The days when seminary was a pathway to upward mobility are long gone. But is theological education a “private” good, primarily benefiting the individuals who use it as a launch pad to careers in ministry or social service? Or is it a “public” good, filling a societal need? Those are just some of the questions that are provoked by A Perfect Mess, David Labaree’s splendid analysis of American higher education. 


Labaree’s fundamental thesis is that American higher education is an instrument for maintaining both social mobility and social stability. Its primary social function is less to convey knowledge or to teach specific vocational skills (though of course it does these things and many others) than it is to provide credentials (and social formation) that allow graduates to fill specific niches within society. 


The system is highly stratified, Labaree says, from top-ranked research institutions to community colleges, and this stratification ensures that those who start out in a position of privilege are likely to remain so. But at the same time, it is theoretically possible for someone coming from a working-class background, with no family history of higher education, to be admitted to Harvard. Labaree argues that this combination of the promise of social mobility with the statistical likelihood of social stability makes the university a central institution in American society. 


A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education, by David F. Labaree (University of Chicago Press, 2017, 222 pp., $25). 

The “perfect mess” of the book’s title refers to Labaree’s conviction that the chaotic nature of American higher education is a source of strength rather than weakness. With the church divided and thus institutionally weak, he says, the government and the free market have been the two major forces in higher education, just as they have been in society at large. Since America (compared to Europe) has a large number of private institutions, and because even public universities usually depend largely on tuition and other non-governmental funding, almost all American universities have felt the pressure to be “nimble” in responding to market pressures. Thus they have developed a complex range of services to attract funds and remain viable. Labaree is concerned about reform efforts that would streamline universities, thus removing the spontaneous complexity that, in his view, makes them the envy of the world.

A professor of education at Stanford, Labaree supports his analysis by a historical account of the development of the American university system from its origins as a haphazard network of largely religious colleges. He argues that early institutions of higher education were founded less in order to promote learning than as markers of denominational identity and local pride. The educational offerings of these tiny competing institutions often compared unfavorably to those of high schools, and they were not particularly central to American intellectual life. 


But this changed at the end of the 19th century, as American universities began to create graduate schools doing cutting-edge research. At the same time, as more and more Americans attended high school, demand for undergraduate institutions rose. The system met this demand in two ways: by creating a lower tier of universities (“land-grant universities”) to absorb students who couldn’t get admitted into prestigious research-oriented institutions, and by combining graduate research and undergraduate instruction even in the most elite universities. Thus was born the “full-service” university, offering comprehensive undergraduate education, cutting-edge research, training for future professors (including those who would teach at lower levels of the system), and various athletic and cultural activities that created a sense of community loyalty as well as binding alumni to the institution. 


Two more tiers were added in the 20th century: First, “normal colleges,” originally designed to train teachers, evolved into full-service universities of lower status than the research universities or land-grant institutions. Second, two-year community colleges developed as the lowest level of the system, offering technical training and sometimes serving as feeders into four-year universities. Thus, people of all social classes and levels of ability gained access to higher education, with the social benefits of education varying according to the student’s level within the system. 


In the postwar era, higher education entered a golden age with lavish government funding and enrollment numbers propped up by veterans. Labaree argues that this was the only period in which education was primarily regarded as a public rather than a private good — promoted for its benefits to the society rather than its benefit to individual students. He suggests that we are now returning to the traditional status quo in which higher education is seen primarily as a private good, and thus generous public funding cannot be counted on.


One of the chapters with important ramifications for theological education is chapter 4, “Mutual Subversion,” which addresses the tension between professional training and liberal arts education. Labaree makes several persuasive claims. One is that liberal arts education is generally associated with the private, social-status aspect of education, while professional training is a public good, intended to provide people qualified to meet various social needs. 


Hence, Labaree argues, professional and liberal education engage in “mutual subversion.” Educational reformers imply that education is too theoretical and forever demand that education become more practical, preparing students for the real world. Simultaneously, educators in the humanities often feel that higher education has already become too utilitarian. 


If either side wins this tug-of-war, the victory is paradoxical. New professional disciplines tend to take on the trappings and methods of the liberal arts — for example, as the status of business education rises, business coursework tends to focus on academic disciplines like economics more than on practical fields like accounting. This is particularly the case at private universities and major public research universities, which train most faculty. These elite university graduates have every reason to push for a more theoretical approach within the institutions where they teach, because a liberal-arts approach to practical subjects tends to raise the prestige of institutions that specialize in them.


While professional programs are continually being added to curricula, the content and methodology of these programs are increasingly shaped by the traditions of liberal arts education. This happens, Labaree argues, because in the end what students want most out of education is not instruction in specific bodies of knowledge but the social prestige that comes with a liberal arts education. A person with a degree from Harvard Business School (or Harvard Divinity School!) is well positioned to compete in the job market not because of some specific skills only Harvard can teach. Rather, it’s because of the social status that less prestigious schools cannot convey. 


I think this mutual subversion can be easily observed in theological education. Professors of the traditional academic disciplines such as church history and systematic theology complain that their subjects are being shunted aside for classes in counseling or pastoral leadership. But at the same time, the professors of these new subjects crave the respectability of their colleagues in the more theoretical disciplines. And the social status aspects of higher education are noticeable in theological education as well — people may argue about which seminaries are the “best,” but everyone knows which schools are in the running.


The primary value of this book for theological educators, however, is its masterly survey of the broader ecosystem of higher education in which institutions of theological education function, and of the history that has brought us to this place. The financial and social challenges faced by seminary education in the 21st century are not simply a function of specific issues within the American churches, but are part of larger developments within this academic ecosystem. 

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