illustration by Clare Reid
Yes! David Labaree’s 2019 book A Perfect Mess (U Chicago Press) is the concise history of higher education in America that I’ve been wanting to read. Far more than a mere taxonomy of institutions (though I was tickled to learn what “A&M” actually means—er meant!), we get a history of the development of these different institutions, how they’ve grown out of and responded to our society’s changing needs, and how it is that this ragtag collection of backwater schools spread across the country and then, without central planning, transformed into the systemic and dominant global force that American higher education is today. What’s more, the prose is compelling enough that my seventeen-year-old (whom I forced to read a chapter out loud to me while we drove) went on to finish the book by himself (before me!).
The book’s not perfect and I have my gripes. In particular, it takes up the competing forces of “Access” (i.e., seeing higher ed as a public good that furthers our liberal value of equality) vs. “Advantage” (i.e., the way our system has operated in a “liberal market” such that social privilege is reinforced and stratification increased), but does so without directly confronting the breathtaking history of exclusion that higher education has and continues to perpetuate. That said, despite its rigidly descriptive (the facts ma’am, just the facts) and selective approach (we only get certain aspects of the history of higher ed), much of the text is quite valuable for those who care about inclusivity. The background of history, socio-cultural forces at work, and how higher education has evolved is certainly fodder for those interested in higher education’s potential for positive future change—both internal and societal.
Chronicling a “perfect mess,” Labaree’s book is a perfectly delightful read.