A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education

University of Chicago Press
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Read the news about America’s colleges and universities—rising student debt, affirmative action debates, and conflicts between faculty and administrators—and it’s clear that higher education in this country is a total mess. But as David F. Labaree reminds us in this book, it’s always been that way. And that’s exactly why it has become the most successful and sought-after source of learning in the world. Detailing American higher education’s unusual struggle for survival in a free market that never guaranteed its place in society—a fact that seemed to doom it in its early days in the nineteenth century—he tells a lively story of the entrepreneurial spirit that drove American higher education to become the best.

And the best it is: today America’s universities and colleges produce the most scholarship, earn the most Nobel prizes, hold the largest endowments, and attract the most esteemed students and scholars from around the world. But this was not an inevitability. Weakly funded by the state, American schools in their early years had to rely on student tuition and alumni donations in order to survive. This gave them tremendous autonomy to seek out sources of financial support and pursue unconventional opportunities to ensure their success. As Labaree shows, by striving as much as possible to meet social needs and fulfill individual ambitions, they developed a broad base of political and financial support that, grounded by large undergraduate programs, allowed for the most cutting-edge research and advanced graduate study ever conducted. As a result, American higher education eventually managed to combine a unique mix of the populist, the practical, and the elite in a single complex system.

The answers to today’s problems in higher education are not easy, but as this book shows, they shouldn’t be: no single person or institution can determine higher education’s future. It is something that faculty, administrators, and students—adapting to society’s needs—will determine together, just as they have always done.
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About the author

David F. Labaree is professor in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University. He is the author of many books, including, most recently, The Trouble with Ed Schools and Someone Has to Fail.
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Additional Information

Publisher
University of Chicago Press
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Published on
Apr 21, 2017
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Pages
240
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ISBN
9780226250588
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Language
English
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Genres
Education / General
Education / Higher
Education / History
History / United States / General
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Available on Android devices
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Eligible for Family Library

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Are colleges and universities in a period of unprecedented disruption? Is a bachelor's degree still worth the investment? Are the humanities coming to an end? What, exactly, is higher education good for?

In For the Common Good, Charles Dorn challenges the rhetoric of America’s so-called crisis in higher education by investigating two centuries of college and university history. From the community college to the elite research university—in states from California to Maine—Dorn engages a fundamental question confronted by higher education institutions ever since the nation’s founding: Do colleges and universities contribute to the common good?

Tracking changes in the prevailing social ethos between the late eighteenth and early twenty-first centuries, Dorn illustrates the ways in which civic-mindedness, practicality, commercialism, and affluence influenced higher education’s dedication to the public good. Each ethos, long a part of American history and tradition, came to predominate over the others during one of the four chronological periods examined in the book, informing the character of institutional debates and telling the definitive story of its time. For the Common Good demonstrates how two hundred years of political, economic, and social change prompted transformation among colleges and universities—including the establishment of entirely new kinds of institutions—and refashioned higher education in the United States over time in essential and often vibrant ways.

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