UCLA loses to USC, but is Still Afraid to Challenge Chico State in College Rankings!

     It is college ranking season again, sponsored by US News and World Report.  Once again, US News left Chico State out of their ranking system, I think because the big kids thought that they would lose if it came to any measure of undergraduate education.  After all as I have long asserted, Chico State beats UC Berkeley when it comes to quality of undergraduate teaching; what possible advantage could some university in southern California hope to have over any of us in northern California?! 

    Nevertheless, during this season professors steeped in the scientific method and research courses throw caution aside, and loudly brag about whatever significance such rankings may or may not have.  For whatever it is worth the University of Southern California (USC) now out ranks the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), a story that made the front page of the Los Angeles Times.

    Notably, even the staid Atlantic magazine seems to have taken up my cause, with their recent story which asked “What’s Wrong with the American University System?” by Jennie Rothenbert Gritz, an alumna of UC Berkeley, no less.  She agrees with my original posting that the US News ranking system is unrelated to the quality of undergraduate education, too!

Working Class, Upper Class, Community Colleges, and Harvard U.

For anyone interested in social stratification and university systems, Julie Garza-Withers has written “Is the Community College Still the Best Bet for Working Class Students?” over on the “Working Class Perspectives” Blog. This blog raises similar issues to what I wrote about in my essay here “The Sociology of Status Hierarchy and Why I Think Chico State is a Better College than UC Berkeley?” Or more to the point, Garza-Withers’  blog asks why such a premium is put on where you learned something, rather than what you learned?  And more importantly, she asks why there is an inverse relationship between the quality of teaching and the status of the institution; or in other words, why are the most dedicated teachers (and smallest classes) at the Community Colleges rather than at the more high prestige places?  (The reverse question of course is why at the elite universities insist on  teaching Anthro 101 in sections with several hundred students, and an army of inexperienced teachings assistants?)

To those of us a little lower than Berkeley or Harvard in the academic pecking order, the answer is obvious: It is because in the United States there is a class system which separates us into different institutions when it comes to the allocation of status. To those at the top of the pecking order go the privileges, status, and the right to explain why the existing system is right, just, and meritocratic. And as a result, those at the top are ever-ready to uncritically assume that their advantages, and assumptions about the nature of social status are simply the natural order of things.  They do this even though this rests on an otherwise unsustatinable assumption that what you do before age 17 to get into an elite university drives what rights you have for the rest of your career.

I just read Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class by Ross Douthat (who is now a New York Times Columnist), which I highly recommend to anyone interested in how such elites view and perpetuate themselves. Douthat describes how the upper class education institutions he experienced at a private school, and then at Harvard are used by the upper class to sustain the existing social order. The strong point of the book is that Douthat is one of the few from the upper class who not only admit to the advantages, but also write about the nature of such privilege. He does this while still appreciating the advantages of Harvard’s inflated grading system, and a chance for a midnight skinny-dip with William F. Buckley, Jr. Indeed, Douthat describes the modern privileges he gained via his Harvard education in the following fashion:

“Privilege, I have termed the sum of those poses and prejudices, though I don’t mean the privilege of ole—of social registers and massive Newport cottages, or farther back of titles and family crests. No, ours [at Harvard] is the privilege that comes with belonging to an upper class grown large enough to fancy itself diverse; fluid and competitive enough to believe itself meritocratic; smart enough for intellectual snobbery but not for intellectual curiosity.” (pp. 283-284).

This of course is an important acknowledgement in a society where the wealthy and the poor alike, for different reasons, like to assume that they are all “middle class.” Or as I learned from my first sociology instructor, Tom Bruce, at the very working-class Sacramento City College in Fall, 1976: We live in a society where poverty is associated with being a slob, and wealth with being a snob. And of course none of us want to be thought of as a slob or a snob. So for this reason, Bruce went on, we all uncritically assume that we are middle class, and therefore all is o.k. with the existing order. 

As a result we are as society (except in some isolated corners populated by the Working Class Studies folk, and Ross Douthat) are reluctant to recognize the inequalities that undermine our highest ideals.  If  Tom Bruce is not an example of why community college instructors aren’t great, I don’t what is!

China and Wikipedia’s Top 100 Lists

I went to Linyi, China, in June because a chance to teach in Thailand suddenly evaporated due to the May crackdowns on “Red Shirts,” leaving me with under-utilized air tickets.  So I asked a colleague to arrange for an invitation to lecture at the University of Linyi, China, in her home town.  She has always apologized for her home town, which as a demographer she points out is “not that important” even in Shandong Province which has several cities more important than Linyi.  As for Linyi itself, it only has about ten million people.  Unimportant though Linyi may be, that type of population should be enough to put it in the top 20 large cities for the world, i.e. somewhere between New York City and Los Angeles! Alas, a search of Wikipedia’s list revealed that while Linyi did indeed have 10 million people, but apparently such raw numbers are insufficient for getting it on any of the top-20, or even top 100 lists.  Apparently raw numbers is not only what such biggest cities lists are about.  China is big, but why shouldn’t a city of 10 million make some kind of list?

So what does the city of 10 million which makes none of the lists look like?  The answer is that it really looks new.  Proud citizens of Linyi drove us around at night and during the day to show off the new construction.  Remarkable was the multi-story apartment buildings of which there were scores, if not hundreds.  Indeed, there were at least 100 thirty story buildings under construction, and expansive hopes that China’s they hope rural poor will soon fill them.  Hundreds of other buildings between about eight and 30 stories were already filled.

Equally remarkable were the many public plazas, parks, and beaches constructed during the few years.  Sand was imported to make miles of the river shoreline into public beach front.  Public art was erected in many locales, and an impressive suspension bridge, and artistic lighting added an enchantment to the bridges and t.v. tower.

I lectured at a sprawling university which was newer, or under construction.  Linyi University dates from 1941, but construction on the new campus I went to began in the 1990s, and students first arrived in 2002.  Today Linyi University has 30,000 students.  The ninety or so I lectured to (in English) were attentive and eager to listen to what I confess became a lot of very dry sociology.  Children of China’s rural areas, they were eager to identify how sociology could fix what they call the “economic gap” between rich and poor.  Anyway, they laughed at most of my jokes.

Linyi of course is part of China’s policy of rural transformation which is about the government’s attempt to address that “economic gap.”   In yet another giant leap, the city planners of Linyi are hoping to revolutionize life for the rural poor of Shandong, this time pouring them into the modern new skyscrapers.  In doing this they hope to re-create some semblance of the old life by keeping village groupings together, while serving the very new needs of what is hoped will be a new industrial economy.  This is of course a high risk plan—many earlier attempts have foundered on the limits of planned central change, and the laws of unintended consequences.  Whether China’s newest attempt at rural transformation will depend on the success of places like Linyi, and their capacity to absorb the hundreds of millions still living in China’s impoverished country-side.

In the context of such scale, it is of course easy to forget that point my colleague first made: Linyi is not that big or unusual in the context of a larger China.  Indeed, broader questions abound.  What will a Linyi of 15 or 20 million people look like in 2025? Or more important how many Linyi-size cities will there be in China?  As this happens, not only will China change, but so will the top ten, twenty, and hundred largest cities lists on Wikpedia.

Or just maybe this is another case of China and the eyewitness fallacy I wrote about before?