Status is the posturing we do in order to be a member of a desirable group. Status in turn has implications for how valued resources such as money, prestige, power, and honor are distributed. In an ideal world, labor economists tell us that the more productive labor is, the more money, prestige, power, and honor will be acquired via the blind mechanisms of a marketplace that knows only productivity. But this ideology belies what many of us intuitively know. Status is not only dependent on productivity, but is obtained through who you associate with. These associations may be through family connections, club memberships, school networks, fraternity membership, or what college you attend. None of these connections are blindly entered into, irrespective of their utility in the marketplace.
Universities are at the intersection of this status paradox, between a market which sees only productivity, and a social world tuned into status distinctions based on relationships. As labor economists (and university administrators) assure us, what is learned at the university makes labor more productive in the marketplace. But, this is not the whole story. Because, universities are not only about the acquisition of skills valued in the marketplace. Attendance at a particular university is as a status marker determining how money, prestige, power, and honor are distributed irrespective of what skills an individual acquires. Were this not the case, no university administrator, parent, high school student, college counselor, or anyone else would pay any attention to the college status rankings published by US News and World Report. And for this reason, it is interesting to think of what implications this annual ritual has on how we inside America’s colleges and universities view each other. For example, people teaching and learning at dominant universities like UC Berkeley view their privileges and advantages as being the just reward in a blind competition in which their true honor is recognized. Those of us who teach at lower-ranked universities (in my case ChicoState) disagree. We think our own honor is unjustly hidden.
Why Chico State Is Better than UC Berkeley: A Brief Rant
I will be blunt. When it comes to undergraduate education I think ChicoState does a better job than UC Berkeley. Berkeley’s classroom teachers or what they call “discussion leaders” are often inexperienced graduate students, and not the big name (and well-paid) research professors who may be famous, but often are poor undergraduate teachers. Berkeley also asks less class attendance of students. For example, Berkeley’s Introductory Sociology course in Spring 2007 had 286 students who were lectured to for two hours per week, and a smaller graduate student-led discussion section which was one hour per week. Students received four hours credit for these three hours of instruction In contrast, Chico’s Introductory Sociology classes were three hours per week of lecture with 40 students, and Chico students received only three hours credit for this. As for Berkeley’s undergraduate students, they themselves are among the smartest and hardest working high school students in California. And, at the end of four years at Berkeley, they are still smart and hard-working, although I have yet to see any evidence that this quality is acquired at Berkeley.
Chico State in contrast has smaller classes, few inexperienced graduate student teachers, and hires faculty because they want to teach undergraduates for their career. Big name or not, undergraduates routinely interact with experienced faculty hired for demonstrated teaching skills. It is true that Berkeley educates the very best high school students. But ChicoState takes California’s second best students, and makes them into really talented people. one day, I would like to see Chico challenge Berkeley on “value-added” in terms of student learning. I am confident that Chico grads would best Berkeley grads in terms of how much they learned from their classes between the day the walked in the door and the day they graduated. After all, it does not take much to take the straight A student from high school, and then turn them into a college graduate like Berkeley does. Chico takes the B student, and turns them into a college graduate. And we do it for less tax money than the overpaid professors (and underpaid teaching assistants) at UC Berkeley. ChicoState’s true honor is hidden, and US News and World Report gets it wrong when they published college rankings and informed us that again, UC Berkeley is the number one national public university while ChicoState didn’t even make the list.
A Little Sociology: The Relationship between Status and Achievement
But this paper is not only a rant about Chico and Berkeley. Rather it is about the nature of status and how alongside market forces, status distinctions shape what colleges do. I think Chico would best Berkeley in a fair comparison of undergraduate quality of education, but then I teach at Chico, and naturally take some pride in what we do. And so more than self-righteous navel gazing, this paper is also an exploration of status systems work to allocate unequally both prestige, and access to opportunity outside the blind mechanisms of the labor market. As such, this paper draws on social psychologist Max Weber’s description of status inequality in occupational caste relations, which is what the status system US News measures is really about.
So first a little sociology. High status means that one group (in this case Berkeley people) monopolize goods or opportunities through the maintenance of social distance from lower status people like me at ChicoState. They do this through their power to award status markers when assigning prestigious goods. Thus, despite the fact Berkeleyites and Chicoites look alike, take the same classes, and learn the same things about sociology, Berkeleyites are routinely paid more, more likely to sit at the head of a table, be elected to honor societies, divide up federal grants, and award academic status. More to the point, US News asks administrators working at places like Berkeley in determining their rankings of everyone else. And not surprisingly they tautologically conclude that since they are paid more, they must do a better job at teaching, and therefore deserve another raise because their ranking in US News is so high. Note that this has nothing to do with an objective measure of “quality” in undergraduate programs. Indeed, as I said before if this were the case, I think Chico would beat Berkeley hands down in US News rankings. But in fact the ranking has little to do with the anonymous mechanisms of equally anonymous labor markets, which Weber writes, such status systems in fact abhor.
Weber writes that the inequality between groups like Berkeley and Chico are maintained through rituals which ensure that we will coexist in a system of mutual repulsion and disdain. My rant about Berkeley’s underserved status is typical of how a subordinated group emphasizes its own honor by disdainfully pointing out the pretensions of the dominant. But the dominant group has its own ways of justifying its status is deserved, typically by emphasizing the acclaim it received in the past. The result is a rhetorical dance engaged in by both parties. Both universities believe that there is something unique about their own institution, and each believes its own honor is the highest one, a fiction which is cultivated in avoidance strategies which mean among other things that Chico’s students chances of getting into graduate school at UC Berkeley are virtually non-existent.
But at Chico we too protect our honor from the pretensions of Berkelyites. At Chico we routinely explain how our secret honor is hidden from the rest of the world, including US News, and particularly in the context of the stigmatizing rank Playboy once gave as the number one party school in the nation. Still Berkeley too has an image problem. They need to explain why their honor is deserved, and the pretensions of people like me are the result of envy and jealousy. In short there need to be rituals and stories to explain caste dominance (Berkeley), and caste subordination.
According to Weber, because Berkeley is on top of an established pecking order, Berkeley’s story is about a glorious past demonstrating why logically Berkeley is the highest ranked public university in the United States. The past leaders and Nobel prize winners who made the glory of Berkeley possible are heroes. There are regular remembrances of these heroes on special days, in the names of buildings, scholarships, and other tokens acknowledging their role in creating the deserved glories of the present. The message is clear to Berkeley grads: they are special and deservr their exalted place. And by implication the rest of us are losers.
At Chico, the stories and rituals are of course different. They are not about a glorious past (we don’t have a plausible one), but about why our clandestine honor is routinely hidden and ignored. What is more, buried in the story we tell about ourselves will be an assertion that one day we will overcome the odds, and our secret glory will be revealed.
Chico’s Hidden Honor
At ChicoState, I routinely explain our position in higher education’s hierarchy to prospective students and new faculty. I describe the easy access to faculty, the smaller classes, and point out that UC Berkeley has none of these. Because I am an alumnus of the University of California, Davis, I typically tell visitors that I learned to teach undergraduates at the UC, but I became good at it only at Chico. The ideology I describe is one that explains away Chico’s stigma as a second rate public university in a manner which highlights our special, albeit unnoticed skills. Our mythology about our hidden honor goes something like this. If you would look closely at ChicoState student, you will find that they work better in the “real” world. Chico students also write better because real professors (not graduate students) grade their papers. And because all the hyper-competitive self-absorbed nerds from high school went to Berkeley, our students develop collaborative relationships in classes. This means that ChicoState students are better prepared to be part of the teamwork found in the modern workforce. Chico’s applied hands-on approach encourages students to be involved in businesses, schools, and government as “real people” not theoretical drones. Our students will never labor with a calculator and computer for fifty years as will a Berkeley student.
All this of course avoids the fact that Chico students are perceived as being a bunch of drunks. But wait, there is secret honor even in this distinction. Chico’s BusinessSchool routinely brags about the “social skills” of Chico students. They point out that the party-school atmosphere is strength; it means that employees have already learned how much alcohol they can hold and shall not—how shall I put this delicately?—throw upon the lap of a client during their first year on the job as would a socially unsophisticated nerd from Berkeley. In short, we at Chico have a providential mission to save the culturally inept Berkeleyites from their own social cluelessness. Whole organizations would undoubtedly collapse if it were not for the strategically placed ChicoState grad who quietly smooth large egos, and connect the human element necessary in every organization. Ultimately our comfort comes from the belief that the last will be first, and the first will be last. In the end the honor of ChicoState will be recognized by even US News while presumably Berkeley will be noticed only by Playboy.