This post is the text of the preface I just wrote for the Chinese translation of my book, A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of the American System of Higher Education. The translators are Professor Sun Bi and research assistant Liu Zitai from the School of Education at South China Normal University. It will be published in 2022 by Shanghai Jiaotong University Press.
I’m excited to be able to reach Chinese readers and also a little nervous about how they may react to my analysis. The subtitle alone could suggest that the book is yet another case of American triumphalism. So I decided to use this preface to spell out what I consider the core of my argument. The book focuses more on the paradoxically productive messiness of the system’s structure, which emerged in the 19th century, than on its ascendancy to fame and fortune, which happened so unexpectedly in the 20th century.
You may find it a useful brief summary of the book, which will save you from having to read it.
Preface to the Chinese Edition
It’s an honor for me to have my book – A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education – now available to a Chinese audience. But this prospect also makes me a bit nervous: I don’t want to rub this audience the wrong way. I imagine that, all by itself, one word in the title is likely to get under the skin of the reader in Shanghai or Chongqing: “ascendancy.” Americans have a well-deserved reputation for adopting a tone of triumphalism when they talk about their country and its institutions, a tendency that everyone else in the world rightly finds aggravating. We like to talk about being the best, the biggest, the richest, the freest, and, oh yes, a model to the world. I mean, really, how much more annoying can we get?
So let me explain where I’m coming from in the interpretation of the American system of higher education that I develop here. What interests me most about this system is not its ascendancy but rather, using two other words from the title, its messiness and its unlikeliness. In many ways, the system simply hitched a ride on America’s rise as a world power and deserves no credit just for happening to be in the right place at the right time.
To me, as a sociologist doing educational history, the intriguing thing is the peculiar structure of this system. It’s an odd and extremely messy structure – radically decentralized, emergent, self generating, and headless. There is no one in charge of the system as a whole, but paradoxically it has a plethora of leaders. Every president, dean, department head, institute director, and individual faculty member is a self-sustaining entrepreneur pursuing individual career goals and in the process inadvertently creating the system’s messily dynamic institutional structure.
Early in the first chapter, I try to elucidate the importance of the system’s structure and announce my aim to make this structure the focus of my analysis rather the country to which the structure is hitched.
So what accounts for the astonishing rise by American universities in the last 100 years? One explanation is the ascendancy of the U.S. to a position of economic, military, and cultural dominance in the twentieth century. Wealth and power have certainly been important factors in shaping the influence of American higher education, providing this system with deep financial resources and the ability to draw a rich array of international academic talent. A second is the emergence of English as the prime international language, which has given U.S. universities an enormous advantage in reaching a world audience with its publications and in recruiting faculty and students from abroad. A third is the two world wars of the twentieth century, which devastated European (and especially German) universities while at the same time funneling large amounts to war-related research money to their protected American counterparts; and the rise of the cold war prompted the U.S. to invest an enormous amount of money in university enrollments and research. All of these elements have given American universities a significant competitive advantage. In their absence, the dominance of American universities probably never would have developed.
However, I choose not to focus on these powerful contextual factors. Instead, I examine the structural elements within the system of American higher education itself that allowed this system to capitalize on the opportunities granted it by wealth, power, linguistic dominance, geographic isolation, and government investments. Without denying the importance of national might, therefore, I focus on some less obvious but equally compelling reasons for the dominance of the U.S. university. By the time all of these advantages came its way in the mid-twentieth century, the American system of higher education already had a combination of broad-based political support, large and multiple sources of revenue, institutional autonomy, and organizational capacity – all of which allowed it to make the most of the emerging historical possibilities.
These elements of the system’s structure were the result of conditions under which it arose in the United States early in the nineteenth century. The system emerged in a setting where the market was strong, the state was weak, and the church was divided. Government in the early republic was radically decentralized and too poor and powerless to be able to found colleges. And in the absence of a national church, a wide array of sects and denominations competed for congregants and funding, which left them unable to provide strong financial support for institutions of higher education opened under their sponsorship. Markets filled the gap.
A large majority of the first colleges in the US were private institutions, which had corporate charters from the state but little or no state funding. They operated like other corporations, with a lay board of directors that owned the institution and appointed its president. A large number of colleges came into existence this way during the early nineteenth century, for reasons that had less to do with learning than with market considerations. In a country were there was too much land and not enough buyers, real estate developers frequently created a small college in the middle of their holdings in order to increase the value of the surrounding land – similar to the way developers today build a golf course and then sell the land around it at a premium. The other main source of college foundings was religious denominations, who sought to set up colleges on the expanding Western frontier as a way to plant the flag, prepare ministers, and keep up with their competitors.
Staffed by clergy (whose only academic qualification was a college degree), lacking intellectual distinction, starved of reliable funding from church or state, and located in the middle of nowhere, these institutions had to struggle in order to survive. They did so by charging students for tuition and by seeking donations from local elites, church members, and their own graduates. When, over the course of the century, state governments began to found their own institutions, they built on the private model that was already in place, since these public colleges had little public funding (annual appropriations didn’t start until the twentieth century) and were often established to compete with neighboring states (if you’re a real state, you need to have a state university) more than to meet local demand from perspective students. By 1880, the US had the most overbuilt system of higher education in the world, with five times as many colleges and universities as the entire continent of Europe. All it was missing was enough students to fill its classrooms and enough academic credibility to warrant the label of higher learning. At this point the system was rescued from collapse by two external factors – the rise in demand for white collar workers in the expanding corporate economy, which brought as surge in student enrollments, and the adoption of the German research university model, which brought intellectual respectability.
It was only at this point that the American system of higher education started to show significant promise. Ironically – and this is a central point in the book – the very elements that made the system so pitiful in the nineteenth century were what made it so powerful in the twentieth. The dearth of substantial state appropriations forced colleges to become adept at generating their own sources of funding: from grants, contracts, patents, tuitions, and fees; from wealthy donors who were willing to trade cash for collegiate cachet; and especially from their own graduates. These colleges developed expertise at engaging students in the collegiate life (fraternities and football) and in getting them to identify themselves with the college brand, to the extent that they were proud to wear its logo, cheer on its teams, and become lifelong contributors to the college endowment. The result was that college was no longer where you enrolled; it was who you are.
The large flow of private funds into college coffers had remarkably positive effects on institutional quality. Partial independence from state funding, these institutions helped buffer these colleges from state control. As a result, they were able to operate as entrepreneurial enterprises that could adapt quickly to market conditions and pursue new opportunities for programs of research and instruction – pushed by the intense competition with peer institutions seeking to gain an advantage in the pursuit of funding, prestige, faculty, and students. And by becoming expert at developing consumer loyalty and making themselves useful to a wide range of constituencies – community, business, government – they were able to establish a base of political support for a system of higher education that was both academically elite and politically populist.
This is the story about the American system of higher education that I’m seeking to tell in this book; I hope you find it interesting.
Palo Alto, California
 In most of the world, colleges are lower-level institutions of higher education than universities, but Americans use the terms interchangeably. It’s considered pretentious in the US to say you went to university, as people do in other English-speaking countries. We’re more likely to say we went to college.