In this 2013 John Dewey Society Lecture I examine the history and the structure of the American system of higher education. I argue that the true hero of the story is the evolved form of the American university and that all the things we love about it, like free speech, are the side effects of a structure that arose for other purposes. I tell this story in three parts. First I explore 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. Then I show how this process created an astonishingly strong, resilient, and powerful structure, which deftly balances competing aims – the populist, the practical, and the elite. 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. 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 we’re doing behind a set of fictions and veneers that keep anyone from knowing exactly what is really going on. Awkwardly, this means that the institution depends on attributes that we would publicly deplore: chaotic complexity, hypocrisy, and opacity. I end with a call for us to retreat from substance and stand shoulder-to-shoulder in defense of procedure.

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