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  • 2013 Dewey Lecture: College—What Is It Good For?
  • David F. Labaree (bio)

Delivered as the 55th Annual John Dewey Lecture, sponsored by the John Dewey Society, at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association in San Francisco, April 27, 2013.

I want to say up front that I’m here under false pretenses. I’m not a Dewey scholar or a philosopher; I’m a sociologist doing history in the field of education. And the title of my lecture is a bit deceptive. I’m not really going to talk about what college is good for. Instead, I’m going to talk about how the institution we know as the modern American university came into being. As a sociologist, I’m more interested in the structure of the institution than in its philosophical aims. It’s not that I’m opposed to these aims. In fact, I love working in a university where these kinds of pursuits are open to us: where we can enjoy the free flow of ideas; where we explore any issue in the sciences or humanities that engages us; and where we can go wherever the issue leads without worrying about utility or orthodoxy or politics. It’s a great privilege to work in such an institution. And this is why I want to spend some time examining how this institution developed its basic form in the improbable context of the United States in the nineteenth century.

My argument is that the true hero of the story is the evolved form of the American university, and that all the good things, like free speech, are the side effects of a structure that arose for other purposes. Indeed, I argue that the institution—an intellectual haven in a heartless utilitarian world—depends on attributes that we would publicly deplore: opacity, chaotic complexity, and hypocrisy.

I tell this story in three parts. I start by exploring how the American system of higher education emerged in the nineteenth century, without a plan and without any apparent promise that it would turn out well. By 1900, I show how all the pieces of the current system had come together. This is the historical part. Then I show how the combination of these elements created an astonishingly strong, resilient, and powerful structure. I look at the way this structure deftly balances competing aims—the populist, the practical, and the elite. This is the sociological part. Then I veer back toward the issue raised in the title, to figure out what the connection is between the form of American higher education and the things that it is good for. This is the vaguely philosophical part. I argue that the form serves the extraordinarily useful functions of protecting those of us in the faculty from the real world, protecting us from each other, and hiding what [End Page 3] we’re doing behind a set of fictions and veneers that keep anyone from knowing exactly what is really going on.

In this light, I look at some of the things that could kill it for us. One is transparency. The current accountability movement directed toward higher education could ruin everything by shining a light on the multitude of conflicting aims, hidden cross-subsidies, and forbidden activities that constitute life in the university. A second is disaggregation. I’m talking about current proposals to pare down the complexity of the university in the name of efficiency: Let online modules take over undergraduate teaching; eliminate costly residential colleges; closet research in separate institutes; and get rid of football. These changes would destroy the synergy that comes from the university’s complex structure. A third is principle. I argue that the university is a procedural institution, and that it would collapse if we all acted on principle instead of form. I end with a call for us to retreat from substance and stand shoulder-to-shoulder in defense of procedure.

Historical Roots of the System

The origins of the American system of higher education could not have been more humble or less promising of future glory. It was a system, but it had no overall structure of governance and it did not emerge...


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