As the subtitle suggests, this is a historical account of "The Middle Class and the Development of Higher Education in America," specifically during the second half of the nineteenth century. Although much of the book is given to an account of the radical changes that took place in higher education during the 1860s and 1870s, it shows how America's modern culture of professionalism was born.
Bledstein traces the roots of professionalism to the early part of the nineteenth century when America was developing a unique class-system. During this time, nearly everyone thought of himself as being of the middle class. Rejecting such European distinctions as an aristocracy and a proletariat, America needed some other justification for the observable and necessary differences among people. Professionalism was, according to Bledstein, the ingenious and distinctly American solution to this problem since it provided a justification for status based on merit rather than wealth or property. The new professionals found a way to dodge the whole issue of class by constructing a meritocracy a social order based on competition and ability. Bledstein maintains that the United States, unlike other countries, has an exaggerated respect for the specialist because professionalism is the mainstay of our system of social stratification.
Science quickly became the religion of the new culture of professionalism. "For middle-class Americans," Bledstein writes, "the culture of professionalism provided an orderly explanation of basic natural processes that democratic societies, with their historical need to reject traditional authority, required. Science as a source for professional authority transcended the favoritism of politics, the corruption of personality, and the exclusiveness of partisanship." One of the results of the new respect for science and experts was that social issues became redefined as technical ones.
During the latter half of the nineteenth century, higher education emerged as the seminal institution within the culture of professionalism, according to Bledstein. "By and large the American university came into existence to serve and promote professional authority in society," he writes. "The development of higher education in America made possible a social faith in merit, competence, discipline, and control that were basic to accepted conceptions of achievement and success."
Although the new culture provided unheard-of freedom for its beneficiaries, its effects on the larger society were essentially conservative. Each elevated figure, each person fortunate enough to be credentialed, took his place in a newly established elite. This new class, cut off from its origins, was all the more powerful because it was presumed to exist by virtue of individual merit rather than birth or circumstance.
Bledstein expresses his deep misgivings about the dangers of professionalism and especially the academic environment that fosters it throughout the book. In a brief epilogue addressed at the present moment, he concludes with an open-ended question: "How does society make professional behavior accountable to the public without curtailing the independence upon which creative skills and the imaginative use of knowledge depend?" For Bledstein it is a question without any immediate answer, yet it is one that must be asked all the same.
Copyright 1993 by Scott London. All rights reserved.