How the rural teacher taught about Henry VIII at Halloween.

I felt I adapted well to the costume ball approach to Halloween at the private episcopal school, despite the fact that it was awkward at first. However, when I moved to a small, Northern California school a couple of years later, a few surprises were in store.

In this school, kids wrote Halloween stories and made Halloween art projects for the fun of it. School was cut short and the rest of the day became the Halloween Harvest Carnival. This event was set up for the benefit of whole families with older teenagers running booths with typical elementary school activities such as fishing pole hung over a large screen and goodies put on the paperclip hook, or bean bag throw into a plywood and painted clown face with holes for eyes, mouth and nose. Prizes were awarded to the most accurate throwers. There were also three- legged races, gunny sack races, apple bobbing and more simple fun.

In the public school, Halloween for the primary grades, was a wonderful curricular opportunity. One great teacher lead the K-2 kids, 300 of them, in a rhythmic chant that started with and returned to the chorus of Nancy Byrd Turner’s “Black and Gold.”

“Everything is black and gold,
Black and gold, to-night:
Yellow pumpkins, yellow moon
Yellow candlelight;

Jet-black cats with golden eyes
Shadows black as ink,
Firelight blinking in the dark
With a yellow blink

Black and gold, black and gold
Nothing in between-
When the world turns black and gold
Then it’s Halloween!”

A Halloween parade followed with laughs and jokes and fun. My Robin Hood costume with me in tights was a novelty but no one seemed to mind. There was a cakewalk for the older kids but it was cut short due to the small number of cakes. No home-made cakes were allowed due to the prevalence of hepatitis so only store bought sheet cakes and garishly decorated layer cakes sat on the prize table. This short game was drawing to a close when things started to turn a bit nasty.

A contingent of religious fundamentalist mothers with their preacher descended on the school. I was standing with my 6th graders who happily regressed to about 4th grade age in order to play with the primary kids and enjoy the parade. One boy stood up on his tip-toes suddenly and craned his neck to look at the approaching group of serious looking women in long dresses, elaborately braided hair and the man who accompanied them.

“Uh oh,” said the kid.

“What’s wrong?” I replied.

“It’s Boss Preacher, Shouting Joe Jones!” the boy said. “We better hide,” he warned a bit scared.

Some of the other kids exclaimed, “Oh no! Boss Preacher!”

“Now just relax,” I said calmly.

The kids scattered to a safe distance as the Preacher and his group closed in on us.

Boss Preacher, Shouting Joe Jones approached the carnival and in a non-amplified voice louder than any I had ever heard, started shouting “Fire and Brimstone! Fire and Brimstone! If you want to play little devils, then you are inviting the devil into your lives! Repent! Repent! Turn your back on the devil, don’t worship him!”

Between each sentence the accompanying women in long, plain dresses and braided hair would shout “Amen!” or “Save them Lord” or “Praise the Lord!”

This demonstration almost became a chant of its own.

Fire and Brimstone!

Save them Lord!

You are playing with the devil!


Repent! Repent!

Praise the Lord

Naturally, I stepped forward and attempted to stop this disruption of the kids’ fun.

“Excuse me,” I said. “You can’t do this here. These kids are just having a good time for Halloween.”

Without skipping a beat, Boss Preacher turned his gaze towards me, looked me up and down moved closer. His troops of braided women followed suit behind him. I stood my ground, like Robin on the bridge with Friar Tuck. But when he came so close I could smell the whiskey on his breath, I took a step back.

“Repent! Repent! You are the devil’s tool in your unholy costume of devil worship!” he shouted.

“I’m no such thing,” I replied with a smile on my face. Raising my voice I shouted back, “Henry the VIII wore tights and so do I, in his honor.”

For some reason, this mention of Henry VIII stopped Boss Preacher. He might have thought it was a Biblical reference such as Luke 8 or Mark 8, except this one from Henry 8 was a chapter he never learned about. He might not have been much of a reader. In any case, he was struck dumb. In an instant he turned around and marched off followed by his group of braided women.

The kids who had been watching from a distance ran up to me.

“How did you make him leave?” Said one.

“He cursed him, put a spell on him with Henry 8’s” said another

“What’s Henry 8’s?” said a few at the same time looking at each other.

I told the kids I would explain back in class and that they should go and play for now. The next Monday, I continued the Halloween tradition with stories of beheadings, bloody battles and heads on pikes. The kids loved this and begged for more. I was pretty happy to be able to help them learn about men wearing tights and religious freedom.




How the new teacher learned to wear tights and retained his manly persona.

My first Halloween as a teacher put me in a costume and identity I didn’t really expect. But much about that year I didn’t expect. It started with a group of young teachers from the private episcopal school deciding to go to an event called in those days a “Renaissance Faire.” The ‘e’ on the end of Fair denoted that the event was supposed to be reminiscent of the olden days, or of someone’s ideas about the olden days.

For me it meant hanging out with my colleagues and friends and especially the lovely Gwen. Her name was even close to a Renaissance name, Gwendolyn. She loved these kinds of events and wanted me to really enjoy my time at the Faire. I was kind of surprised when she asked, ’I wonder what size tights you wear?’

“Tights?” I responded. “Why would I need tights?”

“Everyone goes to a Renaissance Faire in costume,” she explained,” and you have to be in costume as well.”

This seemed like a shaky situation to me. I quickly ran through all the scenarios in my experience that required me to wear tights. It was easy because the number was zero. I started to step backwards in a kind of hemming and hawing dance of escape.

Gwen picked up on my hesitancy immediately and further explained the importance of being in costume. “Look,” she said. “This is an episcopal school which only exists because of Henry VIII and his fight with the Pope and his quest to produce a son to keep peace in England back in the 1500’s. You’re new here but sometimes we also dress in costume for events and wearing tights is just sort of our cultural history. I mean, it’s actually very manly with a codpiece and all.”

“Codpiece?” I stammered.

“OK,” she said. “You don’t have to wear the codpiece. I was just teasing. Although I might want to help you into and out of your tights as an extra curricular historical exercise.” She smiled demurely. I stared ahead not making eye contact.

“Just put on some gym shorts over your tights,” she finally offered. “It’s what everybody does. Your tunic hangs down and covers the shorts anyway. Put on a belt and a fancy Renaissance Hat with a feather and you’re in.”

“What about shoes?” I asked meekly.

“Oh, I have some stage shoes that are actually covers you slip over your tennis shoes to look like pointy Robin Hood shoes.”

After a few seconds while I tried to digest this shoe information, Gwen smiled and said, “Hey, that’s it.”

“What’s it?” I asked.

“Robin Hood,” she exclaimed. “You can be a manly Robin Hood with green tights a ragged tunic, a hat with a feather and pointy green shoes!”

This sounded like a pretty good compromise to me. I could go with my friends to the Renaissance Faire proudly wearing a manly costume and also be ready for any school events that might include Merry Olde England. We ate grilled sausages, fresh bread, listened to Renaissance bands play old instruments like the lute while they sang bawdy songs and enjoyed watching Renaissance games. There were booths of local crafts and the first faire I attended even had jousting.

I wondered what use I would have for my Robin Hood costume at school. But the question was answered, oddly, at Halloween. One thinks of witches, ghosts, goblins and scary costumes with blood stains and evil sounding voices at the mention of Halloween. These are somehow all connected to All Saints Day, or Dias de los Muertos in the Spanish or Mexican tradition. But even though we were deep in Southern California, there would be no Spanish or Mexican influence in our Halloween. This was an Anglican Halloween.

The minister gave a brief explanation of Halloween in chapel as All Saints Day and invited all the kids to really enjoy the day as the principal had arranged for lots of fun events. And our costumes would be on the theme of “Olde England.”

On Halloween Day, all the kids came dressed as princesses, Robin Hoods, dragons or kings. The older junior high kids couldn’t miss out on the scary stuff so they appeared as witches, executioners or plague victims. Classes were held on a shortened schedule and we teachers were expected to create curriculum that related to the fun of the dress-up day. Naturally, I came as Robin Hood and had kids make plays in groups and then deliver them to the whole class.

When the fun time actually started, the parents had organized a real play day. Kids bobbed for apples, got caramel apples, danced through a cake walk featuring fancy home-made cakes or even fancier ones from the upscale bakery nearby. White cake with real strawberries on top dribbled with dark chocolate was one I remember well, in addition to other rich and delicious offerings. Three-legged races and backward races were held and finally a parade where many awards were distributed for creative costumes. Hot dog and hamburger dinner rounded out the afternoon of Halloween Carnival and school moved towards Thanksgiving without looking back. My Robin Hood costume might work for Thanksgiving as well with a few minor adjustments. All in all, Halloween was a great success.



My Life as an Honored Potted Plant

Meetings are rituals, and rituals need symbols, and decorations, in other words potted plants.  Ie been to a lot of meetings in my time as an academic where I sat bored and confused, but still clap on cue.  The most obvious place I am such a decoration is in May graduation ceremonies.  I sit in a hot black robe in May, with the faculty and react in unison with those around me.  Literally an honored potted plant.

But there are many more places where such potted plants exist—decoration at a meeting where pre-prepared decisions are served up.  Academic Senate meetings come to mind; but so do political conventions, Congress, and annual meetings at churches.  The malaria zone office meetings I sat through when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand, were the most difficult—they were in Thai which I only slowly learned, but I still clapped on cue.  What all of these have in common is that I am really but a room decoration—a potted plant.

But we potted plants at meetings are needed by the important people (peacocks if we keep to our park metaphor) to show up and legitimate foregone decisions to preserve the pre-existing social order.  They need us potted plants as Honoratiorien, i.e. the honored elders who think they are invited to the meetings to make real decisions, even if they don’t.  But we are really only there to provide legitimacy for the experts who really pull the levers and push the buttons of the bureaucracy.  We potted plants show up at a meeting, look busy, ratify whatever decisions have been pre-arranged by the organizers, eat cheese squares and olives, and then have dinner.  A nice dinner at a nice restaurant.  Oh yes, and then the peacocks tell us how well we made difficult decision, and are profusely thanked for our critical participation.

The funny thing is that often not even the peacocks really run the meetings.  The ones who really run the show are the functionaries, clerks, secretaries, and others who organize the meetings, and present us with information to “consider.”  Such information comes pre-packaged, and pre-arranged in so there is little real discretion on our part; if done well there is only one single conclusion for us to mumble “aye” on.  Oddly enough, at many such meeting I was at, the lower-level staff who served the coffee and shoved files under our noses, were the real deciders to whom whichever peacock chairing the meeting turned to explain “the numbers.”  The numbers then spill out, the peacock nods sagely, we potted plants nod even more sagely as if our opinion mattered.  We vote “aye” and then clap.

Ultimately, tout the ones running the shows—are the technocrats who organize “the files” that are reflected in the numbers so readily tossed out to provide more legitimacy for the evidence-based decision-making (we Honoratioren only make decisions with evidence!).

But this blog is mostly a way of introducing the German word Honoratioren, which I have plucked out of Max Weber’s essays “Politics as Vocation,” and “Bureaucracy,” which my wife and I are currently translating from German to English.  Honoratioren are the esteemed people of a community to whom others habitually defer, despite the fact that they are really “dilletantes” when it comes to knowing the nuts and bolts of an organization which they are  called on to legitimate.  Where do you find such Honoratioren?  They are from the right families, wealthy business people, performers of past glories, movie stars, sports figures, local nobility—i.e. the “better strata” of a community.  I guess that’s me with all my seniority at the university now; an Honoratioren who gets trips to exotic locales like Los Angeles, where I can dine on cheese squares and fine restaurants.

The most common habitat for Honoratioren are the boards, commissions, and so forth which ostensibly run corporations and government.  They really do not know what they are doing, but as long as their egos are stroked, and vanity appealed to, they lend the air of legitimacy to what really is going on. Weber described them as “voting cows” being led to approve what to legitimate what the technocrats are going to do anyway; Weber’s metaphor is good—but potted plants works, too.

Occasionally Weber writes, such Honoratioren make it into some meaningful office, but then it doesn’t always work out so well—think Governor Jesse Ventura of Minnesota, and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California; two classic Honoratioren who somehow made it across the divide into political offices where power was wielded.  Perhaps they would have been better if they remained potted plants; I’ll let the historians figure out that one!

So what is a good translation for Honoratioren?  The traditional one for Weber translators is “notables.”  But because I was recently at such meetings, passing along my professorial imprimatur over things I knew little about, I’m thinking “potted plant” conveys Weber’s meaning better!  So if you see the German word Honoratioren in our translation some day, just think, “potted plant.”

Originally posted at October, 29, 2014

When is Peer Review the Gold Standard, and When is it Only Tin?

Fair warning from an anonymous peer reviewer on one of my recent articles…

“The author is hampered by an inaccurate, naïve, and highly simplistic understanding of the basic principles…which leads him to make ludicrous statements like the following…”

As is well-known, “peer review” is the gold standard of academic achievement. It is assumed that peer review gives rigor and legitimacy to new ideas. This assumption persists even in the context of well-publicized fraud scandals involving high fliers in physics, human cloning, and cancer research which indicate that peer reviewers at journals like Science and Nature can be as sloppy as anyone else. Nevertheless, the process does often add to the seriousness of academic publication. Plus, if you did not have peer review, as is often said, you are no better than a newspaper, a blog like, or (horrors) Wikipedia!
But, as the the quote at the beginning of this article shows, peer review is not always encouraging, nurturing, or in my view, very fair. In other words, sometimes there is only tin beneath the gold plate. Peer reviewers with the cloak of anonymity sometimes let loose on potential competitors. Editors do not always do their part by protecting writers from the more unreasonable attacks. Does this make for better science? Perhaps sometimes. My own view is that in the long-run peer review makes for a more careful and conservative science. But it also discourages challenges to the status quo, even though such challenges are what good science is about in the first place. Most crucially, writers without a thick skin are discouraged from pursuing good ideas further, all because some anonymous reviewer process had a fight with their spouse or teenager that morning, and took it out on you.

Scientific Publication—The Theory
The ideal of peer review is that rational, unbiased, and anonymous experts evaluate the work of others to verify whether an idea is new, rigorous, and important enough for publication. You submit a paper to a journal, and then the editor selects colleagues within your discipline to read what you have written. Anonymity is important to this process (ideally both the reviewer and reviewee do not know who each other are), because it is well-known that there are friendship cliques and elites within the scientific community which may bias review. Reviewers judged by editors as “possible for publication” are then sent to reviewers selected for their expertise and respect. The reviewers then submit their reasons for acceptance or rejection to the editor. Such reasons ideally entail 2-3 pages (single spaced) discussing the strengths and weaknesses of a paper’s data and argument, which are then forwarded anonymously to the author. Often, suggestions are made about literature that may have been missed in the paper, irrespective of whether the paper is accepted or rejected. I have found such suggestions helpful.
Based on 1-3 such reviews, the editor then makes a final decision about whether to accept, reject, or suggest a “revise and resubmit” to the author. Final acceptance of course is important within the scientific community. Besides the status and prestige associated with publication itself, papers published in such “peer reviewed” journals can make a difference in academic promotion and tenure decisions.
With revise and resubmits, a paper often has up to five reviewers (plus the editor) read and make anonymous comments for the author. Because so many minds are focused on the development of the paper, the overall quality, rigor, and accuracy of the argument is improved. The process is often slow. Between first submission, and the final arrival of a paper in print, months, and possibly years may pass. But this care is why your anthropology professor prefers to see you cite the Human Organization, American Anthropologist, or Anthropology Today, rather than Newsweek, CNN’s website,, Wikipedia, or even Encyclopedia Britannica. All of these sources may be edited for style (ok, maybe not, but there is not an expert review of the facts.

The result of all this peer reviewed literature is a scientific literature which academics (especially graduate students) pore over in order to find their own innovation. The peer reviewed literature is more valid and reliable because it has been through the rigorous review process. Acceptance rates in the most prestigious journals are often less than 10%, meaning that only the self-described “very best” is published, while the rest is rejected and perhaps submitted to a less prestigious journal, or perhaps find itself into publication in an “edited collection” prepared by a group of colleagues interested in a shared subject. Note that neither of these final two conditions are all that bad. A new idea is still “out there” for the diligent researcher to find.

Scientific Publication—The Practice
Anyway, that’s the theory of peer review. I have been through the process with two separate articles and a book proposal four times in the last six months or so. Only sometimes has it met the ideal. The book proposal has resulted in a contract (yippee), one article on neurology was flat out rejected once (ugh!), and from a second journal received a “rejection but you can submit again.” The third paper about African history was rejected, and the editor recommended I pay attention to one reviewer’s comments, and submit to another journal. All together, the reviews incorporated the opinions of six reviewers. Two were brief and insulting without redeeming value, and dismissed my work in a few short lines. One was insulting, but made good recommendations about things that should be incorporated in the article. One was frustrated with my “sloppiness” but the reviewer thought the paper was worth a “revise and resubmit” which the editor did not give me. The fifth thought the paper was worthwhile, but needed to be fleshed out for the “new parts” more, and the editor gave me the “reject but you can resubmit in a revised form.” The last was the “accept.”
In other words, three of the reviews were constructive, and reflect the very best of the peer review process. Two of them reflect some of the worst impulses found in the review process. The one which was insulting (called me naive, etc) gave good suggestions was somewhere in the middle.

Here is a sampling, with some of my own comments:

“…There is little that is based on original research and no substantial intellectual or theoretical content…I am sorry to be so negative, but this [paper] is simply a non-starter.” (This comment was on a 40+ page paper, and the whole review was only about six sentences long. This reviewer has an ego problem and is lazy).

The second review on the same paper was three pages long, and pointed out in excruciating detail a number of errors on my part:

“Despite this rather frustrating sloppiness [which was pointed out in excruciating detail], I am willing to see the author revise and resubmit…” (ok, ok, you got me this time…I will go back and fix things)

Comments on the sociology and neurology article included the following. First the extremely short dismissive review:

“This leads him to highly fatuous arguments…” (Not as fatuous as your stupid review).

A second comment on the same paper:

“The author is hampered by an inaccurate, naïve, and highly simplistic understanding of the basic principles…which leads him to make ludicrous statements like the following…(this review included some good references to what the reviewer thought were key to the discipline, so he got me on that one. I will cite them, but also note that they present an inaccurate, naïve, and highly simplistic understanding of basic sociological literature…which leads to ludicrous statements. Except I will say this with more respect, and not anonymously.)

The paper was resubmitted to another journal after I took a number of issues raised in the second review into account. I received the following comments back:

“I’m very sympathetic to one of the paper’s central claims…but I don’t believe that the paper as a whole has a sufficiently clear and sustained focus. .. What exactly do the two ideas have in common (apart from a central metaphor) and how do they differ? What can we learn from the comparison … But to make a substantial contribution to this more general debate, it would need to canvas a range of examples, … and to break some ground; advance some new arguments or shed new light on old ones.” (This comment ended in a rejection and resulted from the comment below from the editor. But thanks for the thoughtful comments!)

“I agree with the reviewer`s opinion that the basic line of thought in this paper is interesting and plausible. But I think the reviewer is also probably right that these basic ideas need more sustained development…”(ok, you have a good point. I will do it, and get back to you in a couple of months which incorporate some of the specific points raised—thanks for being encouraging even though this was not an acceptance!)

And finally a note from the one acceptance out of the four submissions:

“I’m not sure if I have a plan to order things differently than they are currently ordered, but it strikes me as potentially a little awkward…” (I think that this reviewer was probably right—but this comment was from the review which resulted in the book contract, which made me pretty happy in the first place)

My own strategy for working with this range of commentary, is to assume that anything complimentary is really correct, suggestions for including other books as a citation should always be followed, and that anyone that includes words like “naïve” or “ludicrous” means that I have a really good paper and should try again, and that the reviewer is in need of psychiatric help.

Why we Need Peer Review
So there you have peer review, from the nasty to the constructive. If you are ever asked to do peer a review, I would urge you to avoid the nasty side. Be constructive in your comments, even if your conclusion is to “reject.” Remember too, that many papers go through many iterations—papers are only rarely accepted on the “first try.” My own experience is that papers might be accepted on the second to fifth try. And usually—though not always—the peer review process is a constructive part of the development of a paper. Also remember, there are a lot of journals out there, and a rejection is sometimes the luck of the draw. How could the editor have known that the reviewer he met a conference five years before had tortured frogs as a child, and was also going through a bad divorce? Ignore the comments about being naïve, simplistic and ludicrous, and fix what is fixable, while also recognizing that you cannot please every reviewer all the time.

While peer review eliminates poor scholarship, in my view the greatest contribution peer review offers is in its ability to encourage and nurture good scholarship in others. Some of the more prestigious journal in sociology note this, telling reviewers that despite the fact that 90% of the submissions are not published, their comments are important because eventually many papers are published somewhere. Indeed, many of the most important and revolutionary ideas are first described in remoter areas of the academic literature—it is only after validation there that they make their way into the more “prestigious” mainstream literature. This I hope is the case with the two papers described above. I hope in the next few months to finish revisions, turn them around, and seek publication somewhere in the scientific literature. Rejections are part of the academic game. It is just too bad that nastiness is too.


First posted July 2008 at

The College Status Game: Why I Think Chico State is a Better University than UC Berkeley  

College is not just about learning, it is about status and hierarchy, too. So what do the fine nineteen year-olds at UC Berkeley think about us at low ranked Chico State? And how do we think about the snobs at UC Berkeley? Dismissiveness, preening, and sour grapes are part of the ranking game.

Status is the posturing we do in order to be a member of a desirable group. We posture because status has implications for how valued resources such as money, prestige, power, and honor are distributed. In an ideal world, the 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 while important, belies what many of us intuitively know about the real world. Status is not only dependent on the mechanisms of a blind market, no matter how efficient it may be, but also is obtained through who you associate with. These associations may be through family connections, club memberships, school networks, fraternity membership, or what university you attend. None of these connections are blindly entered into, irrespective of their utility in the marketplace. And as study after study have shown advantage in the labor market also depends on legally pernicious status categories like race, gender, religion, and social class.

Universities are at the intersection of this status paradox, between a market that 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 also used as a status marker to determine how money, prestige, power, and honor are distributed irrespective of what skills an individual has. 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 each fall by US News and World Report and other rankers of college and university prestige. And for this reason, it is interesting to think about what implications this annual ritual has on how we inside America’s colleges and universities view each other. And of course these views are not the same because, after all, status matters. Thus, people teaching and learning at dominant universities like UC Berkeley have one way of viewing their privileges and advantages in what they presume to be a competitive life in which their true honor is recognized. Those of us who teach at lower-ranked universities (in my case Chico State) do too. But our views about the justice of Berkeley graduates’ privileges are different.


 Why Chico State Does Better at Undergraduate Education than UC Berkeley: A Brief Rant

I will be blunt. When it comes to undergraduate education I think Chico State does a better job than UC Berkeley. The many large classes at Berkeley are too big for undergraduates. 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 on the letterhead who may be widely published but often are poor undergraduate teachers. Berkeley also freely gives students credit for time the faculty do not teach. For example, Berkeley’s Introductory Sociology course in spring 2011 had 279 students who were lectured to for two hours per week, and a smaller graduate student-led discussion section that was one hour per week. Students received four hours credit for these three hours. In contrast, Chico’s Introductory Sociology classes were three hours per week of lecture with about 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 may well still be smart and hard-working, although I have yet to see any evidence that this quality is acquired at Berkeley rather than one the students brought with them fro high school.

Chico State in contrast has smaller classes, few inexperienced graduate student teachers, and hire 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, even though they may also write books and academic articles just like the big names at UC Berkeley. It may well be true that Berkeley educates the very best high school students that California has. But Chico State 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 they 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 though takes the B student, and turns them into a college graduate. And Chico State does it for less tax money than do the overpaid professors (and underpaid teaching assistants) at UC Berkeley. Chico State’s true honor is hidden, and US News and World Report got it wrong when they published their college rankings last September, and informed us that again, UC Berkeley was the number one national public university while Chico State 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 and think. 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 very heavily on sociologist Max Weber’s[1] description of status inequality in ethnicity, occupational categories, and caste. By extension, this also applies to how college rankings reported by US News stratify America’s system of higher education.

So first a little sociology. High status means that one group (in this case Berkeley people) monopolizes goods or opportunities through the maintenance of social distance from lower status people like me at Chico State. They do this through their power to award status markers for and assign prestigious goods. Thus, despite the fact Berkeleyites and Chicoites look alike, take the same classes, teach the same things about sociology and economics, Berkeleyites are routinely paid more, more likely to sit at the head of a table, be elected to honor societies, be selected to divide up federal grants, and become the arbiters of the institutions which award academic status. More to the point, US News asks Department Chairs working at places like Berkeley to determine their own rankings as well of that of everyone else. And not surprisingly the smarty-pants from places like Berkeley 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 [2]. (When I was a chair at Chico State, I never had a phone call or email from US News soliciting my opinion about the quality of undergraduate programs at Berkeley—so goes it in the game of status). Note that this has nothing to do with an objective measure of “quality” in undergraduate programs which I wrote about in my rant. Indeed, as I said before if this were the case, Chico would beat Berkeley hands down in US News rankings. But in fact ranking has nothing to do with the anonymous mechanisms of labor markets, which Weber as writes, status systems run by US News in fact abhor.

Weber writes that the inequality between groups like Berkeley and Chico are maintained through rituals which ensures 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 (In this respect, I guess I am a typically ungrateful and unappreciative subordinate). But the dominant group also has its own ways of justifying its status is deserved, typically by emphasizing the acclaim it received in the past and present. The result is a rhetorical dance engaged in by both parties. Thus both universities believe that there is something unique about their own institution, and each believes its own honor to be the highest one, a fiction 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 the stigmatizing rank Playboy once gave as the number one party school in the nation. We also need to explain why so few National Merit Scholars come to Chico, and why so many of our students routinely take so few classes while working at tedious minimum wage jobs while attending Chico State.

Still Berkeley too has an image problem. They need to explain why their honor is deserved, and how pretensions of people like me are the result of envy, jealousy, and sour grapes. In short there need to be rituals and stories to explain caste dominance (Berkeley), and caste subordination (Chico). According to Weber, because Berkeley is on top of an established pecking order, Berkeley’s story is about a glorious past, which explains why logically Berkeley is the highest ranked public university in the United States. The past leaders 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 deserving of their exalted place in the world. And by implication the rest of us are losers.

At Chico, the stories and rituals are of course different. They are not be 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 Story of Hidden Honor

At Chico State, I routinely explain our position in higher education’s hierarchy to prospective students and new faculty. The story follows much along the lines I ranted about above. I describe the easy access to faculty Chico students have, the smaller classes, and point out that UC Berkeley has none of these. Because I am an alumnus of the University of California (Davis in my case), 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 Chico State student, you will find that they work harder in the “real” world. After all Berkeley students tend to be richer and more spoiled. And because they have better high school grades they are more likely to have scholarships. This means that they rarely are exposed to the reality of a job in the dining commons, local restaurant, or camp counseling during the summer. 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 Chico State 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 ungrounded in the real world. Our students will never labor as a heartless drone holed up with a calculator screen and spreadsheets for fifty years as would a Berkeley student. Rather they will work in offices inhabited by real people.


Image of Wildcats

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 Business School routinely brags about the “social skills” of their students. They point out that the party-school atmosphere is actually a 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.[3] 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 Chico State student who quietly and competently smooth’s large egos, and connects the human elements necessary in every organization. Or to borrow a Biblical saying, we believe that in the end days, the last will be first, and the first will be last; in the end, say in fifty years, the honor of Chico State will be recognized by even US News while presumably Berkeley will be noticed only by Playboy. Undoubtedly, this will happen when one of my colleagues is plucked from obscurity and awarded a Nobel Prize in something, or an alum is elected president of the United States. After all if Eureka College’s Ronald Reagan, and Texas State Teachers College’s Lyndon Johnson can become president, why not someone from Chico State?

Steeped in History

Kingdoms of This World…

While typically Berkeley and Chico faculty do not run in the same circles, I can still walk on the Berkeley campus, and also browse their web-site. What you find is a presentation of self that is different from Chico’s. Berkeley doesn’t dream of Nobel Prizes, they already have them. Indeed, the list of current Nobel Prize winners (7) is only three clicks from Berkeley’s home page (along with the 13 deceased prize winners, and then one more click to the 24 alumni winners—who says that nerds aren’t the best?). Department rankings are only a click or two in another direction, where a page indicates, “In the most recent National Research Council study, 35 of Berkeley’s 36 graduate programs ranked in the top 10 in their fields in terms of faculty competence and achievement.” In case you don’t have a web-browser, go on the UC Berkeley campus, and you will see ostentatious privileged parking places reserved for Nobel Laureates. Buildings are named for outstanding scientists including those who developed the atom bomb in World War II, rich alumni like William Randolph Hearst, and other heroes who have graced Berkeley’s campus. In short, while Chico’s promise is still in the future, Berkeley’s Kingdom is in the here and now and they are going to let everyone know about it. The University’s web page preens with history, leading UC Berkeley to conclude with the self-satisfied observation that “[Already] In 1966 Berkeley was recognized by the American Council on Education as ‘the best balanced distinguished university in the country.’” Nothing is shy, or hidden, or clandestine here. It is out in front for all to admire.

The implication of all this self-promotion for Berkeley’s undergraduates is that only the very best will be admitted; only the intellectual elite will be given admission to the hallowed grounds. Sometime in their first week on campus, it will be made clear to them that because Berkeley is the best, they too must be the best, a form of tautological reasoning that insecure 18 and 19 year olds embrace enthusiastically. And indeed they are the best, at least in terms of high school grades, SAT scores, extra-curricular activities and the other things that UC Berkeley and others at the top of the current status heap value highly. And this in turn justifies the self-satisfied assertion that only the best recognizes the best, and in this way the inequality of the American higher education system is perpetuated, seemingly ad infinitum. And as a result throughout their careers, they will give each other pay raises, jobs, honors, appoint each other to boards of directors, in the belief that being of high status is an end in and of itself.

But There are also Kingdoms of the Coming World…

None of the things that Berkeley brags about on its website addresses the undergraduate excellence like small classes, contact with faculty, etc., that we have at Chico. But even I will admit that Chico is weaker on one thing: presentation of our history. There is no “history of Chico State” link to our home page, nor as far as I can tell, any other place. There are no obvious lists of the accomplishments of our faculty (no Nobel Prizes) and our buildings are mostly named after obscure northern California counties. Despite over a hundred years of history, there are few illustrious faculty, donors, or alumni bragged about. On the President’s page, there is a brief mention that CSU Chico is one of the highest ranking public colleges in the West, but unlike Berkeley, the source is not cited.[4] More significantly though for an essay about the nature of status stratification, is the focus of two prominently displayed slogans on Chico State’s web page. “Today Decides Tomorrow” is mentioned in both the President’s welcome page, and is emblazoned above the door of the Kendall Hall, one of the few buildings to bear an illustrious name, former president Glenn Kendall. The second prominently displayed slogan is the campus’ latest goal, which envisions Chico as becoming a center for sustainability education. So on the home page for months was a large green hot link reading “Our Sustainable Future” and led to a list of planned programs designed to position Chico in the future.

What both of these slogans of course represent is the belief that Chico’s unseen glory is the future—tomorrow as the slogan says. The future may be ours, and by extension not Berkeley’s. Someday, Chico’s mythology goes, an illustrious figure will emerge—in Weber’s terminology a messiah figure—who will demonstrate how quietly but excellently we have been delivering for California all along. In this respect I suppose it is fortunate to have so many buildings named after obscure counties. They are sitting there, waiting to be named for people who will give Chico great sums of money, our first Nobel Prize winner, or better yet invent an even bigger bomb! Best of all, those of us who have been around awhile will get to divide up the resources differently, meaning we will get a big pay raise, putting us ahead of even UC Berkeley: in this promised future, we will be of this world, and no longer have to worry so much about tomorrow!

The Persistence of Status Stratification

Of course, the status inequality between Berkeley and Chico is hardly unique. Such inequality inherently permeates the relationships which order our hierarchically ordered modern society. I could have as easily written this essay about the relationship between Chico and the local Community College, Butte College. I am sure that the faculty there are acutely aware of the differences in pay and teaching load (i.e. they get less money and grade more papers). They will undoubtedly have the same uneasiness and chip on their shoulder relative to Chico State, and with equal faith await their first Nobel Prize winner and the arrival of a messiah figure in the form of a hundred million dollar endowment.[5] What this illustrates are not the implicit differences between Butte, Chico and Berkeley, but the nature of status and honor within society. Ultimately, status, unlike market economics, is a zero sum game. For one institution or person to have more status, another institution must have less.

As Max Weber wrote, status systems are about sorting out who has advantages and who does not. Dominant ideology aside, it is not simply the provision of rewards on the basis of the blind labor market; indeed, status systems are about the privileged avoiding the mechanisms of the blind marketplace. The labor market may in theory be blind, but employment resumes still prominently indicate what college you attend. Highlighting such a status achievement is as important in the seeking of privilege as the skills learned, and tells to others where you belong in the pre-established pecking order.

So, from Weber’s perspective, the mystery of why neither UC Berkeley or Chico State use much of their web-site plugging the quality of undergraduate education is not so baffling. Berkeley spends its time asserting the importance of past Nobel Prize winners, and Chico dreams of tomorrow because they are, respectively, a dominant university seeking to preserve its status, and a subordinate institution dissatisfied with the status quo. The good news is that while such status distinctions persist and are evident in how each institution presents itself, they are also malleable. No currently dominant institution started out that way, which is why messiah figures (in Berkeley’s case the Nobel Prize winners) become so prominent in the mythologized histories they publish. Symbolically such heroes mean a lot, even though in delivering the core product of the institution—quality undergraduate classes to 19 year olds—they are irrelevant. This means that while Chico State may not be tomorrow’s dominant Berkeley, an institution like Chico, meaning anyone of the hundreds of undergraduate colleges, will find its rightful place in the sun, which in its own vicarious way gives us all hope.

[1] This essay draws very heavily on Max Weber’s classic essay “Class, Status, Party” which has been published in both From Max Weber, and Economy and Society. The essay was also recently retranslated by Dagmar Waters, Tony Waters, and others, as “The Distribution of Power within the Community: Classes, Staende, Parties,” and published in the Journal of Classical Sociology (2010).

[2] Institutional reputation, which US News calls “peer assessment” comprises 25% of US News’ measure of university quality. Reputation is calculated by asking Department chairs at research universities like Berkeley what they think of themselves, and everyone else. The chairs indicate what their gut level feelings are which not surprisingly are that people like them are better than people at places like Chico State. The other 75% of the rankings are mostly made up of qualities students bring with them from high school like grades and SAT scores (15%), how much money alumni give (5%) and faculty pay (20%). Retention rates (20%) of all the numbers US News uses is the only one that has much to do with undergraduate education, although it too is not a direct measure of the quality of classes.

[3] This is what President George H. W. Bush (Yale and Skull and Crossbones Fraternity 1948) notoriously did in the lap of the Japanese Prime Minister in 1992.

[4] Number three in the MA granting public institution category for the west—source US News)

[5] Indeed, there was a brief flurry of hype at Butte College in 2011 when rich alum Aaron Rogers quarterbacked the Green Bay Packers to Super Bowl glory. But Aaron has yet to return the love, or cut a check, and has instead has highlighted what he apparently believes is a stronger college connection—at UC Berkeley.

Berkeley Playboy

 Images by: Brad Nail