of course, football – and an academic programme that was not overly challenging. The idea was to get students so enmeshed in the institution that they come to identify with it – which helps to ensure that later in life they will continue to wear the school colours, return for reunions, enrol their own children, and make generous donations.

One way you see this populist quality today is in the language people use. Americans tend to employ the labels college and university interchangeably. Elsewhere in the world, however, ‘university’ refers to the highest levels of postsecondary education, which offers bachelors and graduate degrees, while ‘college’ refers to something more like what Americans would call a community college, offering associate degrees and vocational training. So when Brits or Canadians say: ‘I’m going to university,’ it carries an elitist edge. But for Americans, the term university is considered a bit prissy and pretentious. They tend to prefer saying: ‘I’m going to college,’ whether that institution is Harvard or the local trade school. This is quite misleading, since US higher education is extraordinarily stratified, with the benefits varying radically according to the status of the institution. But it is also characteristically populist, an assertion that college is accessible to nearly anyone.

Coming into the 20th century, another advantage enjoyed by the system was that US colleges and universities tended to enjoy a relatively high degree of autonomy. This was most obvious in the case of the private not-for-profit institutions that still account for the majority of US higher-education institutions. A lay board owns the institution and appoints the president, who serves as CEO, sets the budget, and administers faculty and staff. Private universities now receive a lot of government money, especially for research grants and student loans and scholarships, but they have broad discretion over tuition, pay, curriculum and organisation. This allows the university to adapt quickly to changing market conditions, respond to funding opportunities, develop new programmes, and open research centres.

Public universities are subject to governance from the state, which provides appropriations in support of core functions and also shapes policy. This limits flexibility about issues such as budget, tuition and pay. But state funding covers only a portion of total expenses, with the share declining as you go up the institutional status ladder. Flagship public research universities in the US often receive less than 20 per cent of their budget from the state; for the University of Virginia, the portion is below 5 per cent. Regional state universities receive around half of their funds from the state. So public institutions need to supplement their funds using the same methods as private institutions – with student tuition, research grants, fees for services, and donations. And this gives them considerable latitude in following the lead of the privates in adapting to the market and pursuing opportunities. Public research universities have the greatest autonomy from state control. And the public universities that have long topped the rankings – the University of California and the University of Michigan – have their autonomy guaranteed in the state constitution.

By the 21st century, US universities accounted for 52 of the top 100 in the world, and 16 of the top 20

It turns out that autonomy is enormously important for a healthy and dynamic system of higher education. Universities operate best as emergent institutions, in which initiative bubbles up from below – as faculty pursue research opportunities, departments develop programmes, and administrators start institutes and centres to take advantage of possibilities in the environment. Central planning by state ministries of higher education seeks to move universities toward government goals, but this kind of top-down policymaking tends to stifle the entrepreneurial activities of the faculty and administrators who are most knowledgeable about the field and most in tune with market demand. You can quantify the impact that autonomy from the state has on university quality. The economist Caroline Hoxby at Stanford and colleagues did a study that compared the global rankings of universities with the proportion of university funding that comes from the state (using the ranks computed by Shanghai Jiao Tong University). They found that when the proportion of the budget from state funds rises by one percentage point, the university falls three ranks. Conversely, when the proportion of the budget from competitive grants rises by one percentage point, the university goes up six ranks.

In the 19th century, weak support from church and state forced US colleges to develop into an emergent system of higher education that was lean, adaptable, autonomous, consumer-sensitive, partially self-supporting, and radically decentralised. These humble beginnings provided the system with the core characteristics that helped it to become the leading system in the world. This undistinguished group of colleges came to top world rankings. By the 21st century, US universities accounted for 52 of the top 100 universities in the world, and 16 of the top 20. Half of the Nobel laureates in the 21st century were scholars at US institutions. At the same time, the system’s hand-to-mouth finances turned into extraordinary wealth. The university in the US with the largest endowment is Harvard, at $35 billion; the largest in Europe is Cambridge, at $8 billion. The largest endowment on the continent is held by a brand-new institution, Central European University in Budapest with $900 million, thanks to a donation from George Soros. This would place CEU in the 103rd position in the US, behind Brandeis University.

Rags to riches indeed. No longer a joke, the US system of higher education has become the envy of the world. Unfortunately, however, since it’s a system that emerged without a plan, there’s no model for others to imitate. It’s an accident that arose under unique circumstances: when the state was weak, the market strong, and the church divided; when there was too much land and not enough buyers; and when academic standards were low. Good luck trying to replicate that pattern anywhere in the 21st century.