In American Higher Ed, Hierarchy Begets Hierarchy

14 December 2019

This is a commentary in our special forum on the Academy and Democracy, jointly hosted with the Journal of the History of Ideas Blog. We asked contributors whether higher education presupposes a hierarchy. In brief, how has higher education destabilized elites and challenged aristocracies? How has it sustained them? Each author approaches our prompt from a historical perspective, applied across different academic fields, regions, and eras.

Of course higher education presupposes hierarchy. But that has not always been the case.


In this essay, which focuses on the American college and university, I will argue that in two distinct ways, transformations in the early twentieth century made hierarchy a key part of higher education’s societal role. The first way affects students: their undergraduate experiences and workforce outcomes. The second way affects institutions: their positions in both official and unofficial pecking orders. The first helped create a new elite stratum in American society, while the second one made that stratum transparent to all.


Much has been written, and hyped, about the difference between the “old-time college” of the nineteenth century and the modern university of the twentieth; Richard Hofstadter, as well as Christopher Jencks and David Reisman, use the word “revolution” in describing the transition from one college model to another. The standard story involves a shift in emphasis from moralism and “mental discipline” to empiricism and “knowledge production.”


The student, in this narrative of revolution, is overlooked. That’s especially true for students’ motivations for attending college – because on its face, those motivations did not change much. In both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, most students chose college for one basic reason: to get a job.


But there was a qualitative change that lay beneath this surface of constancy, and it would change everything. In the nineteenth century, the jobs available to college graduates were static professions: doctor, lawyer, clergyman. This was true whether students came from poor families, as David Allmendinger has described, or from rich ones in which second sons went off to college while their eldest brothers were busy inheriting the family business.


By the end of the century, though, those family businesses started getting eaten up or muscled out by large corporations. This meant that a new kind of work was created: managerial work. David Brown shows that employers looked around and found a set of appropriate clerical and communication skills in college graduates, and started hiring them as managers. But concrete skills were not all they were looking for.


As I have argued elsewhere, the defining feature of the modern workplace—including business corporations, governments, schools, hospitals, etc. —is occupational hierarchy. Max Weber’s description of bureaucracy makes this plain: “a clearly established system of super- and sub-ordination in which there is a supervision of the lower offices by the higher ones.” So does his description of the upwardly mobile bureaucrat: “The official is set for a ‘career’ within the hierarchical order of the public service. He expects to move from the lower, less important and less well paid, to the higher positions.” This worker must learn how to navigate a fixed hierarchical system. Failure to utilize the chain of command to conduct business is debilitating—as are hubristic attempts to advance up the ladder in a nonprescribed manner. I have termed the set of skills and dispositions needed to master this game “hierarchical proficiency.”


The nineteenth-century college did not offer opportunities for students to learn hierarchical proficiency. It was a remarkably flat organization. A typical faculty comprised a prominent president (almost invariably a clergyman), perhaps a half-dozen professors (if it was lucky), and a collection of young tutors who were difficult to discern from the students. As for those students, all were undergraduates, with little to differentiate one from another, in both academic settings (no choice of classes or majors, no assignments requiring independent thought) and extracurricular ones (no teams, clubs, or leadership opportunities to speak of). As a result, a 1904 survey of business executives found widespread skepticism that college graduates possessed hierarchical proficiency, with respondents pointing to an unlikeliness or unwillingness to “come up through the ranks” or “climb the ladder.” The fear that college graduates came up short in this respect was not unique to business leaders, but was echoed in the legal field, journalism, the civil service, and even teaching—all positions in which bachelor’s degrees were not required and were often suspect.


By the turn of the century, however, the American college was changing in three ways that would train its students in hierarchical proficiency and make its credentials a prerequisite for white-collar jobs. The first of these was curricular. The elective system, novel to this period, is often described in terms of opening up the curriculum and allowing both students and professors more autonomy. But it also created a distinct hierarchy of learning within the undergraduate ranks. For the most part, colleges maintained explicit course requirements for freshmen and sophomores. Only what came to be termed “upper division” students were allowed freedom of choice. For the first time, the senior’s academic position was substantially elevated above the freshman’s.


Beyond the curriculum, the institution itself came to resemble a modern workplace, complete with an elaborate occupational hierarchy. Laurence Veysey states its best:


Reading downward, the hierarchy of the American university normally came to comprise trustee, president, dean, department chairman (or ‘head professor’ as he was sometimes called at the turn of the century), and then faculty members of several descending ranks, alongside whom, in rough equality, there developed a business staff with its own internal gradations. Below all these were the graduate assistants, the ordinary graduate students, and then the undergraduates (the older of whom sometimes conspicuously lorded it over the younger), and the custodial staff.


Contrast this to the flat nineteenth-century college, and the new appeal of college graduates to employers who prized hierarchical proficiency becomes clear. The student needed to come to terms with his own rank, both so he avoided offending his superiors and so he did not drive himself to distraction by lamenting his low status. In order to climb the academic ladder, he needed to be proficient in the hierarchy, both in order to effectively utilize the help available from instructors and so he could savvily choose the ‘right’ ones as instructors, advisors and writers of reference letters. If the student survived this gauntlet, his prospective employer might reasonably expect him to understand the modern hierarchy—and to have already passed through its most subordinate ranks.


Finally, the emergent extracurriculum helped make hierarchy a key feature of the American college. New student organizations like fraternities and sororities, intercollegiate athletics teams, and student governments each had their own internal hierarchical orders, which frequently resembled business or even military organizations with presidents, treasurers, captains, and so forth. Furthermore, participation itself in any of these offered certain students a form of distinction that was unavailable in the nineteenth century, setting them apart from the “grinds” who focused only on their studies. The “big man on campus” was now a distinctive feature of college life, marked by his leadership in extracurricular activities.


According to Upton Sinclair in 1922, the new hierarchies within the student ranks reflected and reinforced the aristocratic system of the outside world, as well as the capitalist work ethic that made it all possible:


They teach the newcomer the rules; he must wear a freshman cap, and if he has opinions of his own they tell him he is too ‘tonguey’, and proceed to knock the nonsense out of him. The faculty know of this, and think it is fine; they mix with the men, and join the fraternities, and help in the production of subservience and conformity.… From their social life the students learn what the real world is—a place of class distinctions based upon property; they learn the American religion—what William James calls ‘the worship of the bitch-goddess Success’. They throw themselves into the social struggle with ferocious determination to get ahead; and when they go out into the world, they carry that spirit into the commercial struggle.


Sinclair had a point, even if it was, as usual, overstated. But the real aristocracy borne from the turn-of-the-century “revolution” was more of a binary one: whereas in the nineteenth century a white man who chose to skip college could still reasonably hope for the highest success in business, politics, or even “learned professions” like law (think Abraham Lincoln), in the twentieth century, the socioeconomic winners in American society would be college graduates.*


But that was not the end of the story. Due to the changes I described above, going to college quickly became a prerequisite for white collar employment. But a foot in the door didn’t come with a ticket to the executive suite. Determining who would get those tickets would require a new type of hierarchy, one that was also conveniently developing in the higher education sector in the early twentieth century.


In a different line of inquiry, I have described a group of higher education reformers that I have named “the academic engineers.” Most active between 1890 and 1920, they were not actual engineers by training, but they consciously borrowed the language and ethos of engineering in order to pursue a nationwide program of systemization and efficiency in the higher education sector. The reformers were closely associated with big corporations and, especially, with newly established philanthropic foundations funded by corporate profits.


The academic engineers were obsessed with hierarchy—not within the ranks of students, but within the ranks of institutions. They were incensed by the fact that anyone, anywhere could establish a college, call it a university, and start issuing PhDs. Using their foundation endowments, they developed normative and coercive mechanisms to enforce a pecking order in the higher education sector—starting with normal schools for training teachers, then to junior colleges (a new type of institution created by academic engineers), baccalaureate colleges, and finally research universities. This final type was to be few and far between —ideally one per state, and ideally a public institution. (Although the reformers allowed that in the Northeast US, long-established private universities would always lead the pack.) One of the leading academic engineers grandly explained in 1909:


[The function of] a state university is to build up as rapidly as possible a consistent system, and to see to it that the distinction between the work of the college and the work of the secondary school is observed, and to educate the people of its state to this conception. . . . Sincerity, simplicity, thoroughness, mark the path and the only path along which a state university, which is to crown the educational system of a state, may hope to work out that realization of education which will be the highest expression of civilization in a modern democracy.


This vision won the day. By selectively distributing and withholding funds, creating and publishing institutional classifications (sometimes coordinating with the federal Bureau of Education), and using gifts as carrots and sticks to make colleges change their names and missions, the academic engineers established tiered hierarchies across the nation.


Although the number of institutions has grown to the point where very few states still have a single research university, every state has highly transparent tiers: doctoral universities, master’s-granting regional universities, baccalaureate colleges, community colleges. Furthermore, the hierarchy takes a pyramidal form. California, which codified the precedent set by the academic engineers with its celebrated “Master Plan” of 1960, is an excellent example. The ten campuses of the University of California are the only ones allowed to grant doctoral degrees. They rest atop the 24 campuses of the California State University system, which top out at the master’s degree, followed by the state’s 34 baccalaureate colleges (as defined in the Carnegie Classifications, most of them private). At the broad bottom sit 115 community colleges, limited to associate’s degrees and certificates.


This type of tiering, replicated in every state, is a useful mechanism that allows every student to claim that they have “gone to college,” while providing a transparent distinction between those who went to Berkeley and those who went to Contra Costa Community College.


There is, of course, a famous hierarchy within the university tier—any American aristocrat can tell you that Harvard outranks Brown, and that Michigan outranks Indiana, even though they appear identical on paper. But it turns out that in terms of access to white collar employment, those distinctions don’t matter that much. In 2010, the Wall Street Journal asked corporate recruiters to rank the institutions they thought “best prepare students to land jobs that are satisfying, well-paid and have growth potential.” The top five were Penn State, Texas A&M, Illinois, Purdue, and Arizona State. All “R1” universities, but not Ivies by any stretch of the imagination. Sure, it still helps to go to Harvard, but when it comes to selecting the next generation of American aristocrats, the drop-off between Harvard and the University of Massachusetts is much smaller than the one between UMass and Fitchburg State.


The point is that that both turn-of-the-century transformations I have described matter in terms of bolstering elites in the United States. The student-experience transformation meant that a spot in the new aristocracy could be secured—and soon thereafter, must be secured—by going to college. The institutional transformation meant that even within this newly privileged class, there would be further distinctions that would allow socioeconomic gatekeepers to separate out the true aristocrats from the pretenders.


Higher education bolsters hierarchies because a century ago, higher education became indelibly hierarchical.


*I am not referring to a traditional aristocracy in the sense of caste: the landed gentry, or, to use a contemporary term, “the one percent.” I am referring to “the 9.9%,” described by Matthew Stewart as the “flannel-suited crowd” that constitutes the “new American aristocracy.”


Photo Credit: Widener Library, Harvard University (c. 1920), via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.


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