Posted in Higher Education, History of education, Uncategorized

Research Universities and the Public Good

This post is a review essay of a new book called Research Universities and the Public Good.  It appeared in the current issue of American Journal of Sociology.  Here’s a link to a PDF of the original.

Research Universities and the Public Good: Discovery for an Uncertain Future

By Jason Owen-Smith. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press,
2018. Pp. xii + 213. $35.00.

David F. Labaree
Stanford University

American higher education has long been immune to the kind of criticism
levied against elementary and secondary education because it has been seen
as a great success story, in contrast to the popular narrative of failure that
has been applied to the lower levels of the system. And the rest of the world
seems to agree with this distinction. Families outside the United States have
not been eager to send their children to our schools, but they have been
clamoring for admission to the undergraduate and graduate programs at
our colleges and universities. In the last few years, however, this reputational
immunity has been quickly fading. The relentlessly rationalizing reformers
who have done so much harm to U.S. schools in the name of accountability
have now started to direct their attention to higher education. Watch out,
they’re coming for us.

One tiny sector of the huge and remarkably diverse structure of U.S.
higher education has been particularly vulnerable to this contagion, namely,
the research university. This group represents only 3% of the more than
5,000 degree-granting institutions in the country, and it educates only a
small percentage of college students while sucking up a massive amount of
public and private resources. Its highly paid faculty don’t teach very much,
instead focusing their time instead on producing research on obscure topics
published in journals for the perusal of their colleagues rather than the public.
No wonder state governments have been reducing their funding for public
research universities and the federal government has been cutting its support
for research. No wonder there are strong calls for disaggregating the
multiplicity of functions that make these institutions so complex, so that
the various services of the university can be delivered more cost-effectively
to consumers.

In his new book, Jason Owen-Smith, a sociology professor at the University
of Michigan, mounts a valiant and highly effective defense of the apparently
indefensible American research university. While acknowledging the
complexity of functions that run through these institutions, he focuses his
attention primarily on the public benefits that derive from their research
production. As he notes, although they represent less than 3% of the institutions
of higher education, they produce nearly 90% of the system’s research and development. In an era when education is increasingly portrayed as primarily a private good—providing degrees whose benefits only accrue to the degree holders—he deliberately zeroes in on the way that university research constitutes a public good whose benefits accrue to the community as a whole.

He argues that the core public functions of the research university are to
serve as “sources of knowledge and skilled people, anchors for communities,
industries, and regions, and hubs connecting all of the far-flung parts of society”
(p. 1; original emphasis). In chapter 1 he spells out the overall argument,
in chapter 2 he explores the usefulness of the peculiarly complex
organization of the research university, in chapters 3–5 he examines in more
detail each of the core functions, and at the end he suggests ways that university
administrators can help position their institutions to demonstrate
the value they provide the public.

The core function is to produce knowledge and skill. The most telling
point the author makes about this function is that it works best if allowed
to emerge organically from the complex incentive structure of the university
itself instead of being directed by government or industry toward solving
the most current problems. Trying to make research relevant may well
make it dysfunctional. Mie Augier and James March (“The Pursuit of Relevance
in Management Education,” California Management Review 49
[2007]: 129–46) argue that the pursuit of relevance is afflicted by both ambiguity
(we don’t know what’s going to be relevant until we encounter the
next problem) and myopia (by focusing too tightly on the current case we
miss what it is a case of ). In short, as Owen-Smith notes, investing in research
universities is a kind of social insurance by which we develop answers
to problems that haven’t yet emerged.While the private sector focuses
on applied research that is likely to have immediate utility, public funds are
most needed to support the basic research whose timeline for utility is unknown
but whose breadth of benefit is much greater.

The second function of the research university is to serve as a regional anchor.
A creative tension that energizes this institution is that it’s both cosmopolitan
and local. It aspires to universal knowledge, but it’s deeply grounded
in place. Companies can move, but universities can’t. This isn’t just because
of physical plant, a constraint that also affects companies; it’s because universities
develop a complex web of relationships with the industries and governments
and citizens in their neighborhood. Think Stanford and Silicon
Valley. Owen-Smith makes the analogy to the anchor store in a shopping

The third function of the research university is to serve as a hub, which is
the cosmopolitan side of its relationship with the world. It’s located in place
but connected to the intellectual and economic world through a complex
web of networks. Like the university itself, these webs emerge organically
out of the actions of a vast array of actors pursuing their own research enterprises
and connecting with colleagues and funding sources and clients
and sites of application around the country and the globe. Research
universities are uniquely capable of convening people from all sectors
around issues of mutual interest. Such synergies benefit everyone.

The current discourse on universities, which narrowly conceives of them
as mechanisms for delivering degrees to students, desperately needs the
message that Owen-Smith delivers here. Students may be able to get a degree
through a cheap online program, but only the complex and costly system
of research universities can deliver the kinds of knowledge production,
community development, and network building that provide such invaluable
benefits for the public as a whole. One thing I would add to the author’s
analysis is that American research universities have been able to develop
such strong public support in the past in large part because they combine
top-flight scholarship with large programs of undergraduate education that
are relatively accessible to the public and rather undemanding intellectually.
Elite graduate programs and research projects rest on a firm populist base
that may help the university survive the current assaults, a base grounded
as much in football and fraternities as in the erudition of its faculty. This,
however, is but a footnote to this powerfully framed contribution to the literature
on U.S. higher education.

American Journal of Sociology, 125:2 (September, 2019), pp. 610-12

Posted in Higher Education, History of education, Meritocracy, Uncategorized

US Higher Education and Inequality: How the Solution Became the Problem

This post is a paper I wrote last summer and presented at the University of Oslo in August.  It’s a patchwork quilt of three previously published pieces around a topic I’ve been focused on a lot lately:  the role of US higher education — for better and for worse — in creating the new American aristocracy of merit.

In it I explore the way that systems of formal schooling both opened up opportunity for people to get ahead by individual merit and created the most effective structure ever devised for reproducing social inequality.  By defining merit as the accumulation of academic credentials and by constructing a radically stratified and extraordinarily opaque hierarchy of educational institutions for granting these credentials, the system grants an enormous advantage to the children of those who have already negotiated the system most effectively.

The previous generation of academic winners learned its secrets and decoded its inner logic.  They found out that it’s the merit badges that matter, not the amount of useful learning you acquire along the way.  So they coach their children in the art of gaming the system.  The result is that these children not only gain a huge advantage at winning the rewards of the meritocracy but also acquire a degree of legitimacy for these rewards that no previous system of inherited privilege ever attained.  They triumphed in a meritocratic competition, so they fully earned the power, money, and position that they derived from it.  Gotta love a system that can pull that off.

Here’s a PDF of the paper.


U.S. Higher Education and Inequality:

How the Solution Became the Problem


David F. Labaree

Lee L. Jacks Professor of Education, Emeritus

Stanford University



Twitter: @Dlabaree

Blog: https:/


GSE Logo

Lecture delivered at University of Oslo

August 14, 2019


One of the glories of the emergence of modernity is that it offered the possibility and even the ideal that social position could be earned rather than inherited.  Instead of being destined to become a king or a peasant by dictate of paternity, for the first time in history individuals had the opportunity to attain their roles in society on the basis of merit.  And in this new world, public education became both the avenue for opportunity and the arbiter of merit.  But one of the anomalies of modernity is that school-based meritocracy, while increasing the fluidity of status attainment, has had little effect on the degree of inequality in modern societies.

In this paper, I explore how the structure of schooling helped bring about this outcome in the United States, with special focus on the evolution of higher education in the twentieth century.  The core issue driving the evolution of this structure is that the possibility for social mobility works at both the top and the bottom of the social hierarchy, with one group seeing the chance of rising up and the other facing the threat of falling down.  As a result, the former sees school as the way for their children to gain access to higher position while the latter sees it as the way for their children to preserve the social position they were born with.  Under pressure from both sides, the structure of schooling needs to find a way to accommodate these two contradictory aims.  In practice the system can accomplish this by allowing children from families at the bottom and the top to both increase their educational attainment beyond the level of their parents.  In theory this means that both groups can gain academic credentials that allow them to qualify for higher level occupational roles than the previous generation.  They can therefore both move up in parallel, gaining upward mobility without reducing the social distance between them.  Thus you end up with more opportunity without more equality.

Theoretically, it would be possible for the system to reduce or eliminate the degree to which elites manage to preserve their advantage through education simply by imposing a ceiling on the educational attainment allowed for their children.  That way, when the bottom group rises they get closer to the top group.  As a matter of practice, that option is not available in the U.S.  As the most liberal of liberal democracies, the U.S. sees any such limits on the choices of the upper group as a gross violation of individual liberty.  The result is a peculiar dynamic that has governed the evolution of the structure of American education over the years.  The pattern is this.  The out-group exerts political pressure in order to gain greater educational credentials for their children while the in-group responds by increasing the credentials of their own children.  The result is that both groups move up in educational qualifications at the same time.  Schooling goes up but social gaps remain the same.  It’s an elevator effect.  Every time the floor rises, so does the ceiling.

In the last 200 years of the history of schooling in the United States, the dynamic has played out like this.  At the starting point, one group has access to a level of education that is denied to another group.  The outsiders exert pressure to gain access to this level, which democratic leaders eventually feel compelled to grant.  But the insiders feel threatened by the loss of social advantage that greater access would bring, so they press to preserve that advantage.  How does the system accomplish this?  Through two simple mechanisms.  First, at the level where access is expanding, it stratifies schooling into curricular tracks or streams.  This means that the newcomers fill the lower tracks while the old-timers occupy the upper tracks.  Second, for the previously advantaged group it expands access to schooling at the next higher level.  So the system expands access to one level of schooling while simultaneously stratifying that level and opening up the next level.

This process has gone through three cycles in the history of U.S. schooling.  When the common school movement created a system of universal elementary schooling in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, it also created a selective public high school at the top of the system.  The purpose of the latter was to draw upper-class children from private schools into the public system by offering access to the high school only to graduates of the public grammar schools.  Without the elite high school as inducement, public schooling would have been left the domain for paupers. Then at the end of the nineteenth century, elementary grades filled up and demand increased for wider access to high school, so the system opened the doors to this institution.  But at the same it introduced curriculum tracks and set off a surge of college enrollments by the former high school students.  And when high schools themselves filled by the middle of the twentieth century, the system opened access to higher education by creating a range of new nonselective colleges and universities to absorb the influx.  This preserved the exclusivity of the older institutions, whose graduates in large numbers then started pursuing postgraduate degrees.

Result: A Very Stratified System of Higher Education

By the middle of the twentieth century, higher education was the zone of advantage for any American trying to get ahead or stay ahead.  And as a result of the process by which the tertiary system managed to incorporate both functions, it became extraordinarily stratified.  This was a system that emerged without a plan, based not on government fiat but the competing interests of educational consumers seeking to use it to their own advantage.  A market-oriented system of higher education such as this one has a special dynamic that leads to a high degree of stratification.  Each educational enterprise competes with the others to establish a position in the market that will allow it to draw students, generate a comfortable surplus, and maintain this situation over time.  The problem is that, given the lack of effective state limits on the establishment and expansion of colleges, these schools find themselves in a buyer’s market.  Individual buyers may want one kind of program over another, which gives colleges an incentive to differentiate the market horizontally to accommodate these various demands.  At the same time, however, buyers want a college diploma that will help them get ahead socially.  This means that consumers don’t just want a college education that is different; they want one that is better – better at providing access to good jobs.  In response to this consumer demand, the U.S. has developed a multi-tiered hierarchy of higher education, ranging from open-access institutions at the bottom to highly exclusive institutions at the top, with each of the upper tier institutions offering graduates a degree that provides invidious distinction over graduates from schools in the lower tiers.

This stratified structure of higher education arose in the nineteenth century in a dynamic market system, where the institutional actors had to operate according to four basic rules.  Rule One:  Age trumps youth.  It’s no accident that the oldest American colleges are overrepresented in the top tier.  Of the top 20 U.S. universities,[1] 19 were founded before 1900 and 7 before 1776, even though more than half of all American universities were founded in the twentieth century.  Before competitors had entered the field, the oldest schools had already established a pattern of training the country’s leaders, locked up access to the wealthiest families, accumulated substantial endowments, and hired the most capable faculty.

Rule Two:  The strongest rewards go to those at the top of the system.  This means that every college below the top has a strong incentive to move up the ladder, and that top colleges have a strong incentive to preserve their advantage.  Even though it is very difficult for lower-level schools to move up, this doesn’t keep them from trying.  Despite long odds, the possible payoff is big enough that everyone stays focused on the tier above.  A few major success stories allow institutions to keep their hopes alive.  University presidents lie awake at night dreaming of replicating the route to the top followed by social climbers like Berkeley, Hopkins, Chicago, and Stanford.

Rule Three:  It pays to imitate your betters.  As the research university emerged as the model for the top tier in American higher education in the twentieth century, it became the ideal toward which all other schools sought to move.  To get ahead you needed to offer a full array of undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs, selective admissions and professors who publish, a football stadium and Gothic architecture.  (David Riesman called this structure of imitation “the academic procession.”)[2]  Of course, given the advantages enjoyed by the top tier, imitation has rarely produced the desired results.  But it’s the only game in town.  Even if you don’t move up in the rankings, you at least help reassure your school’s various constituencies that they are associated with something that looks like and feels like a real university.

Rule Four:  It’s best to expand the system by creating new colleges rather than increasing enrollments at existing colleges.  Periodically new waves of educational consumers push for access to higher education.  Initially, existing schools expanded to meet the demand, which meant that as late as 1900 Harvard was the largest U.S. university, public or private.[3]  But beyond this point in the growth process, it was not in the interest of existing institutions to provide wider access.  Concerned about protecting their institutional advantage, they had no desire to sully their hard-won distinction by admitting the unwashed.  Better to have this kind of thing done by additional colleges created for that purpose.  The new colleges emerged, then, as a clearly designated lower tier in the system, defined as such by both their newness and their accessibility.

Think about how these rules have shaped the historical process that produced the present stratified structure of higher education.  This structure has four tiers.  In line with Rule One, these tiers from top to bottom emerged in roughly chronological order.  The Ivy League colleges emerged in the colonial period, followed by a series of flagship state colleges in the early and mid-nineteenth century.  These institutions, along with a few social climbers that emerged later, grew to form the core of the elite research universities that make up the top tier of the system.  Schools in this tier are the most influential, prestigious, well-funded, exclusive, research-productive, and graduate-oriented – in the U.S. and in the world.

The second tier emerged from the land grant colleges that began appearing in the mid to late nineteenth century.  They were created to fill a need not met by existing institutions, expanding access for a broader array of students and offering programs with practical application in areas like agriculture and engineering.  They were often distinguished from the flagship research university by the word “state” in their title (as with University of Michigan vs. Michigan State University) or the label “A & M” (for Agricultural and Mechanical, as with University of Texas vs. Texas A & M).  But, in line with Rules Two and Three, they responded to consumer demand by quickly evolving into full service colleges and universities; and in the twentieth century they adopted the form and function of the research university, albeit in a more modest manner.

The third tier arose from the normal schools, established in the late nineteenth century to prepare teachers.  Like the land grant schools that preceded them, these narrowly vocational institutions evolved quickly under pressure from consumers, who wanted them to model themselves after the schools in the top tiers by offering a more valuable set of credentials that would provide access to a wider array of social opportunities.  Under these market pressures, normal schools evolved into teachers colleges, general-purpose state colleges, and finally, by the 1960s, comprehensive regional state universities.

The fourth tier emerged in part from the junior colleges that first arose in the early twentieth century and eventually evolved into an extensive system of community colleges.  Like the land grant college and normal school, these institutions offered access to a new set of students at a lower level of the system.  Unlike their predecessors, for the most part they have not been allowed by state governments to imitate the university model, remaining primarily as two-year schools.  But through the transfer option, many students use them as a more accessible route into institutions in the upper tiers.

What This Means for Educational Consumers

This highly stratified system is very difficult for consumers to navigate.  Instead of allocating access to the top level of the system using the mechanism employed by most of the rest of the world – a state-administered university matriculation exam – the highly decentralized American system allocates access by means of informal mechanisms that in comparison seem anarchic.  In the absence of one access route, there are many; and in the absence of clear rules for prospective students, there are multiple and conflicting rules of thumb.  Also, the rules of thumb vary radically according to which tier of the system you are seeking to enter.

First, let’s look at the admissions process for families (primarily the upper-middle class) who are trying to get their children entrée to the elite category of highly selective liberal arts colleges and research universities.  They have to take into account the wide array of factors that enter into the complex and opaque process that American colleges use to select students at this level:  quality of high school; quality of a student’s program of study; high school grades; test scores in the SAT or ACT college aptitude tests; interests and passions expressed in an application essay; parents’ alumni status; whether the student needs financial aid; athletic skills; service activities; diversity factors such as race, ethnicity, class, national origin, sex, and sexual orientation; and extracurricular contributions a student might make to the college community.  There is no centralized review process; instead every college carries out its own admissions review and employs its own criteria.

This open and indeterminate process provides a huge advantage for upper-middle-class families.  If you are a parent who is a college graduate and who works at a professional or managerial job, where the payoff of going to a good college is readily apparent, you have the cultural and social capital to negotiate this system effectively and read its coded messages.  For you, going to college is not the issue; it’s a matter of which college your children can get into that would provide them with the greatest competitive advantage in the workplace.  You want for them the college that might turn them down rather than the one that would welcome them with open arms.  So you enroll your children in test prep; hire a college advisor; plan out a strategic plan for high school course-taking and extracurriculars; craft a service resume that makes them look appropriately public-spirited; take them on the obligatory college tour; and come up with just the right mix of applications to the stretch schools, the safety schools, and those in between.  And all this pays off handsomely: 77 percent of children from families in the top quintile by income gain a bachelor’s degree.[4]

If you are a parent farther down the class scale, who didn’t attend college and whose own work environment is not well stocked with college graduates, you have a lot more trouble negotiating the system.  The odds are not good:  for students from the fourth income quintile, only 17 percent earn a BA, and for the lowest quintile the rate is only 9 percent.[5]  Under these circumstances, having your child go to a college, any college, is a big deal; and one college is hard to distinguish from another.  But you are faced by a system that offers an extraordinary diversity of choices for prospective students:  public, not-for-profit, or for-profit; secular or religious; two-year or four-year; college or university; teaching or research oriented; massive or tiny student body; vocational or liberal; division 1, 2, or 3 intercollegiate athletics, or no sports at all; party school or nerd haven; high rank or low rank; full-time or part-time enrollment; urban or pastoral; gritty or serene; residential, commuter, or “suitcase college” (where students go home on weekends).  In this complex setting both consumers and providers somehow have to make choices that are in their own best interest.  Families from the upper-middle class are experts at negotiating this system, trimming the complexity down to a few essentials:  a four-year institution that is highly selective and preferably private (not-for-profit).  Everything else is optional.

If you’re a working-class family, however – lacking deep knowledge of the system and without access to the wide array of support systems that money can buy – you are more likely to take the system at face value.  Having your children go to a community college is the most obvious and attractive option.  It’s close to home, inexpensive, and easy to get into.  It’s where your children’s friends will be going, it allows them to work and go to school part time, and it doesn’t seem as forbiddingly alien as the state university (much less the Ivies).  You don’t need anything to gain admission except a high school diploma or GED.  No tests, counselors, tours, or resume-burnishing is required.  Of you could try the next step up, the local comprehensive state university.  To apply for admission, all you need is a high school transcript.  You might get turned down, but the odds are in your favor.  The cost is higher but can usually be paid with federal grants and loans.  An alternative is a for-profit institution, which is extremely accessible, flexible, and often online.  It’s not cheap, but federal grants and loans can pay the cost.  What you don’t have any way of knowing is that the most accessible colleges at the bottom of the system are also the ones where students are least likely to graduate.  (Only 29 percent of students entering two-year colleges earn an associate degree in three years;[6] only 39 percent earn a degree from a two-year or four-year institution in six years.[7])  You also may not be aware that the economic payoff for these colleges is lower; or that the colleges higher up the system may not only provide stronger support toward graduation and but might even be less expensive because of greater scholarship funding.

In this way, the complexity and opacity of this market-based and informally-structured system helps reinforce the social advantages of those at the top of the social ladder and limit the opportunities for those at the bottom.  It’s a system that rewards the insider knowledge of old hands and punishes newcomers.  To work it effectively, you need reject the fiction that a college is a college is a college and learn how seek advantage in the system’s upper tiers.

On the other hand, the system’s fluidity is real.  The absence of state-sanctioned and formally structured tracks means that the barriers between the system’s tiers are permeable.  Your children’s future is not predetermined by their high school curriculum or their score on the matriculation exam.  They can apply to any college they want and see what happens.  Of course, if their grades and scores are not great, their chances of admission to upper level institutions are poor.  But their chances of getting into a teaching-oriented state university are pretty good, and their chances of getting into a community college are virtually assured.  And if they take the latter option, as is most often the case for children from socially disadvantaged families, there is a real (if modest) possibility that they might be able to prove their academic chops, earn an AA degree, and transfer to a university, even a research university.  The probabilities of moving up in the system are low:  most community college students never earn an AA degree; and transfers have a harder time succeeding in the university than students who enroll there as freshmen.  But the possibilities are nonetheless genuine.

American higher education offers something for everyone.  It helps those at the bottom to get ahead and those at the top to stay ahead.  It provides socially useful educational services for every ability level and every consumer preference.  This gives it an astonishingly broad base of political support across the entire population, since everyone needs it and everyone can potentially benefit from it.  And this kind of legitimacy is not possible if the opportunity the system offers to the lower classes is a simple fraud.  First generation college students, even if they struggled in high school, can attend community college, transfer to San Jose State, and end up working at Apple.  It’s not very likely, but it assuredly is possible.  True, the more advantages you bring to the system – cultural capital, connections, family wealth – the higher the probability that you will succeed in it.  But even if you are lacking in these attributes, there is still an outside chance that you just might make it through the system and emerge with a good middle class job.

This helps explain how the system gets away with preserving social advantage for those at the top without stirring a revolt from those at the bottom.  Students from working-class and lower-class families are much less likely to be admitted to the upper reaches of the higher education system that provides the greatest social rewards; but the opportunity to attend some form of college is high, and attending a college at the lower levels of the system may provide access to a good job.  The combination of high access to the lower levels of the system and high attrition on the way to attaining a bachelor’s degree creates a situation where the system gets credit for openness and the student bears the burden for failing to capitalize on it.  The system gave you a chance but you just couldn’t make the grade.  The ready-made explanations for personal failure accumulate quickly as students try to move through the system.  You didn’t study hard enough, you didn’t get good grades in high school, you didn’t get good test scores, so you couldn’t get into a selective college.  Instead you went to a community college, where you got distracted from your studies by work, family, and friends, and you didn’t have the necessary academic ability; so you failed to complete your AA degree.  Or maybe you did complete the degree and transferred to a university, but you had trouble competing with students who were more able and better prepared than you.  Along with the majority of students who don’t make it all the way to a BA, you bear the burden for your failure – a conclusion that is reinforced by the occasional but highly visible successes of a few of your peers.  The system is well defended against charges of unfairness.

So we can understand why people at the bottom don’t cry foul.  It gave you a chance.  And there is one more reason for keeping up your hope that education will pay off for you.  A degree from an institution in a lower tier may pay lower benefits, but for some purposes one degree really is as good as another.  Often the question in getting a job or a promotion is not whether you have a classy credential but whether you have whatever credential is listed as the minimum requirement in the job description.  Bureaucracies operate on a level where form often matters more than substance.  As long as you can check off the box confirming that you have a bachelor’s degree, the BA from University of Phoenix and the BA from University of Pennsylvania can serve the same function, by allowing you to be considered for the job.  And if, say, you’re a public school teacher, an MA from Capella University, under the district contract, is as effective as one from Stanford University, because either will qualify you for a $5,000 bump in pay.

At the same time, however, we can see why the system generates so much anxiety among students who are trying to use the system to move up the social ladder for the good life.  It’s really the only game in town for getting a good job in twenty-first century America.  Without higher education, you are closed off from the white collar jobs that provide the most security and pay.  Yes, you could try to start a business, or you could try to work your way up the ladder in an organization without a college degree; but the first approach is highly risky and the second is highly unlikely, since most jobs come with minimum education requirements regardless of experience.  So you have to put all of your hopes in the higher-ed basket while knowing – because of your own difficult experiences in high school and because of what you see happening with family and friends – that your chances for success are not good.  You either you choose to pursue higher ed against the odds or you simply give up.  It’s a situation fraught with anxiety.

What is less obvious, however, is why the American system of higher education – which is so clearly skewed in favor of people at the top of the social order – fosters so much anxiety in them.  Upper-middle-class families in the U.S. are obsessed with education and especially with getting their children into the right college.  Why?  They live in the communities that have the best public schools; their children have cultural and social skills that schools value and reward; and they can afford the direct cost and opportunity cost of sending their high school grads to a residential college, even one of the pricey privates.  So why are there only a few colleges that seem to matter to this group?  Why does it matter so much to have your child not only get into the University of California but into Berkeley or UCLA?  What’s wrong with having them attend Santa Cruz or even one of the Cal State campuses?  And why the overwhelming passion for pursuing admission to Harvard or Yale?

The urgency behind all such frantic concern about admission to the most elite level of the system is this:  As parents of privilege, you can pass on your wealth to your children, but you can’t give them a profession.  Education is built into the core of modern societies, where occupations are no longer inherited but more or less earned.  If you’re a successful doctor or lawyer, you can provide a lot of advantages for your children; but in order for them to gain a position such as yours, they must succeed in school, get into a good college, and then into a good graduate school.  Unless they own the company, even business executives can’t pass on position to their children, and even then it’s increasingly rare that they would actually do so.  (Like most shareholders, they would profit more by having the company led by a competent executive than by the boss’s son.)  Under these circumstances of modern life, providing social advantage to your children means providing them with educational advantage.  Parents who have been through the process of climbing the educational hierarchy in order to gain prominent position in the occupational hierarchy know full well what it takes to make the grade.

They also know something else:  When you’re at the top of the social system, there is little opportunity to rise higher but plenty of opportunity to fall farther down.  Consider data on intergenerational mobility in the U.S.  For children of parents in the top quintile by household income, 60 percent end up at least one quintile lower than their parents and 37 fall at least two quintiles.[8]  That’s a substantial decline in social position.  So there’s good reason for these parents to fear downward mobility for their children and to use all their powers to marshal educational resources to head it off.  The problem is this:  Even though your own children have a wealth of advantages in negotiating the educational system, there are still enough bright and ambitious students from the lower classes who manage to make it through the educational gauntlet to pose them a serious threat.  So you need to make sure that your children attend the best schools, get into the high reading group and the program for the gifted, take plenty of advanced placement classes, and then get into a highly selective college and graduate school.  Leave nothing to chance, since some of your heirs are likely to be less talented and ambitious than those children who prove themselves against all odds by climbing the educational ladder.  When the higher education system opened up access after World War II, it made competition for the top tier of the system sharply higher, and the degree of competitiveness continued to increase as the proportion of students going to college grew to a sizeable majority.  As Jerome Karabel has noted in his study of elite college admissions, the American system of higher education does not equalize opportunity but it does equalize anxiety.[9]  It makes families at all levels of American society nervous about their ability to negotiate the system effectively, because it provides the only highway to the good life.

The American Meritocracy

The American system of education is formally meritocratic, but one of its social effects is to naturalize privilege.  This starts when a student’s academic merit is so central and so pervasive in schooling that it embeds itself within the individual person.  You start saying things like:  I’m smart.  I’m dumb.  I’m a good student.  I’m a bad student.  I’m good at reading but bad at math.  I’m lousy at sports.  The construction of merit is coextensive with the entire experience of growing up, and therefore it comes to constitute the emergent you.  It no longer seems to be something imposed by a teacher or a school but instead comes to be an essential part of your identity.  It’s now less what you do and increasingly who you are.  In this way, the systemic construction of merit begins to disappear and what’s left is a permanent trait of the individual.  You are your grade and your grade is your destiny.

The problem, however – as an enormous amount of research shows – is that the formal measures of merit that schools use are subject to powerful influence from a student’s social origins.  No matter how you measure merit, it affects your score.  It shapes your educational attainment.  It also shows up in measures that rank educational institutions by quality and selectivity.  Across the board, your parents’ social class has an enormous impact on the level of merit you are likely to acquire in school.  Students with higher social position end up accumulating a disproportionately large number of academic merit badges.

The correlations between socioeconomic status and school measures of merit are strong and consistent, and the causation is easy to determine.  Being born well has an enormously positive impact on the education merit you acquire across your life.  Let us count the ways.  Economic capital is one obvious factor.  Wealthy communities can support better schools. Social capital is another factor.  Families from the upper middle classes have a much broader network of relationships with the larger society than those form the working class, which provides a big advantage for their schooling prospects.  For them, the educational system is not foreign territory but feels like home.

Cultural capital is a third factor, and the most important of all.  School is a place that teaches students the cognitive skills, cultural norms, and forms of knowledge that are required for competent performance in positions of power.  Schools demonstrate a strong disposition toward these capacities over others:  mental over manual skills, theoretical over practical knowledge, decontextualized over contextualized perspectives, mind over body, Gesellschaft over Gemeinschaft.  Parents in the upper middle class are already highly skilled in these cultural capacities, which they deploy in their professional and managerial work on a daily basis.  Their children have grown up in the world of cultural capital.  It’s a language they learn to speak at home.  For working-class children, school is an introduction to a foreign culture and a new language, which unaccountably other students seem to already know.  They’re playing catchup from day one.  Also, it turns out that schools are better at rewarding cultural capital than they are at teaching it.  So kids from the upper middle class can glide through school with little effort while others continually struggle to keep up.  The longer they remain in school, the larger the achievement gap between the two groups.

In the wonderful world of academic merit, therefore, the fix is in.  Upper income students have a built-in advantage in acquiring the grades, credits, and degrees that constitute the primary prizes of the school meritocracy.  But – and this is the true magic of the educational process – the merits that these students accumulate at school come in a purified academic form that is independent of their social origins.  They may have entered schooling as people of privilege, but they leave it as people of merit.  They’re good students.  They’re smart.  They’re well educated.  As a result, they’re totally deserving of special access to the best jobs.  They arrived with inherited privilege but they leave with earned privilege.  So now they fully deserve what they get with their new educational credentials.

In this way, the merit structure of schooling performs a kind of alchemy.  It turns class position into academic merit.  It turns ascribed status into achieved status. You may have gotten into Harvard by growing up in a rich neighborhood with great schools and by being a legacy.  But when you graduate, you bear the label of a person of merit, whose future accomplishments arise alone from your superior abilities.  You’ve been given a second nature.

Consequences of Naturalized Privilege: The New Aristocracy

The process by which schools naturalize academic merit brings major consequences to the larger society.  The most important of these is that it legitimizes social inequality.  People who were born on third base get credit for hitting a triple, and people who have to start in the batter’s box face the real possibility of striking out.  According to the educational system, divergent social outcomes are the result of differences in individual merit, so, one way or the other, people get what they deserve.  The fact that a fraction of students from the lower classes manage against the odds to prove themselves in school and move up the social scale only adds further credibility to the existence of a real meritocracy.

In the United States in the last 40 years, we have come to see the broader implications of this system of status attainment through institutional merit.  It has created a new kind of aristocracy.  This is not Jefferson’s natural aristocracy, grounded in public accomplishments, but a caste of meritocratic privilege, grounded in the formalized and naturalized merit signaled by educational credentials.  As with aristocracies of old, the new meritocracy is a system of rule by your betters – no longer defined as those who are better born or more accomplished but now as those who are better educated.  Michael Young saw this coming back in 1958, as he predicted in his fable, The Rise of the Meritocracy.[10]  But now we can see that it has truly taken hold.

The core expertise of this new aristocracy is skill in working the system.  You have to know how to play the game of educational merit-getting and pass this on to your children.  The secret is in knowing that the achievements that get awarded merit points through the process of schooling are not substantive but formal.  Schooling is not about learning the subject matter; it’s about getting good grades, accumulating course credits, and collecting the diploma on the way out the door.  Degrees pay off, not what you learned in school or even the number of years of schooling you have acquired.  What you need to know is what’s going to be on the test and nothing else.  So you need to study strategically and spend of lot of effort working the refs.  Give teacher what she wants and be sure to get on her good side.  Give the college admissions officers the things they are looking for in your application.  Pump up your test scores with coaching and learning how to game the questions.

Members of the new aristocracy are particularly aggressive about carrying out a strategy known as opportunity hoarding.  There is no academic advantage too trivial to pursue, and the number of advantages you accumulate can never be enough.  In order to get your children into the right selective college you need send them to the right school, get them into the gifted program in elementary school and the right track in high school, hire a tutor, carry out test prep, do the college tour, pursue prizes, develop a well-rounded resume for the student (sport, student leadership, musical instrument, service), pull strings as a legacy and a donor, and on and on and on.

As we saw earlier, such behavior by upper-middle-class parents is not a crazy as it seems.  The problem with being at the top is that there’s nowhere to go but down.  The system is just meritocratic enough to keep the most privileged families on edge, worried about having their child bested by a smart poor kid.   Again, as Karabel put it, the only thing U.S. education equalizes is anxiety.

As with earlier aristocracies, the new aristocrats of merit cluster together in the same communities, where the schools are like no other.  Their children attend the same elite colleges, where they meet their future mates and then transmit their combined cultural, social, and economic capital in concentrated form to their children, a process sociologists call assortative mating.  And one consequence of this increase concentration of educational resources is that the achievement gap between low and high income students has been rising; Sean Reardon’s study shows the gap growing 40 percent in the last quarter of the twentieth century.  This is how educational and social inequality grows larger over time.

By assuming the form of meritocracy, schools have come to play a central role in defining the character of modern society.  In the process they have served to increase social opportunity while also increasing social inequality.  At the same time, they have established a solid educational basis for the legitimacy of this new inequality, and they have fostered the development of a new aristocracy of educational merit whose economic power, social privilege, and cultural cohesion would be the envy of the high nobility in early modern England or France.  Now, as then, the aristocracy assumes its outsized social role as a matter of natural right.



Community College Research Center. (2015). Community College FAQs. Teachers College, Columbia University. (accessed 8-3-15).

Geiger, Roger L. (2004). To Advance Knowledge: The Growth of American research Universities, 1900-1940. New Brunswick: Transaction.

Karabel, Jerome. (2005). The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. New York: Mariner Books.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2014). Digest of Education Statistics, 2013. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office.

Pell Institute and PennAHEAD. (2015). Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States (2015 revised edition). Philadelphia: The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education and the University of Pennsylvania Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy (PennAHEAD). (accessed 8-10-15).

Pew Charitable Trusts Economic Mobility Project. (2012). Pursuing the American Dream: Economic Mobility Across Generations. Washington, DC: Pew Charitable Trusts. (accessed 8-10-15).

Riesman, David.  (1958).  The Academic Procession.  In Constraint and variety in American education.  Garden City, NY:  Doubleday.

U.S. News and World Report. (2015). National Universities Rankings. (accessed 4-28-15).

Young, Michael D. (1958). The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870-2023.  New York:  Random House.


[1] U.S. News (2015).

[2] Riesman, (1958).

[3] Geiger (2004), 270.

[4] Pell (2015), p. 31.

[5] Pell (2015), p. 31.

[6] NCES (2014), table 326.20.

[7] CCRC (2015).

[8] Pew (2012), figure 3.

[9] Karabel (2005), p. 547.

[10] Young (1958).

Posted in Higher Education, History of education, History of Higher Education Class

Class on the History of Higher Education in the U.S.

This post contains all of the material for the class on the History of Higher Education in the US that I taught for at the Stanford Graduate School of Education for the last 15 years.  In retirement I wanted to make the course available on the internet to anyone who is interested.  If you are a college teacher, feel free to use any of it in whole or part.  If you are a student or a group of students, you can work your way through the class on your own at your own pace.  Any benefits that accrue are purely intrinsic, since no one will get college credits.  But that also means you’re free to pursue the parts of the class that you want and you don’t have any requirements or papers.  How great is that.

I’m posting the full syllabus below.  But it would be more useful to get it as a Word document through this link.  Feel free to share it with anyone you like.

All of the course materials except three required books are embedded in the syllabus through hyperlinks to a Google drive.  For each week, the syllabus includes a link to tips for approaching the readings, links to the PDFs of the readings, and a link to the slides for that week’s class.  Slides also include links to additional sources.  So the syllabus is all that is needed to gain access to the full class.

I hope you find this useful.


History of Higher Education in the U.S.

A 10-Week Class

David Labaree


Twitter: @Dlabaree


Course Description

This course provides an introductory overview of the history of higher education in the United States.  We will start with Perkin’s account of the world history of the university, and two chapters from my book about the role of the market in shaping the history of American higher education and the pressure from consumers to have college provide both social access and social advantage.  In week two, we examine an overview of the history of American college and university in the 18th and 19th centuries from John Thelin, and my chapter on the emerging nature of the college system.  In week three, we focus on the rise of the university in the latter part of the 19th century using two more chapters from Thelin, and my own chapter on the subject.  In week four, we read a series of papers around the issue of access to higher education, showing how colleges for many years sought to repel or redirect the college aspirations of women, blacks, and Jews.  In week five, we examine the history of professional education, with special attention to schools of business, education, and medicine.  In week six, we read several chapters from Donald Levine’s book about the rise of mass higher education after World War I, my piece about the rise of community colleges, and more from Thelin.  In week seven, we look at the surge of higher ed enrollments after World War II, drawing on pieces by Rebecca Lowen, Roger Geiger, Thelin, and Labaree.  In week eight, we look at the broadly accessible full-service regional state university, drawing on Alden Dunham, Thelin, Lohmann, and my chapter on the relationship between the public and private sector.  In week nine, we read a selection of chapters from Jerome Karabel’s book about the struggle by elite universities to stay on top of a dynamic and expanding system of higher education.  And in week 10, we step back and try to get a fix on the evolved nature of the American system of higher education, drawing on work by Mitchell Stevens and the concluding chapters of my book.

Like every course, this one is not a neutral survey of all possible perspectives on the domain identified by the course title; like every course, this one has a point of view.  This point of view comes through in my book manuscript that we’ll be reading in the course.  Let me give you an idea of the kind of approach I will be taking.

The American system of higher education is an anomaly.  In the twentieth century it surged past its European forebears to become the dominant system in the world – with more money, talent, scholarly esteem, and institutional influence than any of the systems that served as its models.  By all rights, this never should have happened.  Its origins were remarkably humble: a loose assortment of parochial nineteenth-century liberal-arts colleges, which emerged in the pursuit of sectarian expansion and civic boosterism more than scholarly distinction.  These colleges had no academic credibility, no reliable source of students, and no steady funding.  Yet these weaknesses of the American system in the nineteenth century turned out to be strengths in the twentieth.  In the absence of strong funding and central control, individual colleges had to learn how to survive and thrive in a highly competitive market, in which they needed to rely on student tuition and alumni donations and had to develop a mode of governance that would position them to pursue any opportunity and cultivate any source of patronage.  As a result, American colleges developed into an emergent system of higher education that was lean, adaptable, autonomous, consumer-sensitive, self-supporting, and radically decentralized.  This put the system in a strong position to expand and prosper when, before the turn of the twentieth century, it finally got what it was most grievously lacking:  a surge of academic credibility (when it assumed the mantle of scientific research) and a surge of student enrollments (when it became the pipeline to the middle class).  This course is an effort to understand how a system that started out so badly turned out so well – and how its apparently unworkable structure is precisely what makes the system work.

That’s an overview of the kind of argument I will be making about the history of higher education.  But you should feel free to construct your own, rejecting mine in part or in whole.  The point of this class, like any class, is to encourage you to try on a variety of perspectives as part of the process of developing your own working conceptual framework for understanding the world.  I hope you will enjoy the ride.


Books:  We will be reading the following books:

Thelin, John R. (2011). A history of American higher education, 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Labaree, David F. (2017). A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Karabel, Jerome. (2005). The chosen: The hidden history of admission and exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

             Supplementary Resources:  There is a terrific online archive of primary and secondary readings on higher education, which is a supplement to The History of Higher Education, 3rd ed., published by the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE):

Course Outline

Below are the topics we will cover, week by week, with the readings for each week.

Week 1

Introduction to course

Tips for week 1 readings

Labaree, David F. (2015). A system without a plan: Elements of the American model of higher education.  Chapter 1 in A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education.

Labaree, David F. (2015). Balancing access and advantage.  Chapter 5 in A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education,

Perkin, Harold. (1997). History of universities. In Lester F. Goodchild and Harold S. Wechsler (Eds.), ASHE reader on the history of higher education, 2nd ed. (pp. 3-32). Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing.

Class slides for week 1

Week 2

Overview of the Early History of Higher Education in the U.S.

Tips for week 2 readings

Thelin, John R. (2011). A history of American higher education, 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press (introductory essay and chapters 1-3).

Labaree, David F. (2015). Unpromising roots:  The ragtag college system in the nineteenth century.  Chapter 2 in A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education.

Class slides for week 2

Week 3

Roots of the Growth of the University in the Late 19th and Early 20th Century

Thursday 4/19

Tips for week 3 readings

Thelin, John R. (2011). A history of American higher education, 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press (chapters 4-5).

Labaree, David F. (2015). Adding the pinnacle and keeping the base: The graduate school crowns the system, 1880-1910.  Chapter 3 in A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education,

Labaree, David F. (1995).  Foreword (to book by Brown, David K. (1995). Degrees of control: A sociology of educational expansion and occupational credentialism. New York: Teachers College Press).

Class slides for week 3

 Week 4

Educating and Not Educating the Other:  Blacks, Women, and Jews

Tips for week 4 readings

Wechsler, Harold S. (1997).  An academic Gresham’s law: Group repulsion as a theme in American higher education. In Lester F. Goodchild and Harold S. Wechsler (Eds.), ASHE reader on the history of higher education, 2nd ed. (pp. 416-431). Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing.

Anderson, James D. (1997).  Training the apostles of liberal culture: Black higher education, 1900-1935. In Lester F. Goodchild and Harold S. Wechsler (Eds.), ASHE reader on the history of higher education, 2nd ed. (pp. 432-458). Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing.

Gordon, Lynn D. (1997).  From seminary to university: An overview of women’s higher education, 1870-1920. In Lester F. Goodchild and Harold S. Wechsler (Eds.), ASHE reader on the history of higher education, 2nd ed. (pp. 473-498). Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing.

Class slides for week 4

Week 5

History of Professional Education

Tips for week 5 readings

Brubacher, John S. and Rudy, Willis. (1997). Professional education. In Lester F. Goodchild and Harold S. Wechsler (Eds.), ASHE reader on the history of higher education, 2nd ed. (pp. 379-393). Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing.

Bledstein, Burton J. (1976). The culture of professionalism. In The culture of professionalism: The middle class and the development of higher education in America (pp. 80-128). New York:  W. W. Norton.

Labaree, David F. (2015). Mutual subversion: The liberal and the professional. Chapter 4 in A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education,

Starr, Paul. (1984). Transformation of the medical school. In Social transformation of American medicine (pp. 112-127). New York: Basic.

Class slides for week 5

Week 6

Emergence of Mass Higher Education

Tips for week 6 readings

Levine, Donald O. (1986).  The American college and the culture of aspiration, 1915-1940. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.  Read introduction and chapters 3, 4, and 8.

Thelin, John R. (2011). A history of American higher education, 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press (chapter 6).

Labaree, David F. (1997). The rise of the community college: Markets and the limits of educational opportunity.  In How to succeed in school without really learning:  The credentials race in American education (chapter 8, pp. 190-222). New Haven: Yale University Press.

Class slides for week 6

Week 7

The Huge Surge of Higher Education Expansion after World War II

Tips for week 7 readings

Thelin, John R. (2011). A history of American higher education, 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press (chapter 7).

Geiger, Roger. (2004). University advancement from the postwar era to the 1960s. In Research and relevant knowledge: American research universities since World War II (chapter 5, pp. 117-156).  Read the first half of the chapter, which focuses on the rise of Stanford.

Lowen, Rebecca S. (1997). Creating the cold war university: The transformation of Stanford. Berkeley: University of California Press.  Introduction and Chapters 5 and 6.

Labaree, David F. (2015). Learning to love the bomb: America’s brief cold-war fling with the university as a public good. Chapter 7 in A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education.

Class slides for week 7

Week 8

Populist, Practical, and Elite:  The Diversity and Evolved Institutional Character of the Full-Service American University

Tips for week 8 readings

Thelin, John R. (2011). A history of American higher education, 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press (chapter 8).

Dunham, Edgar Alden. (1969). Colleges of the forgotten Americans: A profile of state colleges and universities. New York: McGraw Hill (introduction, chapters 1-2).

Lohmann, Suzanne. (2006). The public research university as a complex adaptive system. Unpublished paper, University of California, Los Angeles.

Labaree, David F. (2015). Private advantage, public impact. Chapter 6 in A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education.

Class slides for week 8

Week 9

The Struggle by Elite Universities to Stay on Top

Tips for week 9 readings

Karabel, Jerome. (2005). The chosen: The hidden history of admission and exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  Read introduction and chapters 2, 4, 9, 12, 13, 17, and 18.

Class slides for week 9

Week 10

Conclusions about the American System of Higher Education

Tips for week 10 readings

Stevens, Mitchell L., Armstrong, Elizabeth A., & Arum, Richard. (2008). Sieve, incubator, temple, hub: Empirical and theoretical advances in the sociology of higher education. Annual Review of Sociology, 34 (127-151).

Labaree, David F. (2015). Upstairs, downstairs: Relations between the tiers of the system. Chapter 8 in A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education,

Labaree, David F. (2015). A perfect mess. Chapter 9 in A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education.

Class slides for week 10


Guidelines for Critical Reading

Whenever you set out to do a critical reading of a particular text (a book, article, speech, proposal, conference paper), you need to use the following questions as a framework to guide you as you read:

  1. What’s the point? This is the analysis/interpretation issue: what is the author’s angle?
  2. What’s new? This is the value-added issue: What does the author contribute that we don’t already know?
  3. Who says? This is the validity issue: On what (data, literature) are the claims based?
  4. Who cares? This is the significance issue, the most important issue of all, the one that subsumes all the others: Is this work worth doing?  Is the text worth reading?  Does it contribute something important?

Guidelines for Analytical Writing

             In writing papers for this (or any) course, keep in mind the following points.  They apply in particular to the longer papers, but most of the same concerns apply to critical reaction papers as well.

  1. Pick an important issue: Make sure that your analysis meets the “so what” test. Why should anyone care about this topic, anyway?  Pick an issue or issues that matters and that you really care about.


  1. Keep focused: Don’t lose track of the point you are trying to make and make sure the reader knows where you are heading and why.


  1. Aim for clarity: Don’t assume that the reader knows what you’re talking about; it’s your job to make your points clearly.  In part this means keeping focused and avoiding distracting clutter.  But in part it means that you need to make more than elliptical references to concepts and sources or to professional experience.  When referring to readings (from the course or elsewhere), explain who said what and why this point is pertinent to the issue at hand.  When drawing on your own experiences or observations, set the context so the reader can understand what you mean.  Proceed as though you were writing for an educated person who is neither a member of this class nor a professional colleague, someone who has not read the material you are referring to.


  1. Provide analysis: A good paper is more than a catalogue of facts, concepts, experiences, or references; it is more than a description of the content of a set of readings; it is more than an expression of your educational values or an announcement of your prescription for what ails education.  A good paper is a logical and coherent analysis of the issues raised within your chosen area of focus.  This means that your paper should aim to explain rather than describe.  If you give examples, be sure to tell the reader what they mean in the context of your analysis.  Make sure the reader understands the connection between the various points in your paper.


  1. Provide depth, insight, and connections: The best papers are ones that go beyond making obvious points, superficial comparisons, and simplistic assertions.  They dig below the surface of the issue at hand, demonstrating a deeper level of understanding and an ability to make interesting connections.


  1. Support your analysis with evidence: You need to do more than simply state your ideas, however informed and useful these may be.  You also need to provide evidence that reassures the reader that you know what you are talking about, thus providing a foundation for your argument.  Evidence comes in part from the academic literature, whether encountered in this course or elsewhere.  Evidence can also come from your own experience.  Remember that you are trying to accomplish two things with the use of evidence.  First, you are saying that it is not just you making this assertion but that authoritative sources and solid evidence back you up.  Second, you are supplying a degree of specificity and detail, which helps to flesh out an otherwise skeletal argument.


  1. Draw on course materials (this applies primarily to reaction papers, not the final paper). Your paper should give evidence that you are taking this course.  You do not need to agree with any of the readings or presentations, but your paper should show you have considered the course materials thoughtfully.


  1. Recognize complexity and acknowledge multiple viewpoints. The issues in the history of American education are not simple, and your paper should not propose simple solutions to complex problems. It should not reduce issues to either/or, black/white, good/bad.  Your paper should give evidence that you understand and appreciate more than one perspective on an issue.  This does not mean you should be wishy-washy.  Instead, you should aim to make a clear point by showing that you have considered alternate views.


  1. Challenge assumptions. The paper should show that you have learned something by doing this paper. There should be evidence that you have been open to changing your mind.


  1. Do not overuse quotation: In a short paper, long quotations (more than a sentence or two in length) are generally not appropriate.  Even in longer papers, quotations should be used sparingly unless they constitute a primary form of data for your analysis.  In general, your paper is more effective if written primarily in your own words, using ideas from the literature but framing them in your own way in order to serve your own analytical purposes.  However, selective use of quotations can be very useful as a way of capturing the author’s tone or conveying a particularly aptly phrased point.


  1. Cite your sources: You need to identify for the reader where particular ideas or examples come from.  This can be done through in-text citation:  Give the author’s last name, publication year, and (in the case of quotations) page number in parentheses at the end of the sentence or paragraph where the idea is presented — e.g., (Kliebard, 1986, p. 22); provide the full citations in a list of references at the end of the paper.  You can also identify sources with footnotes or endnotes:  Give the full citation for the first reference to a text and a short citation for subsequent citations to the same text.  (For critical reaction papers, you only need to give the short cite for items from the course reading; other sources require full citations.)  Note that citing a source is not sufficient to fulfill the requirement to provide evidence for your argument.  As spelled out in #6 above, you need to transmit to the reader some of the substance of what appears in the source cited, so the reader can understand the connection with the point you are making and can have some meat to chew on.  The best analytical writing provides a real feel for the material and not just a list of assertions and citations.  Depth, insight, and connections count for more than a superficial collection of glancing references.  In other words, don’t just mention an array of sources without drawing substantive points and examples from these sources; and don’t draw on ideas from such sources without identifying the ones you used.


  1. Take care in the quality of your prose: A paper that is written in a clear and effective style makes a more convincing argument than one written in a murky manner, even when both writers start with the same basic understanding of the issues.  However, writing that is confusing usually signals confusion in a person’s thinking.  After all, one key purpose of writing is to put down your ideas in a way that permits you and others to reflect on them critically, to see if they stand up to analysis.  So you should take the time to reflect on your own ideas on paper and revise them as needed.  You may want to take advantage of the opportunity in this course to submit a draft of the final paper, revise it in light of comments, and then resubmit the revised version.  This, after all, is the way writers normally proceed.  Outside of the artificial world of the classroom, writers never turn in their first draft as their final statement on a subject.


Posted in Credentialing, Curriculum, Education policy, History of education, School reform

The Chronic Failure of Curriculum Reform

This post is about an issue I’ve wrestled with for years, namely why reforming schools in the U.S. is so difficult.  I eventually wrote a book on the subject, Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling, which was published in 2010.  But you may not need to read it if you look at this piece I did for Education Week back in 1999, which later appeared in a book called Lessons of a Century.  Here’s a link to the original.

Education Week Commentary

The Chronic Failure of Curriculum Reform

By David F. Labaree

May 19, 1999

One thing we have learned from examining the history of curriculum in the 20th century is that curriculum reform has had remarkably little effect on the character of teaching and learning in American classrooms. As the century draws to a close, it seems like a good time to think about why this has been the case.

The failure of curriculum reform was certainly not the result of a lack of effort. At various times during the last 100 years, reformers have: issued high-visibility reports proposing dramatic changes in the curriculum (Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education in 1918, A Nation at Risk in 1983); created whole new subject areas (social studies, vocational education, special education); sought to reorganize the curriculum around a variety of new principles (ability grouping, the project method, life adjustment, back to basics, inclusion, critical thinking); and launched movements to reinvent particular subjects (“New Math,” National Council of Teachers of Mathematics math, phonics, whole language).

In spite of all these reform efforts, the basic character of the curriculum that is practiced in American classrooms is strikingly similar to the form that predominated in the early part of the century. As before, the curriculum continues to revolve around traditional academic subjects–which we cut off from practical everyday knowledge, teach in relative isolation from one another, differentiate by ability, sequence by age, ground in textbooks, and deliver in a teacher-centered classroom. So much effort and so little result.

How can we understand this problem? For starters, we can recognize that curriculum means different things at different levels in the educational system, and that curriculum reform has had the greatest impact at the level most remote from teaching and learning in the classroom. Starting at the top of the system and moving toward the bottom, there is the rhetorical curriculum (ideas put forward by educational leaders, policymakers, and professors about what curriculum should be, as embodied in reports, speeches, and college texts), the formal curriculum (written curriculum policies put in place by school districts and embodied in curriculum guides and textbooks), the curriculum-in-use (the content that teachers actually teach in individual classrooms), and the received curriculum (the content that students actually learn in these classrooms).

Each wave of reform dramatically transforms the rhetorical curriculum, by changing the way educational leaders talk about the subject. This gives the feeling that something is really happening, but most often it’s not. Sometimes the reform moves beyond this stage and begins to shape the formal curriculum, getting translated into district-level curriculum frameworks and the textbooks approved for classroom use. Yet this degree of penetration does not guarantee that reform ideas will have an observable effect on the curriculum-in-use. More often than not, teachers respond to reform rhetoric and local curriculum mandates by making only marginal changes in the way they teach subjects. They may come to talk about their practice using the new reform language, but only rarely do they make dramatic changes in their own curriculum practice. And even the rare cases when teachers bring their teaching in line with curriculum reform do not necessarily produce a substantial change in the received curriculum. What students learn is frequently quite different from what the reformers intended. For as curriculum-reform initiatives trickle down from the top to the bottom of the educational system, their power and coherence dissipate, with the result that student learning is likely to show few signs of the outcomes promoted by the original reform rhetoric. As David B. Tyack and Larry Cuban show in their book Tinkering Toward Utopia, the dominant pattern is one of recurring waves of reform rhetoric combined with glacial change in educational practice.

Why has this pattern persisted for so long? Consider a few enduring characteristics of American education that have undermined the impact of curriculum reform on teaching and learning.

Conflicting Goals: One factor is conflict over the goals of education itself. Different curriculum reforms embody different goals. Some promote democratic equality, by seeking to provide all children with the skills and knowledge they will need to function as competent citizens. Others promote social efficiency, by seeking to provide different groups of children with the specific skills they need in order to be productive in the different kinds of jobs required in a complex economy. Still others promote social mobility, by providing individual students with educational advantages in the competition for the best social positions. One result is that reform efforts over time produce a pendulum swing between alternative conceptions of what children need to learn, leading to a sense that reform is both chronic (“steady work,” as Richard Elmore and Milbrey McLaughlin put it) and cyclical (the here-we-go-again phenomenon). Another result is the compromise structure of the curriculum itself, which embodies contradictory purposes and therefore is unable to accomplish any one of these purposes with any degree of effectiveness (the familiar sense of schools as trying to do too much while accomplishing too little).

Credentialing Over Learning: From the perspective of the social-mobility goal, the point of education is not to learn the curriculum but to accumulate the grades, credits, and degrees that provide an edge in competing for jobs. So when this goal begins to play an increasingly dominant role in shaping education–which has been the case during the 20th century in the United States–curriculum reforms come to focus more on sorting and selecting students and less on enhancing learning, more on form than substance. This turns curriculum into a set of labels for differentiating students rather than a body of knowledge that all children should be expected to master, and it erects a significant barrier to any curriculum reforms that take learning seriously.

A Curriculum That Works: Another factor that undermines efforts to reform the curriculum is the comfortable sense among influential people that the current course of study in schools works reasonably well. Middle- and upper-middle-class families have little reason to complain. After graduation, their children for the most part go on to find attractive jobs and live comfortable lives. Judging from these results, schools must be providing these students with an adequate fund of knowledge and skills, so they have little reason to push for curriculum reform as a top priority. In fact, such changes may pose a threat to the social success of these children by changing the rules of the game–introducing learning criteria that they may not be able to meet (such as through performance testing), or eliminating curriculum options that provide special advantage (such as the gifted program). Meanwhile, families at the lower end of the social-class system, who have less reason to be happy about the social consequences of schooling, are not in a powerful position to push for reform.

Preserving the Curriculum of a Real School: Curriculum reform can spur significant opposition from people at all levels of society if it appears to change one of the fundamental characteristics of what Mary Metz calls “real school.” Since all of us have extensive experience as students in school, we all have a strong sense of what makes up a school curriculum. To a significant extent, this curriculum is made up of the elements I mentioned earlier: academic subjects, which are cut off from practical everyday knowledge, taught in relative isolation from one another, stratified by ability, sequenced by age, grounded in textbooks, and delivered in a teacher-centered classroom. If this is our sense of what curriculum is like in a real school, then we are likely to object to any reforms that make substantial changes in any of these defining elements. This shared cultural understanding of the school curriculum exerts a profoundly conservative influence, by blocking program innovations even if they enhance learning and by providing legitimacy for programs that fit the traditional model even if they deter learning.

Preserving Real Teaching: This conservative view of the curriculum is also frequently shared by teachers. Prospective teachers spend an extended “apprenticeship of observation” (in Dan Lortie’s phrase) as students in the K-12 classroom, during which they observe teaching from the little seats and become imprinted with a detailed picture of what the teacher’s curriculum-in-use looks like. They can’t see the reasons that motivate the teacher’s curriculum choices. All they can see is the process, the routines, the forms. So it is not surprising that they bring to their own teaching a sense of curriculum that is defined by textbooks, disconnected categories of knowledge, and academic exercises. Teacher-preparation programs often try to offset the legacy of this apprenticeship by promoting the latest in curriculum-reform perspectives, but they are up against a massive accumulation of experience and sense impression that works to preserve the traditional curriculum.

Organizational Convenience: The traditional curriculum also persists in the face of curriculum-reform efforts because this curriculum is organizationally convenient for both teachers and administrators. It is convenient to focus on academic subjects, which are aligned with university disciplines, thus simplifying teacher preparation. It is convenient to have a curriculum that is differentiated, which allows teachers to specialize. It is convenient to stratify studies by ability and age, which facilitates classroom management by allowing teachers to teach to the whole class at one level rather than adapt the curriculum to the individual needs of learners. It is convenient to ground teaching in textbooks, which reduce the demands on teacher expertise while also reducing the time commitment required for a teacher to develop her own curriculum materials. And it is convenient to run a teacher-centered classroom, which reinforces the teacher’s control and which also simplifies curriculum planning and student monitoring. Curriculum-reform efforts are hard to sell and even more difficult to sustain if they can only succeed if teachers have special capacities, such as: extraordinary subject-matter expertise; the time, will, and skill required to develop their own curriculum materials; the ability to teach widely divergent students effectively; and the ability to maintain control over these students while allowing them freedom to learn on their own.

Loose Coupling of School Systems: Another factor that undercuts the effectiveness of curriculum reform is the loosely coupled nature of American school systems. School administrators exert a lot of control over such matters as personnel, budgets, schedules, and supplies, but they have remarkably little control over the actual process of instruction. In part, this is because teaching takes place behind closed doors, which means that only individual teachers really know the exact nature of the curriculum-in-use in their own classrooms. But in part, this is because administrators have little power to make teachers toe the line instructionally. Most managers can influence employee performance on the job by manipulating traditional mechanisms of fear and greed: Cross me and you’re fired; do the job the way I want, and I’ll offer you a promotion and a pay increase. School administrators can fire teachers only with the greatest difficulty, and pay levels are based on years of service and graduate credits, not job performance. The result is that teachers have considerably more autonomy in the way they perform their fundamental functions than do most employees. And this autonomy makes it hard for administrators to ensure that the formal curriculum becomes the curriculum-in-use in district classrooms.

Adaptability of the School System: Curriculum reform is also difficult to bring about because of another organizational characteristic of the American educational system: its adaptability. As Philip Cusick has shown, the system has a genius for incorporating curriculum change without fundamental reorganization. This happens in two related ways–formalism and segmentation. One is the way that teachers adopt the language and the feel of a reform effort without altering the basic way they do things.

The system is flexible about adopting curriculum forms as long as this doesn’t challenge the basic structure of curriculum practice. The other way is inherent in the segmented structure of the school curriculum. The differentiation of subjects frees schools to adopt new programs and courses by the simple process of addition. They can always tack on another segment in the already fragmented curriculum, because these additions require no fundamental restructuring of programs. For this reason, schools are quite tolerant of programs and courses that have contradictory goals. Live and let live is the motto. By abandoning any commitment to coherence of curriculum and compatibility of purpose, schools are able to incorporate new initiatives without forcing collateral changes. The result is that schools appear open to reform while effectively resisting real change.

Weak Link Between Teaching and Learning: Finally, let me return to the problem that faces any curriculum-reform effort in the last analysis, and that is trying to line up the received curriculum with the curriculum-in-use. The problem we confront here is the irreducible weakness of the link between teaching and learning. Even if teachers, against considerable odds, were to transform the curriculum they use in their classrooms to bring it in line with a reform effort, there is little to reassure us that the students in these classes would learn what the reform curriculum was supposed to convey. Students, after all, are willful actors who learn only what they choose to learn. Teachers can’t make learning happen; they can only create circumstances that are conducive to learning. Students may indeed choose to learn what is taught, they may also choose to learn something quite different, or they may decide to resist learning altogether. And their willingness to cooperate in the learning process is complicated further by the fact that they are present in the classroom under duress. The law says they have to attend school until they are 16 years old; the job market pressures them to stay in school even longer than that. But these forces guarantee only attendance, not engagement in the learning process. So this last crucial step in the chain of curriculum reform may be the most difficult one to accomplish in a reliable and predictable manner, since curriculum reform means nothing unless learning undergoes reform as well.

For all the reasons spelled out here, curriculum-reform movements over the course of the 20th century have produced a lot of activity but not very much real change in the curriculum that teachers use in classrooms or in the learning that students accomplish in these classrooms. But isn’t there reason to think that the situation I have described is now undergoing fundamental change? That real curriculum reform may now be on the horizon?

We currently have a substantial movement to set firm curriculum standards, one that is coming at us from all sides. Presidents Bush and Clinton have pushed in this direction; state departments of education are establishing curriculum frameworks for all the districts under their jurisdiction; and individual subject-matter groups have been working out their own sets of standards. This is something new in American educational history. And combined with the standards movement is a movement for systematic testing of what students know–particularly at the state level, but also at the local and federal levels. If in fact we are moving in the direction of a system in which high-stakes tests determine whether students have learned the material required by curriculum standards, this could bring about a more profound level of curriculum reform than we have ever before experienced. Isn’t that right?

Not necessarily. The move toward standards and testing would affect only one or two elements in the long list of factors that impede curriculum reform. If this movement is successful–which is a big if–it would indeed help tighten the links in a system of education that has long been loosely coupled. It might also have an impact on the problem of student motivation, by convincing at least some students (those who see the potential occupational benefit of education) that they need to study the curriculum in order to graduate and get a good job. But this movement has already run into substantial resistance from religious conservatives and supporters of school choice, and it goes against the grain of the deep-seated American tradition of local control of education. In addition, I don’t see how it would have a serious impact on any of the other factors that have for so long deflected efforts to reform the curriculum. Conflicting goals, the power of credentialing over learning, keeping a system that works, preserving the curriculum of the real school, organizational convenience, and system adaptability–all of these elements would be largely unaffected by the current initiatives for standards and testing.

The history of reform during the 20th century thus leaves us with a sobering conclusion: The American educational system seems likely to continue resisting efforts to transform the curriculum.

David F. Labaree, a professor of teacher education at Michigan State University, is the author of How To Succeed in School Without Really Learning and The Making of an American High School, both published by Yale University Press.

Vol. 18, Issue 36, Pages 42-44

Published in Print: May 19, 1999, as The Chronic Failure of Curriculum Reform


Posted in Education policy, Educational Research, History of education

Do No Harm

This is a piece I wrote about the harm that educational research has inflicted over the years.  Given a track record of making things worse for school and society, educational researchers would do well to heed the wisdom in the Hippocratic Oath.  If our work often fails to make things better, we should at least strive to do no harm.

The paper first appeared in Teacher Education and Practice in 2011.  Here’s a link to the original.


Do No Harm

David F. Labaree

Education is a field of dreams and so is educational research.  As educators, we dream of schools that can improve the lives of students, solve social problems, and enrich the quality of life; and as educational researchers, we dream that our studies will enhance the effectiveness of schools in achieving these worthy goals.  Both fields draw recruits who see the possibilities of education as a force for doing good, and that turns out to be a problem, because the history of both fields shows that the chances for doing real harm are substantial.  Over the years, research on teaching and teacher education – the topic of the discussion in this special issue – has caused a lot of damage to teaching and learning and learning-to-teach in schools.  So I suggest a good principle to adopt when considering the role of research in teacher education is a version of the Hippocratic Oath:  First do no harm.

The history of educational research in the United States in the twentieth century supports a pessimistic assessment of the field’s impact on American school and society.  There was Edward L. Thorndike, whose work emphasized the importance of differentiating the curriculum in order to provide the skills and knowledge that students would later need in playing sharply different roles in a stratified workforce.  There was David Snedden, who labored tirelessly to promote narrowly vocational training for that large group of students who would end up serving in what he called “the rank and file.”  There were the kingpins of educational testing, such as Lewis Terman, who developed instruments that allowed educators to measure student ability and student learning, which in turn helped determine which track students should occupy and what role they should play in later life.  Put together, these kinds of enormously productive educational researchers helped build a system of schooling that emphasized sorting over learning and promoted a vision of teaching that emphasized the delivery of curriculum over the engagement of students.  They laid the foundation for the current machinery of curriculum standards and high-stakes testing that has turned American teaching into a machinery for raising test scores.

Of course, these educational researchers usually did not intend to do harm.  (Snedden is the exception here, a man who was on a mission to dumb down schooling for the lower classes.)  For the most part, they saw making curriculum more scientific and intelligence testing more accurate as ways to allow individuals with merit to escape from the clutches of their social origins.  Like most educational researchers, they were optimists about the possible impact of their work.  But their examples should serve as a cautionary tale for researchers who see their work as an unmitigated exercise in human improvement.

One factor in particular tends to bend the work of researchers toward the dark side of the force, and that is research funding.  Very few government agencies and foundations are eager to support basic research in education.  Instead, funding aligns with the latest educational policy objectives, and to get funded researchers need to demonstrate that their work will in some manner serve these objectives.  That is not to say that the researchers necessarily support these policy missions, but in order to win the grant they do have to harness their work, at least rhetorically, to the aims that motivate the request for proposals.  In the current global policy climate, that means the work needs to address issues around accountability and standards and improving test scores.  If you cannot spin your work in this direction, you will have trouble getting funded.

Another factor that interferes with the educational researcher’s desire to do good for teachers and teacher educators is the need to confront an educational version of Gresham’s Law:  Bad research tends to displace good.  The best research is complex, and this puts the researcher at a competitive disadvantage, since policymakers and teacher educators prefer results that are definitive and easy to understand.  The most sophisticated work we produce tends to show an educational reality that has a complex array of elements interacting within a fiendishly complex organizational structure, which means that research findings have be carefully qualified to the point where it is nearly impossible to say with clarity that a particular form of educational practice is effective or ineffective.  Instead, we have to report that it all depends.  In addition, in order to understand the research findings in any depth, you need to be able to sort through issues of design, methodology, and validity that are only accessible to experts in the field.

Meanwhile, there is a vast array of research available to policymakers and practitioners that supports clear answers to educational problems and does so in a manner that is easy for the layperson to comprehend.  This kind of work comes from two kinds of groups: think tanks, and entrepreneurial organizations for the delivery of education.  Think tanks removes a key element of complexity from the research process by deciding in advance what the politically desirable policy is and then conducting studies that provide clear support for that policy.  In the U.S. there are also a variety of non-governmental organizations that are active in promoting and delivering a particular brand of educational service, such as Teach For America (TFA, with its alternative to traditional teacher preparation) and the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP, with its alternative approach to running schools in low income neighborhoods).  These organizations commission research that conveniently demonstrates the effectiveness of what they do.  And both types of research producers are particularly effective at marketing their findings to the relevant actors in the policy and education communities.

University based educational research cannot compete with these other producers in clarity and understandability, but they can undercut the impact of this work a bit by doing what university researchers have always been good at.  We have an advantage in being the only group without a dog in the policy hunt, which allows us to perform credible fundamental research about how schools work, how teaching and learning happens, and how teachers learn to teach.  Work like this can help show how simplistic and politically biased these other research products really are.  And it won’t do much harm.

Posted in Higher Education, History, History of education

Q and A about A Perfect Mess

This is a Q and A I did with Scott Jaschik about my book, A Perfect Mess, shortly after it came out.  It was published in Inside Higher Ed in 2017.

‘A Perfect Mess’

Author discusses his new book about American higher education, which suggests it may be better off today than people realize … because it has always faced so many problems and has always been a “hustler’s paradise.”


Scott Jaschik
May 3, 2017


David F. Labaree’s new book makes a somewhat unusual argument to reassure those worried about the future of American higher education. Yes, it has many serious problems, he writes. But it always has and always will. And that is in fact a strength of American higher education, he argues.

Labaree, a professor of education at Stanford University, answered questions via email about his new book, A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education (University of Chicago Press).

Q: What do you consider the uniquely American qualities in the development of higher education in the U.S.?

A: The American system of higher education emerged in a unique historical setting in the early 19th century, when the state was weak, the market strong and the church divided. Whereas the European university was the creature of the medieval Roman Catholic church and then grew strong under the rising nation-state in the early modern period, the American system lacked the steady support of church or state and had to rely on the market in order to survive. This posed a terrible problem in the 19th century, as colleges had to scrabble around looking for consumers who would pay tuition and for private sponsors who would provide donations. But at the same time, it planted the seeds of institutional autonomy that came to serve the system so well in the next two centuries. Free from the control of church and state, individual colleges learned to survive on their own resources by meeting the needs of their students and their immediate communities.

By the 20th century, this left the system with the proven ability to adapt to circumstances, take advantage of opportunities, build its own sources of political and economic support, and expand to meet demand. Today the highest-rated universities in global rankings of higher education institutions are the ones with the greatest autonomy, in particular as measured by being less dependent on state funds. And American institutions dominate these rankings; according to the Shanghai rankings, they account for 16 of the top 20 universities in the world.

Q: How significant is the decentralization of American higher education, with public and private systems, and publics reflecting very different traditions in different states?

A: Decentralization has been a critically important element in the American system of higher education. The federal government never established a national university, and state governments were slow in setting up their own colleges because of lack of funds. As a result, unlike anywhere else in the world, private colleges in the U.S. emerged before the publics. They were born as not-for-profit corporations with state charters but with little public funding and no public control.

The impulse for founding these colleges had little to do with advancing higher learning. Instead founders established these institutions primarily to pursue two other goals — to promote the interests of one religious denomination over others and to make land in one town more attractive to buy than land in a neighboring town. Typically, these two aims came together. Developers would donate land and set up a college, seek affiliation with a church, and then use this college as a way to promote their town as a cultural center rather than a dusty agricultural village. Remember that early America had too much land and not enough buyers. The federal government was giving it away. This helps explain why American colleges arose in the largest numbers in the sparsely populated frontier rather than in the established cities in the East — why Ohio had so many more colleges than Massachusetts or Virginia.

Q: What eras strike you as those in which American higher education was most threatened?

A: American higher education was in the greatest jeopardy in the period after the Civil War. The system was drastically overbuilt. In 1880 the U.S. had more than 800 colleges, five times the number in the entire continent of Europe. Overall, however, they were poor excuses for institutions of higher education. On average they had only 130 students and 10 faculty, which made them barely able to survive from year to year, forced to defer faculty salaries and beg for donations. European visitors loved to write home about how intellectually and socially undistinguished they were.

The system as a whole had only one great asset — a huge amount of capacity. What it lacked, however, was sufficient students and academic credibility. Fortunately, both of these elements arose in the last quarter of the century to save the day. The rise of white-collar employment in the new corporations and government agencies created demand for people with strong cognitive, verbal and social skills, the kinds of things that students learn in school. And with the public high schools filling up with working-class students, the college became the primary way for middle-class families to provide their children with advantaged access to managerial and professional work. At the same time, the import of the German model of the university, with a faculty of specialized researchers sporting the new badge of merit, the Ph.D., offered American colleges and universities the possibility for academic stature that had so long eluded them. This steady flow of students and newfound academic distinction allowed the system to realize the potential embedded in its expansive capacity and autonomous structure.

Q: You seem to be suggesting not to worry too much about today’s problems, because higher education has always been a “perfect mess.” But are there issues that are notably worse today than in the past?

A: First, let me say a little about the advantages of the system’s messiness. In the next section, I’ll respond about the problem facing the system today. The relative autonomy and decentralization of American higher education allows individual colleges and universities to find their own ways of meeting needs, finding supporters and making themselves useful. They can choose to specialize, focusing on particular parts of the market — by level of degree, primary consumer base, religious orientation or vocational function. Or, like the big public and private universities, they can choose to provide something for everyone. This makes for individual institutions that don’t have a clean organization chart, looking instead like what some researchers have called “organized anarchies.”

The typical university is in constant tension between autonomous academic departments, which control curriculum and faculty hiring and promotion, and a strong president, who controls funding and is responsible only to the lay board of directors who own the place. Also thrown into the mix are a jumble of independent institutes, research centers and academic programs that have emerged in response to a variety of funding opportunities and faculty initiatives. The resulting institution is a hustler’s paradise, driven by a wide array of entrepreneurial actors: faculty trying to pursue intellectual interests and forge a career; administrators trying to protect and enrich the larger enterprise; and donors and students who want to draw on the university’s rich resources and capitalize on association with its stellar brand. These actors are feverishly pursuing their own interests within the framework of the university, which lures them with incentives, draws strength from their complex interactions and then passes these benefits on to society.

Q: What do you see as the major challenges facing academic leaders today?

A: The biggest problem facing the American system of higher education today is how to deal with its own success. In the 19th century, very few people attended college, so the system was not much in the public spotlight. Burgeoning enrollments in the 20th century put the system center stage, especially when it became the expectation that most people should graduate from some sort of college. As higher education moved from being an option to becoming a necessity, it increasingly found itself under the kind of intense scrutiny that has long been directed at American schools.

Accountability pressure in the last three decades has reshaped elementary and secondary schooling, and now the accountability police are headed to the college campus. As with earlier iterations, this reform effort demands that colleges demonstrate the value that students and the public are getting for their investment in higher education. This is particularly the case because higher education is so much more expensive per student than schooling at lower levels. So how much of this cost should the public pay from tax revenues and how much debt should individual students take on?

The danger posed by this accountability pressure is that colleges, like the K-12 schools before them, will come under pressure to narrow their mission to a small number of easily measurable outcomes. Most often the purpose boils down to the efficient delivery of instructional services to students, which will provide them with good jobs and provide society with an expanding economy. This ignores the wide array of social functions that the university serves. It’s a laboratory for working on pressing social problems; a playpen for intellectuals to pursue whatever questions seem interesting; a repository for the knowledge needed to address problems that haven’t yet emerged; a zone of creativity and exploration partially buffered from the realm of necessity; and, yes, a classroom for training future workers. The system’s organizational messiness is central to its social value.

Posted in History, History of education

Perils of the Professionalized Historian

This is a short piece about the problems that professionalism poses for the academic historian.  History is a different kind of subject, and too often academic rigor gets in the way of telling the kinds of historical accounts that we need.

An earlier version was published in 2017 in the International Journal of the Historiography of Education.

Perils of the Professionalized Historian

David F. Labaree

Professionalism poses problems for the academic historian. History is an intensely normative domain, full of emotion and bubbling over with value judgments. It tells us compelling stories about who we are, where we came from, what we stand for, and why we should feel proud of our country and our heritage. This is why the school history curriculum is so different from other core school subjects like math and science. They are about stuff; history is about us. We learn about other subjects, but we inhabit and even embody history. As a result, writers of history bear a peculiar burden — as potential molders of persons and peoples, shaping our past in order to frame our choices in the present and thus propel us into the future.

We academic historians are all too well aware that the misuses of history are legion. Every political movement crafts its own backstory, which makes the case for the problem that needs to be solved, the golden age that needs to be recaptured, the grievance that needs to be assuaged. The most effective demagogues are history mongers, and this makes us cringe. Our response is to try to set the record straight. Others may purvey myth and nostalgia in the name of history, but we hold ourselves to a higher standard, which is spelled out in the Principles for Professional Historians. One principle is empiricism: Root historical judgments deeply in the rich soil of archival evidence. Compile everything, read everything, and judiciously sort through the evidence. Then write a very long book that is half footnotes. Another principle is objectivity. The problem with this approach is that it leaves the field of history wide open for merchants of nostalgia and purveyors of paranoia, who are more than happy to fulfill the public longing for a compelling moral narrative, unfreighted with rules of evidence and analytical rigor. Steel yourself against personal prejudice and received wisdom, instead pursuing the evidence wherever it leads you. Avoid characterizing actors as heroes or villains, and exercise judgment through rational analysis rather than through the application of values. In sum, remember that you’re not a storyteller; you’re historian. A third principle is specialization. Aim to go narrow and deep into an issue. Focus on digging new ground, no matter how infertile, rather than plowing familiar terrain. At all cost avoid adopting the role of synthesizer, which is suitable only for textbook writers and “popular” (that is, widely read) historians.

Relentlessly analytical professional historians have left a narrative void, and ruthless amateurs are eager to fill it. Charles Tilly (2006) examines the roots of this problem in his book, Why. In it he makes the distinction between the way that experts and ordinary people construct explanations of events. The expert’s argument is a technical account, which sets out to establish a valid and reliable explanation of cause and effect using specialized expertise and rigorous methodology. For non-experts, the standard account is a story, which focuses on actors and actions, traces a narrative arc, often involves heroes and villains, and usually carries a moral element of praise or blame.

Academic historians have adopted the voice of the expert, which satisfies our impulse to be recognized as professionals rather than bards. But this approach traps us in the zone of expertise, talking to each other and leaving the zone of popular culture to the more narratively gifted and often less scrupulously accurate retailers of nostalgia. And the problem with adopting the voice of expertise does more than unnecessarily narrow our audience, since it also means that too often we are writing a gutless and bowdlerized kind of history, bereft of the values and characters and stirring tales that give history its meaning.

If we buy this analysis, however, it leaves us academic historians with a dilemma. We don’t want to slide into popularization at the expense of validation. We don’t want to be in the business of selling nostalgia and nurturing ideology. But I think there is a way out. We can reengage with the normative character of history in human culture and reestablish the norm that history is about storytelling. At the same time, however, we can avoid the populist impulse by deliberately seeking to address our histories of the past to the demands, anxieties, and dilemmas we experience in the present. This history for the present can still avoid the disingenuousness and deception of the populist histories that shape the story to meet the urgent demands of a particular program or prejudice. We can do this by providing the history that we currently need, not the history we might want. This kind of history taps into the normative and the narrative elements that are so quintessentially historical without pandering to political agendas and cultural fears. We can use the skills of the nonprofessional historian to provide inconvenient truths for the present.


Charles Tilly.  (2006).  Why? What Happens When People Give Reasons…and Why. Princeton: Princeton University Press.