David Labaree's A Perfect Mess

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David Labaree’s book, A Perfect Mess, is an interesting exposure of the complexities of American higher education. However, at times he overemphasizes the market sensitivity of the system as a strength and his conclusions generalize between the public and private models of our system. While Labaree’s form is descriptive and accurate, his conclusion prescribes inaction toward the current problems in our university system. At many points throughout the book he acknowledges that the private system is better established in this market economy, but also that it is not accessible. Thus, his prescription of leaving the struggling public university alone may mean the end of publicly accessible education.
Much of Labaree’s book attributes university
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While the American university is both an accessible public good, it is also an exclusive private good (98). As Labaree shows throughout the book, there is tension between accessibility and advantage. Not only do students have contradicting opinions on the role of the university, those governing the system do as well. Governmental policy, such as in the Cold War, drove massive enrollment jumps in the public university (113). Today, however, market components could be attributed as the leading influencer of university priorities, as the success of the university is measured in job attainment. Labaree, while not prescribing any action toward the system other than to leave it alone (196), seems to imply that the failing public institution should adjust to these market constraints or die. Adjusting ultimately means catering to private interests, making the university a private good. This leads to a failing of its accessibility, its academic rigor, and its freedom. Thus, while the private university system may be healthy, with its well-developed funding base, the public university will fail in its goal if left to the whims of the market. The perfect mess, while admirable, is not going to allow for the continuation of a public, accessible education. Already, as seen in the hierarchy of universities, the exclusive private universities are dominant (139). Labaree seems to find the university’s
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