We don’t often question hierarchy as an organizing principle, or reckon how destructive its effects often are. The ranking of humans by their importance, arbitrary and unfair though it often seems, is simply the way it is, like a lot of things we ask God to grant us the serenity not to worry about. Hierarchy is ubiquitous in human affairs, going back to before recorded history, one suspects. Societies based on competition and conquest are particularly hierarchal.
You can picture dozens of examples. At the top of the pyramid is a person, or small group of people, with vast power. The will of these at the very top, often praised, guides the actions of everybody below them. At each level people give orders to those below them and are responsible for making their immediate superiors look good. Responsibility flows in one direction, bottom to top. Each group of supervisors are accountable only to their more important superiors. If they carry out their orders diligently and produce the desired metrics they might be promoted to the next rank. Every tyranny in history has run on this model, just as every corporation does, every army, virtually every human organization you can think of, organizations that do little or no harm, even organizations that do the most good.
Hierarchy is one of those principles that seem inevitable and organic. It seems to have arisen from nature herself. In the jungle there is the hierarchy, we are taught, a King of the Jungle , the top predator. The Catholic Church has a Pope, the corporation the C.E.O., the school the Principal. When Capitalism was rising to strangle every other possible view of economic and cultural organization its rationale was as scientific as Phrenology or Eugenics, as irrefutable as Manifest Destiny: Social Darwinism.
Charles Darwin articulated a once-controversial theory of evolution based on species changing to adapt to changing conditions. This theory, backed by long historic and ongoing evidence, is no longer controversial among educated people . Under Darwin’s theory of evolution, those individuals of a given species best able to adapt to the changing conditions survive to reproduce, their offspring who inherit these new traits have the best chance of surviving and reproducing and so forth. There was nothing moral about evolution, it was based on natural selection, adaptation to the changing environment and survival.
“Survival of the Fittest” became the self-justifying credo of modern titans of industry, Robber Barons, the greediest, most determined and most able to amass great wealth. Their offspring, they believed, were genetically fittest to inherit everything. Though we may have cause to lament this arrangement at times, we don’t seriously question it, it has always been thus. You had prehistoric tribal leaders, ancient warlords, kings, all flowing, one imagines, from obedience to the first homo sapiens who figured out how to use a devastating new weapon to kill and didn’t hesitate to use it.
I am not thinking of hierarchy now just because I heard the president on the radio affecting tremendous, unshakable nonchalance as he danced around an interviewer’s questions. Some see this man we have as president now as the personification of our sick society, the embodiment of everything wrong with our culture. He was born wealthy, privileged and entitled to the best things money can buy. He is boastful, the most boastful, he has the best boasts. He is often untruthful. He does not keep his word, although sometimes he does. He does, he really does keep his word, always?, no, but sometimes he keeps his word, he keeps his word. He surrounds himself with others born entitled as he was, like his daughter, his son-in-law, also born very, very rich because he’s a very great person. His cabinet of billionaires dedicated to dismantling the protective agencies they were appointed to head, same deal. The best people. Those in his administration who are not very wealthy are very, very loyal. They supported the president when many considered his candidacy a joke. Who is laughing now? Are you laughing? I don’t see you laughing.
It would be an easy place to go in a discussion of the downside of hierarchy, but let’s not go there. I want a simpler, more mundane example to lead off. Your average public school in America. The individual school that the inexperienced, platitude-choked, religious fanatic daughter and wife of billionaires now in charge of the Department of Education has vowed to privatize. Forget her, for a moment, if you can. We are looking at the individual school, say twenty, fifty or a hundred years ago.
The original theory of mandatory public school was to educate all children in America and give each one a real chance to participate in, and contribute to, our democracy. The public education system produced some impressive results at certain times. My alma mater, The City College, was once known (long before my time there) as the Harvard of the Poor. CCNY produced many illustrious alumni in a wide range of fields, including ten Nobel Prize winners. It remains a shining example of what low-cost or free education can do for motivated citizens. The GI plan after World War II that gave many poor veterans college scholarships and brought many into the middle class is another example.
Public education was almost never available to all, and it was also never truly a meritocracy. Early advocates like the genius Thomas Jefferson spoke of raking the educable few from the rubble of the masses (a phrase I got from my father, and is apparently, if one believes Google, only cited on this blahg, several times over the years). The actual Jefferson quote, in advocating the common school, was:
“By this means, twenty of the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually and be instructed in Greek, Latin, geography, and the higher branches of arithmetic at the public expense, creating a new generation of leaders without regard to wealth, birth, or accidental condition.”
Hierarchy, again, but at least here it is proposed as some sort of meritocracy, if you can stand the stink of the poor who are not actually slaves owned by superior people, have someone rake out a few brilliant souls from the shit and you can send them to an excellent and exacting public school where they will have the opportunity to prosper. A scholarship for those who, but for the unfortunate accident of their birth, would deserve to sit among the greatest of our nation.
This is not the place for a discussion of the hypocrisy and failure of this exalted vision of creating a true democracy by giving all young people a good education. It is enough to agree that the original impetus for public schools was largely a noble one. Give a child a good, solid education that instills a lifelong taste for learning and you create an intelligent, productive, problem-solving citizen. In the process of doing this you will find that the rate of brilliance among the children of the poor is about the same as it is among the children of the rich– once we correct for the damage done by things like malnutrition, poor prenatal care, the violence of slums, PTSD, parental despair and the like.
The American public school, which served millions of poor children, particularly once child labor was made illegal (around 1930, shockingly enough) and schooling compulsory (Mississippi, we learn from Wikipedia, was the last state to do this, in 1918) was designed on a factory model.
The young workers (students) arrive at the same hour, assemble in the yard, line up by class, where they are traditionally ranked by their achievement and behavior, and file silently into the school. As a body they rise to solemnly salute the flag and the republic for which it stands. A bell rings to tell them work time has started. Another bell rings when it is time to switch to the next task. They file into a cafeteria at the programmed time. The assemblies in the auditorium are carefully managed to create a sense of community, or, if you are more cynical, conformity. The bell rings, like a factory whistle blowing, and they exit the building en masse.
I hated school when I was a kid. Particularly the rigid structure of the place. I chafed at everything I found stupid, arbitrary, seemingly designed only to stifle the imagination. I recognize now that I had the good fortune to attend one of the best public schools around. It was a small public school in a wealthy neighborhood (we lived just on the other side of the figurative tracks) with very high academic standards, where classes were small and the school was of a size that virtually everyone knew everyone else.
I was in elementary school when the battle over integration was being viciously fought by passionate partisans. My mother’s good friend, a fellow-integrationist, sobbed after receiving hate mail addressed to Commie (which I found hilarious) and Nigger Lover (which somehow did not seem as funny, even though the word ‘nigger’, another word I’d never heard, seemed as intrinsically funny as ‘commie’). Those black kids who were finally bused in got a solid education, particularly compared to the inferior one they would have gotten in their unconstitutional ‘separate but equal’ shithole in the segregated areas of Queens where they lived.
Leave aside the School to Prison pipeline, the punitive system in which unruly students are treated as young inmates to be controlled rather than young minds to be guided toward the things that will excite their imaginations the most. I want you to consider the average public school in an average neighborhood in any city in America. I have worked in about a dozen of them, in New York City, maybe a few more than that. Here is the hierarchic aspect I want to highlight.
Teaching in these schools is famously difficult and demoralizing. The attrition rate for new teachers is very high. A small number of dedicated teachers go on long enough to become excellent teachers. These people, mostly women traditionally, are unsung heroes. They are artists, skillfully improvising with the young souls in their care to teach many things. I have nothing but admiration for great teachers, teachers who inspire a love of learning. Having tried teaching for a number of years, I am very aware of how much talent, dedication and generosity go into becoming a great teacher.
If you work in a system as overwhelmed with difficulty as the public school system in a nation grotesquely divided between the increasingly wealthy and the increasingly poor, there are two different career paths. One is to do the extremely hard work of becoming a great teacher (while also practicing social work, mediation, psychology, nursing and a number of other disciplines). The other path is to get out of the classroom as quickly as possible and take the courses and tests to become an administrator.
Not every person who opts for this second career path is a complete asshole, though many are. Let me make that more precise: not everyone who opts to become the boss of other teachers, without having mastered the difficult art themselves, is a complete asshole, the vast majority, sadly, are. Ask any teacher you know, particularly those who worked in multiple schools. The excellent principal is as rare as the excellent teacher.
The trouble is, while a mediocre or poor teacher is a plague upon thirty students, a mediocre or poor principal is a plague upon the entire school, every teacher, teacher’s aid and student– and all of their families. The public school (and private schools, I think, with their ‘head masters’, are roughly the same) is one of the most black and white top-down hierarchies around. Principals who spent as little time as possible in the classroom, finding the path upwards by taking tests, seeking promotions to special jobs, doing favors for the more powerful, showing their reliability as politicians, have almost unlimited power over teachers. It is just the way they do it in most school districts. One asshole principal can demoralize an entire school community and they are accountable, luckily for them, only to the political powers in the school district who appointed them and signed off on their virtually unlimited power.
I am reminded of this example of the principal unaccountably at the top of a hierarchy largely because of a comment I once heard from a perceptive parent. I ran a program for elementary school kids ages 7-11 where the children performed every aspect of dreaming up and creating original animation. It was a workshop that hummed like a beehive, a community of peers that worked together, rotated jobs and solved problems together. A father came to pick up his son as the workshop was still in progress. He stood at the door smiling and I went over to say hello. He told me how much his son, a friendly and creative boy who did wonderful animation and also was featured on many soundtracks, enjoyed the workshop. Then he said “I love that it is so non-hierarchic.” I’d never thought of it in those terms, but, damn, he hit the nail right on the head.
We live in a competitive society where certain people get to outright cheat. This class of people, some born to it, others determined to enter it, makes the rules to maximize their advantage in the rigged game. I long to spend some time in a room with people doing what they love where nobody needs to dominate or be in charge. There is an intelligence in a group of people that needs no firm hand telling it how to think, what the best way is. You don’t see it in action often, which is very sad, but you can see it once in a while. A group of old friends sitting around where nobody needs to be the boss.
Ah, but listen to me go on…
 With our usual caveat: the theory of evolution is universally accepted by educated people except among Republican presidential candidates who are obliged to challenge it for political reasons as they cater to a vast group of American Christian fundamentalist voters who resist anything about Creation that contradicts the word of God, as they are taught it.