the effects of education as an institution


As people continue to have fun with the whole sun around the earth thing, I did what I usually do in times of darkness and despair; go back to consult sacred scriptures in order to restore my faith in the ultimate explanatory coherence of the universe. My unwavering catechism is always that “…this too shall be explained” (preferably sociologically).

To that end I pointed my browser to JSTOR and to a very underrated paper by John Meyer published in the hallowed year of 1977: “The Effects of Education as an Institution.” After re-reading this paper once again (for the 5th time) I got to thinking: what if the GSS folk, instead of fielding a “science” module had fielded a John Meyer institutional theory module? What if instead of asking about big explosions that started the universe or whether the earth goes around the sun, they would asked the following question:

Now, the following questions are designed to test your knowledge of how society works:

(1) does a high school degree come before a college degree or does a college degree come before a high school degree?

(2) can a doctor practice medicine with a 6th grade education?

What percentage of the population do you think would have gotten the “wrong” answer to these questions or even said “dunno”? My guess it that much less than 26%, and much less that answer “dunno” to all of the science questions in the 2006 GSS. And this has arguably nothing to do with the fact that these questions are cognitively more demanding than the earth around the sun question.

And, well, that’s precisely the point. People usually take John Meyer’s assertion that education allocates people to positions regardless of whether the person learns anything or not as an overstatement. However, they miss the more subtle point. Meyer does not say that people that are processed in school systems don’t know anything; only that whether or not we learn the stuff that teachers are purportedly teaching is not the most important thing. For instance, we all know the “rules” of the educational system (the sequence of grades that one must pass through, etc.) and that is useful knowledge; we all know that economists study economics and physicists study physics; we all know that that knowledge is highly technical and probably useful for certain purposes. Similarly, when people are asked to rank occupations, they seldom (that is, using our earth around the sun criterion, they err much less often than one quarter of the time) give the “wrong” answer when comparing a college professor to a carpenter (the “wrong” answer is: college professor is less socially esteemed than a carpenter).

So, obviously school systems teach people lots of things, but not necessarily the things that they set out to teach them. Yet, this other stuff–and this is the sociological point–may in fact be more crucial than details about how long does it take the earth to go around the sun (unless you in fact work in NASA). The problem is that the institutional myth of the educational system, the folk theory that accounts for its legitimacy and high-level institutionalization is that it teaches people detailed things about these subjects (physics, biology, history, etc.) and not simply the allocation of experts to disciplines or the sequence of steps that are required to be an expert. When surveys show that that is not what it is doing, we all scratch our heads and fall into a fit of “ontological insecurity” (in Giddens’ sense) without questioning our implicit belief that that is what educational systems are supposed to be doing.

So Kieran’s half tongue-in-cheek initial response to the whole sun around the earth thing: “more people approve of interracial marriage than heliocentric models of the solar system” may in fact carry a more substantial sociological message than it seems. Decline of support for interracial marriage has been a dramatic shift in the attitudes of the American population in the last 50 years. This new “liberalism” should not simply be dismissed as a “shallow” attitude with no connection to behavior, for it encodes an increasingly dominant folk theory of personal choice when it comes to romance: you fall in love with the abstract individual, regardless of primordial ascriptive characteristics.

Most people I’m sure interpret Kieran’s quip as implying that only “dumb” people believe in prohibitions against interracial marriage anyway, and that those are probably the same as the Ptolemaics. But this misses the point: educated people know very well that you don’t consider race in romantic choice. Moreover, this education had to have occurred in a modern educational system (not 19th century France for instance). If we were to conclude that only “dumb” people think that race should matter in marriage choices, we would have to include some of the most brilliant people who ever lived under the category of “dumb” just because they were born in the wrong century.

The decline of primordial ascription, and the rise of the abstract individual, is itself a highly institutionalized and legimitated project. Kindergarteners in modern educational systems are bombarded from day one with a single message: “all people are the same, regardless of nationality, color, etc.” And guess what folks, they learn this; whether they later on remember details about Copernican revolutions gets lost in the shuffle, simply because it is assumed by everyone that this teaching is happening at some point, whether is happening or not (this is what Meyer and Rowan [1977: 357] refer to as “the logic of confidence”). However, no modern individual is going to be allowed to escape a modern school without having learned the abstract value of individuality and the backwardness of taking into account ascriptive primordial qualities in personal decisions.


Written by Omar

June 9, 2007 at 6:53 pm

7 Responses

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  1. Orthodox economists are the shock troops of abstract individualism.



    June 9, 2007 at 8:14 pm

  2. “Blaa…blaa…blaa…blaa…When surveys show that that is not what it is doing, we all scratch our heads and fall into a fit of “ontological insecurity” (in Giddens’ sense) without questioning our implicit belief that that is what educational systems are supposed to be doing…blaa…blaa…blaa…”


    Well gollllyyyy, there sho are lots of dumb people out there.

    Occam’s Razor…your choice.

    P.S., love the scare quotes



    June 10, 2007 at 1:02 pm

  3. oh mr. fisher, I think there has been a misunderstanding. I didn’t write this post with people like you as a target audience. But thanks for stopping by and taking the time to read it!



    June 10, 2007 at 2:48 pm

  4. I’ve also always thought that ‘Effects of Education’ has not been rated as highly as it deserves. It forms a nice complement to the M&R pieces, drawing out more fully Meyer’s conceptualization of the ‘education-and-society’ relationship, with education presented as having broad structuration effects upon diverse social domains (as a student in the sociology of education, that fits well with my desire to expansive claims for my field). For my own part, though, what has always interested me about this article is the way in which Meyer demonstrates the effect of modern educational systems on the balance between what is seen and what is not seen, or more precisely what is held up for inspection and what is not, in society: “If one hires an executive, a civil servant, or a teacher one must inspect educational credentials—it is optional whether one inspects the person’s competence”(66). The logic of confidence, as I understand it, is predicated on the assumption that only certain things (e.g., what grade one is in, or what degree one holds) and not others (e.g., what goes on in the classroom, or what one has really learned) are rendered visible and made available for ready inspection and observation. Whether this still holds true is certainly up for debate, given NCLB and prevailing ‘new accountability’ frameworks in education. But the idea that actors focus on upholding the edifice or structure of the visible frontstage and its accompanying apparatus of grades, scores, credentials, categories of expertise and personnel, etc. and only occasionally peer backstage so as not to suffer from excessive shock at the mess they might find, seems to still hold some force.



    June 11, 2007 at 3:49 pm

  5. Andrew, thanks for your very thoughtful comment. I agree with you NCLB and other such policy initiatives don’t radically change the logic of the system. In fact, they simply substitute one set of external criteria (the mechanical and routinized production of test scores, etc.) for another (the mechanical act of pushing students through different grades). As long as the required test scores are produced, few people care as to how they are produced.

    Another unintended consequence of things like NCLB, is an incipient rationalization of the U.S. educational system, which in this way comes to resemble those prevalent in more Statist polities such as in France, with homogenous standards across states. This may definitely date the original analysis by Meyer, Rowarn, Scott et al which drew a lot of mileage on the “decentralized” nature of the U.S. educational system and its effects on the structure of schools as organizations (subject to various contradictory mandates, and jurisdictions, etc.) which came to be reflected in their loosely coupled internal arrangements.



    June 11, 2007 at 4:06 pm

  6. […] June 11, 2007 Over at, one of my favorite WordPress blogs, Omar Lizardo recently posted on John W. Meyer’s “Effects of Education as an Institution” – one of my […]


  7. Lovely post. I can imagine Meyer nodding his head approvingly.

    His short summary of the education paper was that teachers are paid to take attendance so the accounting supports the diplomas.

    When I was at Stanford (84), Meyer used to describe a fairy tale, or was it published. Point, to underline the power of sorting/selection.

    Per Meyer, in the Phillipines, a study was done of high school seniors. They were given SATlike aptitude tests after they’d sent out college applications, but before they’d received acceptance letters. Then they were re-given SATlike tests after the acceptance letters had been received, but before their freshman year began. The first tests yielded a standard one bell curve of outcomes, but the second tests yield two bell curves. The lower bell curve was those who’d gotten rejection letters. No difference between the two groups could be determined from the first tests. Meyer loved to point out that the gaps occured even before acceptees had set foot on a campus. One didn’t even need to step on Stanford grass to get the benefit of an acceptance to it.



    June 12, 2007 at 4:31 am

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