You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

NPR just pulled the plug on its once stunningly popular Invisibilia podcast, which explored “the invisible forces that shape human behavior.” The forces that the broadcast examined were psychological and included people’s emotions, fantasies, fears and wishes.

Various episodes focused on the power of behavioral scripts and norms, cognitive categorization and distortions, empathy, implicit bias, and the lasting impact of trauma, as well as the psychology of clothes, repetition compulsion and the positive and negative impact of people’s self-image.

In fact, the invisible forces that exert a powerful impact on our lives are structural and ideational as well as psychological. They are cultural, demographic, economic, historical and sociological. Of course, all of these forces are mediated through people’s minds.

This post’s title comes, of course from a 1693 treatise published by the Puritan divine Cotton Mather, subtitled “Observations As well Historical as Theological, upon the Nature, the Number and the Operations of the Devils.”

In defense of his role in the Salem witch scare, Mather argued that the material world is the devil’s playground in which Satan and an invisible army of devils and witches sought to “overturn this poor plantation, the Puritan colony.”

We may not believe in devils, demons or djinn, but there are largely invisible ideological, structural, social and psychological forces that nonetheless influence our lives. A recent article identified some of those processes: climate change, deglobalization, demographic decline and digital technologies, to which I’d add challenges to liberal capitalism, liberal democracy, liberal internationalism and even liberal education.

In our society, it’s social scientists, not theologians, who reveal that hidden world. Within higher education, it is historical sociologists, like Steven Brint and David F. Labaree, who have taken the lead in bringing theory to bear on the ongoing processes, trends and developments that reshape higher education over time.

Historians sometimes describe the social sciences as theory rich but often data poor. But history without theory is thin gruel, and social scientists like Brint and Labaree play a crucial role in identifying the conceptual issues that their historian counterparts at times downplay.

A recently released collection of essays by Stanford’s Labaree provides an opportunity to explore some the forces that created American higher education, made it what it is and will continue to shape its future.

Let me note at the outset that this new book, Being a Scholar, is as much teacherly as it is academic. That is, Labaree’s goal is to guide, mentor and inform graduate students and junior scholars.

The volume, like Labaree’s entire body of scholarship, is remarkably wide-ranging. Let’s begin with the history of American higher education.

As Labaree makes clear, this history is highly distinctive. It evolved without a plan or central direction. Nor was it obvious that it would produce many of the world’s most highly regarded colleges and universities. It’s a history, in other words, that has been unpredictable, contingent and filled with ironies and contradictions.

  • American higher education exceptionalism. American higher education is distinctive in its radical decentralization, diversity, dependence on tuition and fees—and stratification. A highly competitive higher educational marketplace encourages institutions to compete aggressively for prestige, resources, faculty and students. At the top level, the market incentivizes exclusivity and high levels of spending to outdo competitors—which makes it harder for lesser resourced institutions to keep pace.
  • The distinctiveness of American higher education’s history. Following the American Revolution, the new nation spawned an extraordinary number of colleges, many more than in contemporary Europe. Most were located not in the more settled areas in the Northeast, but in frontier regions, reflecting religious denominations’ desire to spread their impact and train ministers and local boosters’ interest in increasing land values and promoting local growth. Initially, the number of colleges far outstripped the American economy’s needs. But when educational credentialing and advanced training grew more important, the United States had an infrastructure that was highly adaptable, entrepreneurial and geographically expansive.

In his words, “this historical backdrop” explains “how American higher education in the 20th century rose from being an intellectual backwater to a world leader.”

“These institutions enjoyed a broad base of political and financial support that was at the same time populist (educating large numbers of local students at the undergraduate level), elitist (educating a small number of graduate students and producing high level academic research) and practical (providing professional training and useful inventions to serve the needs of the community). And this in turn allowed the institutions to preserve their autonomy from the state, drawing on a mix of income streams and sources of legitimacy.”

What does Labaree have to say about the defining characteristics of the academy today? He points out a glaring contradiction: that a system that has greatly expanded educational opportunity has at the same time reinforced social inequality.

  • Campus costs and spending. He endorses an analogy that the economist Ronald Ehrenberg has made, which likens higher education leaders to Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster. Campuses, especially the most prestigious, gobble up every resource that they can obtain. The goal isn’t profit; it’s academic quality and institutional prestige, measured in terms of growth and the quality of facilities, faculty, student qualifications and campus services.
  • Institutional inequalities. There is a profound contradiction between American higher education’s claim to be a democratic instrument of economic opportunity and upward mobility and the base reality of a system that is extraordinarily unequal across multiple dimensions: in facilities, average class size, student-faculty ratios, curricular range, students’ precollege preparation and more. In one essay, Labaree cites a telling fact that the economist Richard Vedder uncovered: in 2010, Princeton got the equivalent of $50,000 per student in federal and state benefits, while its similar-size public neighbor, the College of New Jersey, received just $2,000 per student. He also cites Caroline Hoxby’s estimate that the most selective American research universities spend an average of $150,000 per student, 15 times as much as some poorer institutions.
  • The value of research universities. Inequalities in institutional resources and expenditures, Labaree points out, aren’t wholly bad. The fact is that the country needs institutions that emphasize graduate training and basic and applied research. The value of the nation’s research universities, he notes emphatically, doesn’t lie in superior teaching, but in their ability to produce patents, drive innovation, inform public policy and generate new knowledge. The country needs to accept the fact that undergraduate education is only a small part of research institutions’ mission. In his provocative words: “Radical inequality in the higher-education system therefore produces outsized benefits for the public good.” Labaree’s scholarship adds complexity to our understanding of meritocracy, K-12 and higher education’s complex functions and the relationship between college-going and political polarization.
  • Elitism. In terms of access, the United States has a system of higher education that is highly democratic. Virtually anyone can attend a two- or four-year college. But it’s also a system that naturalizes privilege, by making it appear that status and success are the product not of luck or connections or their inherited cultural, economic and social capital, but of intelligence, hard work and academic achievement. But he also reminds readers that the leading public universities have more high scoring students than even the most selective private research universities or liberal arts colleges, just as the most competitive public schools, like New York’s Stuyvesant, have more students with high standardized test scores than their elite prep school counterparts.
  • Educationalizing social problems. This country has a long-standing tendency to regard education as the best solution to most social problems, whether these involve inequality or social mobility or economic growth. Given the inadequacy of the United States’ social safety net, public policy assigns responsibilities to K-12 schools and colleges that they can’t possibly fulfill. They are also responsible for producing productive workers, advancing economic opportunity and preparing the knowledgeable citizenry that a democracy requires. They must also provide the services that the state has failed to adequately furnish. We shouldn’t be surprised that colleges and universities, like an overloaded life raft, can’t possibly meet every social need.
  • The diploma divide. Increasingly, political divisions within the United States depend not on social class or race or ethnicity, but whether one has or has not earned a college degree. Higher education does much more than provide a valuable credential or marketable skills. By exposing students to a wealth of ideas and concepts and to diversity, it influences their thinking, helps make them more civically minded and aware of pressing social, global and policy issues. Labaree is especially interested in what it means to be a scholar.
  • The scholarly enterprise. I think he is absolutely right about what motivates scholars. It’s less salary than the goal of raising their professional profile. This is accomplished largely through publication, citations and professional visibility, including winning the attention of senior scholars and teaching at a more prestigious institution. As we all recognize, the academy is acutely status conscious. It’s highly attuned to scholars’ pedigree, institutional affiliation, indexes of citations, reviews, membership in national academies and receipt of prizes, scholarships and awards. Academics are driven, in large measure, by the impulse to raise their reputation and stature.
  • Research agendas. Based on hard-won personal experience, research trajectories, he observes, are not things that can be carefully mapped out in advance. Nor can conceptual or interpretive frameworks. His own scholarship has evolved in unexpected ways, from a Marxian perspective toward a Weberian model followed by a more eclectic approach, with quantification increasingly supplanted by a more qualitative modes of analysis.
  • Educational researchers as technicians or social justice warriors. Especially in the field of education research, Labaree advises up and coming scholars to steer clear of two siren calls: the Scylla of excessively narrow technical or quantified research and the Charybdis of a politically motivated research agenda. It’s not that he’s opposed to relevance, timeliness or policy impact. But he’s convinced, as am I, that academics exert much more influence when they are regarded as trustworthy sources of reliable and responsible information and interpretations that speak to the issues of the day. A stylish, accessible and exceptionally engaging writer himself, Labaree pays particular attention to scholarly writing and offers a lot of practical, actionable advice about reaching a broader readership.
  • Writing as an art and craft. Labaree calls on educational researchers and historians to minimize the use of jargon, eschew unnecessary complexity and avoid highly specialized or confusing language. After all, what’s gained by writing for a narrow, specialized audience of fellow professionals and making your work inaccessible to potential readers or preventing the public with engaging with the latest scholarship?
  • Storytelling. If you want to reach a readership beyond the narrowly specialist, he suggests that it is essential to craft a compelling and engaging narrative. The ability to tell a story that is engrossing, engaging, intriguing and provocative is a talent that scholars should aspire to. Deploy the tools that effective writers use: a narrative arc, vivid imagery, active verbs, telling quotations, powerful anecdotes and a conversational style. That’s what Labaree does. You should, too.

I urge you to read Labaree’s latest book or to follow his website, which sparkles with insights about schooling, history, meritocracy, the craft of writing and higher education.

The advent of blogging has had a profound impact on my daily schedule. I begin each morning by reading the commentary and content produced by such prolific writers as Larry Cuban, Matthew Yglesias, Noah Smith and, yes, Labaree. They’ve become my daily companions and schmoozers, interlocutors and intellectual sparring partners. Their writings are invariably sources of inspiration, intellectual stimulation and provocation.

Blogs may lack the depth and detail of a book or a scholarly article, but their brevity and timeliness keep me abreast of the latest currents of thought and the latest controversies in ways that no other publications do. To be sure, I often feel overwhelmed by the amount I must read just to keep up with my email inbox and news feeds. But I, perhaps like you, feel that reading blogs by scholars like David F. Labaree recaptures what I felt in graduate school: awash in a sea of important ideas and fresh ways of thinking.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

Next Story

More from Higher Ed Gamma