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Faculty members

David F. Labaree

Academic Title 
Professor Emeritus
Other Titles 

Lee L. Jacks Professor of Education, Emeritus

Contact Information
Program Affiliations 
SHIPS (PhD): Educational Policy
SHIPS (PhD): Higher Education
SHIPS (PhD): History of Education
SHIPS (PhD): Sociology of Education

Most Recent Book:

My new book – A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education – is an essay about the nature of the American system of higher education.  American higher education is an anomaly.  In the second half of the 20th century it surged past its European forebears to become the dominant system in the world – with more money, influence, Nobel prizes, and drawing power than any of the systems that served as its models.  By all rights, this never should have happened.  Its origins were remarkably humble, arising from a loose assortment of parochial 19th century liberal arts colleges, which emerged in the pursuit of sectarian expansion and civic boosterism more than scholarly distinction.  It was not even a system in the usual sense of the word, since it emerged with no plan, no planner, no prospects, and no reliable source of support.  Yet these weaknesses of the American system in the 19th century turned out to be strengths in the 20th.  From the difficult circumstances of trying to survive in an environment with a weak state, a divided church, and intense competition with peer institutions, American colleges developed into a system of higher education that was lean, adaptable, 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 century, it finally got what it was most grievously lacking:  academic credibility (which came when it adopted elements of the German research university) and large student enrollments (which came when middle class families started to see social advantage in sending their children to college).   

This system is extraordinarily complex, bringing together contradictory educational goals, a broad array political constituencies, diverse sources of funds, and multiple forms of authority into a single institutional arena characterized by creative tension and local autonomy. One tension is between the influence of the market and the influence of the state. Another arises from the conflict among three social-political visions of higher education – as undergraduate college (populist), graduate school (elite), and land grant college (practical). A third arises from the way the system combines three alternative modes of authority – traditional, rational, and charismatic. In combination, these elements promote organizational complexity, radical stratification, broad political and financial support, partial autonomy, and adaptive entrepreneurial behavior.

I am a sociologically oriented historian of education who seeks to explore some of the major processes and patterns that define the relationship between education and society in the United States. In my research, I aim to analyze the evolving institutional character of educational organizations (such as the high school, community college, education school, and university) and the evolving role of key groups that affect education (such as teachers, teacher educators, and reform movements) in the context of the broader purposes and functions of education in a liberal democracy. Within this broad approach to the subject, I have focused in the past on two major areas of study. One is the pressure exerted by markets on democratic education; the other is the peculiar nature of education schools as they have evolved over the years in the U.S.

            In its current form, the American system of higher education drives policymakers crazy.  The problem is not just what I pointed out in the previous pages – that its workings are opaque, its accountability structure murky, and its organizational form befuddlingly complex.  The central problem is that the system is wholly at odds with itself.  At its core, it is riddled with contradictions.  It just doesn’t make sense.  Or, more correctly, it makes sense in a wide variety of ways that seem to cancel each other out, leaving a muddle that begs to be cleared up.  That’s what the various plans for reform call for:  Disentangle; clarify; cut back to a central mission; separate functions; focus budgets around these missions and functions; cut costs.  Ultimately the idea is to provide the consumer with a leaner, cheaper, more effective, and more focused array of higher-education products.

            What reformers don’t acknowledge, however, is the uncomfortable fact that this ungainly system of higher education is in fact doing just what we want it to.  It arose by being remarkably responsive to its environment, and its apparently dysfunctional structure was built through a process of meeting demand by accumulating multiple functions, cultivating multiple constituencies, and continually seeking out new sources of support.  It has long offered something for everyone, so there’s no way it was ever going to be lean and focused.  Instead, it’s messy – a reflection, or perhaps refraction, of the contradictory array of things we have asked it to be.  It’s the people’s college, the party school, the scholar’s retreat, the economic engine, the public park, the tower of learning, the training ground, the bulwark of privilege, the cultural repository, the public entertainer, the gateway to the middle class, the club, the collosseum, and the conservatory.  

  • PhD (Sociology), University of Pennsylvania, 1983
  • MA (Sociology), University of Pennsylvania, 1978
  • BA (Social Relations), Harvard College, 1970

David Labaree's CV

Since 2003

Lee L. Jacks Professor of Education (2107- )

Professor of Education (2003 - )

Professor of History (by courtesy, 2008 - )

Associate Dean for Student Affairs (2005 - 2008)

Chair of SHIPS Area Committee (2009 - )

Assistant Professor to Professor of Teacher Education, Michigan State University (1985-2003)

Coordinator of MSU Ph.D. program in Curriculum, Teaching, and Educational Policy (1996-2001)

  • History of School Reform (Ed 220D)
  • School -- What Is It Good For (ED 207)
  • Academic Writing with Clarity and Grace (ED 292)
  • History of Higher Education (Ed 265/165)

Current Syllabus: ED 220D/HIST 258E Syllabus.pdf

Labaree, David F. (In press). Learning to love the bomb: The Cold War brings the best of times to American higher education. In Paul Smeyers & Marc Depaepe (Eds.), Educational research: Discourses of change and changes in discourse. Dordrecht: Springer.

Labaree, David F. (2016). An affair to remember: America's brief fling with the university as a public good. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 50: 1, 20-36.

Labaree, David F. (2014). College – What is it good for?  Education and Culture, 30: 1, 3-15.

Labaree, David F. (2014). Let’s measure what no one teaches: PISA, NCLB, and the shrinking aims of education. Teachers College Record, 116: 090303, 14 pages.

Labaree, David F. (2013). A system without a plan: Emergence of an American system of higher education in the twentieth century.  Bildungsgeschichte: International Journal for the Historiography of Education, 3:1, 46-59.

Labaree, David F. (2013). Balancing access and advantage in the history of American schooling. In Rolf Becker, Patrick Bühler, & Thomas Bühler (Eds.), Bildungsungleichheit und Gerechtigkeit: Wissenschaftliche und Gesellschaftliche Herausforderungen (pp. 101-114). Bern: Haupt Verlag.

Labaree, David F. (2013). Targeting teachers.  In Michael B. Katz & Mike Rose (Eds.), Public education under siege (pp. 30-39). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Labaree, David F. (2013). The power of the parochial in shaping the American system of higher education.  In Paul Smeyers & Marc Depaepe (Eds.), Educational research: Institutional spaces of educational research (pp. 31-46). Dordrecht: Springer.

Labaree, David F. (2012). School syndrome: Understanding the USA’s magical belief that schooling can somehow improve society, promote access, and preserve advantage. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 44:2, 143-163.

Labaree, David F. (2012). Sermon on educational research. Bildungsgeschichte: International Journal for the Historiography of Education, 2:1, 78-87.

Labaree, David F. (2011). Do no harm. Teacher Education and Practice, 24:4, 434-439.

Labaree, David F. (2011). The lure of statistics for educational researchers. Educational Theory, 61:6, 621-631.

can Education (Yale University Press, 1997)

Labaree, David F. (2011). When is school an answer to what social problems? Lessons from the early American republic.  In Daniel Tröhler & Ragnhild Barbu (Eds.), Educational systems in historical, cultural and sociological perspectives (pp. 77-90). Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Labaree, David F. (2011). Adventures in scholarship. In Wayne Urban (Ed.), Leaders in the historical study of American education (pp. 193-204). Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Labaree, David F. (2011). Citizens and consumers: Changing visions of virtue and opportunity in U.S. education, 1841-1954. In Daniel Tröhler, Thomas Popkewitz, and David F. Labaree (Eds.), Schooling and the making of citizens in the long nineteenth century (pp. 168-183). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Labaree, David F. (2010).  Someone has to fail: The zero-sum game of public schooling. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Labaree, David F. (2007). Education, markets, and the public good: Selected works of David F. Labaree (in series: Routledge World Library of Educationalists). London: Routledge.

Labaree, David F. (2004).  The trouble with ed schools. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Fellow, American Educational Research Association (2013- )

Member, Board of Directors, John Dewey Society (2014-2016)

President, History of Education Society (2004-2005)

Vice president of Division F (History of Education), American Educational Research Association (2003-2006)

Member of Executive Board, American Educational Research Association (2004-2005)

American Educational Research Association

History of Education Society

American Sociological Association

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