Academic journal article Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge

The Structure of Higher Learning in Fin-De-Siecle America: Bureaucracy, Statistical Accounting, and Sociocultural Change

Academic journal article Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge

The Structure of Higher Learning in Fin-De-Siecle America: Bureaucracy, Statistical Accounting, and Sociocultural Change

Article excerpt

VEBLEN'S DIAGNOSIS AND SOME LINES OF INQUIRY

When Thorstein Veblen's book on The Higher Learning in America was published, it bore the sub-title, "A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Businessmen." It diagnosed the varied symptoms of an educational condition dominated by business principles, in his words, "the businesslike administration of the scholastic routine," "bureaucratic organization" and, especially, "a system of scholastic accountancy" (Veblen, 1918: 162). This condition has become increasingly acute since Veblen's time and its manifestations can be found even in institutions which formerly resisted such tendencies. In this article, I would like, first, to discuss some of the general trends identified by Veblen and, second, relate his analysis to the proliferation of more recent symptoms of the condition he first identified [1].

In the first two decades of the twentieth century, Veblen saw that "the large and centralized administrative machinery" of higher education, especially at the larger state sponsored undergraduate institutions, were developing a "system of authoritative control, standardization, gradation, accountancy, classification, credits and penalties" aimed at the control of "irresponsible inmates," requiring them to engage in a round of "distasteful tasks" and forego any "excessive irregularities of conduct" (Veblen, 1918: 162-163). This system of academic management turned higher education into a marketable product "rated, bought and sold by standard units, measured, counted and reduced to staple equivalence by impersonal, mechanical tests" and, therefore, one readily subject to "statistical consistency, with numerical standards and units." The outcome was to "deter both students and teachers from a free pursuit of knowledge" and substitute for that goal the "pursuit of credits," thus replacing "scientific capacity and addiction to study" by "salesmanlike proficiency" (Veblen, 1918: 163). Impersonal standards and tests are substituted for personal conference, guidance and association between teachers and students and the staff is subjected to a "mechanically standardized routine," discouraging any "disinterested preoccupation with scholarly or scientific inquiry" (Veblen, 1918: 165).

This system necessarily creates a "gain in statistical showing, both as regards the volume of instruction offered, and probably also as regards the enrollment," since, as Veblen puts it, in a formula which might stand as a motto for this investigation, "accountancy creates statistics and its absence does not" (Veblen, 1918: 165). However, this statistical gain serves primarily as a tool to enhance the prestige of the university and its executive officers. In Veblen's view, the entire system of business principles when applied to higher education is directed toward the goal of increased prestige. In turn, this goal enhances the financial solvency of the institution which, through its statistically augmented prestige, is able to capture a larger share of the student market as well as attract the attention of alumni and other donors eager to become part of a seemingly successful operation. A strong statistical showing becomes part of the "surveillance of appearances" engaged in by the "captains of erudition" and increasingly supported by the public media, which monitor and rate educational institutions in quantitative terms for the wider public of educational consumers. This practice is usually linked to the establishment of an academic publicity bureau which coordinates the management of appearances and whose office holders, as "captains of consciousness," perform the function known more simply in other business settings as advertising (Veblen, 1918: 168; also Ewen, 1979) [2].

This improved statistical performance has various consequences. In order to administer such a system, the institution of higher education must expand its bureaucracy. It must engage in "a persistent and detailed surveillance and direction of the work and manner of life of the academic staff" and act "to shut off initiative of any kind in the work done" (Veblen, 1918: 164). …

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