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College Quarterly
Fall 2012 - Volume 15 Number 4
Twentieth-Century Higher Education: Elite to Mass to Universal
Martin Trow (Michael Burrage, ed.)
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Many senior managerial employees of my acquaintance, or at least those with postgraduate degrees in Higher Education, treat Martin Trow (1926-2007) with a measure of respect that borders on reverence. Lacking such official certification, but always on the lookout for a good read, I picked up this collection of Trow’s major essays with some enthusiasm, hoping to learn what accounted for the man’s evidently solid reputation. His inventory of major publications was substantial enough, though certainly not excessive by the standards of the latter half of the twentieth century—an era in thrall to the need to publish or perish and, of course, to do so in books by reputable publishers and articles in top-tier professional journals. A scan of his bibliography and background, however, quickly convinced me that Trow’s undoubted success had largely to do with his connection to the number “three.”


The integer three is magical and mystical. It is the frequent preference of people who like to sort things into manageable yet elegantly persuasive categories. It appears in everything from the Christian “trinity” (father, son and holy spirit) to the medieval basis of a liberal education (the trivium of grammar, logic and rhetoric) and the familiar syllogisms of formal logic (e.g., all men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore, Socrates is mortal—not to be confused with: men die; grass dies; therefore, men are grass).

We could also cite Chintamani the ancient Hindu symbol of happiness, the three Fates, Graces, Gorgons and Furies of ancient Greece, a vast litany of Druidical Celtic imaginings and any number of claims made by numerologists and spiritualists as well as the dialectic of “thesis, antithesis and synthesis” falsely attributed to Hegel and even more falsely applied to Marx, who scornfully dismissed dialectics as “wooden trichotomies” and just one more attempt by philosophy merely to understand the world rather than to change it (Siegel, 2005).

In the twentieth century, we have experienced Max Weber’s ideal types of authority (traditional, charismatic and rational-legal), Freud’s tripartite subdivision of the psyche (id, ego and superego), Kohlberg’s step-ladder of moral development (preconventional, conventional and postconventional), Habermas’ classification of knowledge and human interests (historical-hermeneutic, analytical-empirical and emancipatory) and, of course, the most appealing example of the theory of intransitive preference—the children’s game of “paper, scissors, stone.” The list is long.

Simple conceptual distinctions like these are mainly tools of convenience. They are not really intended to count for much as empirical or analytical instruments. They don’t do a great deal as either explanans or explanandum in anything close to rigorous social scientific study. The reality they are said to represent is rarely as tidy as it is made to appear. Borders can be blurred and lines can be crossed. Moreover, taxonomy is difficult enough when dealing with flora, fauna, celestial objects and subatomic particles, but it is far trickier when fashioning distinctions among operationally defined social and psychological phenomena and almost pointless when mucking about in the haziness and laziness of aesthetics and textual interpretation. The products of human subjectivity, in short, are not easily allocated to categories, though none of us are beyond trying—as I confess to having done in a three-pronged effort to make sense of rock music by applying the notions of Apollonian, Dionysian and Protean aesthetics a scant forty-odd years ago (Doughty, 1972).

So, until and unless some whiz-bang geneticist or hot-shot neuroscientist is able to use recombinant DNA or next-generation fMRIs to explain our every tic and trauma, modesty must be the main marker of wisdom for aspirant social theorists. Indeed, when coming up with appropriate groupings to help us think concretely about human enterprises, it is best to understand that the intent of generating statements about difference should be more heuristic than comprehensive, systematic and conclusive.

The idea is to use creative speculation as a guide or maybe just a nudge toward making further, more specific and (we may hope) more intelligent guesses, and thus to suggest achievable inquiries into otherwise daunting complexities. If this seems a little fuzzy, it at least permits hope that, by embracing ambiguities and employing a few loosely formulated generalities, we can sometimes see through the fog of singularities and spot emerging trends and tentative truths—occasionally allowing ourselves to see whole forests and not just a plenitude of particular trees. This approach is also, of course, the basis of inductive logic, hypothesis making and an essential step toward what we are pleased to call the scientific method.


Martin Trow operated in this tradition of intelligent rough guesswork when he distinguished among the three basic patterns and purposes of education which he conflated in the terms “elite,” “mass” and “universal.” They are not mutually exclusive categories. They co-exist. They frequently intermingle and often interpenetrate. There is no necessary linear relationship among them. They are not illustrative of some inexorable historical law of educational evolution, nor are they evidence of the development of thinking and the dissemination of thought into new and higher states of intellectual being. In remarkable cases, they might even be reversible.

Put less generously, they tend toward the abstract, ahistorical and apolitical. They may be a tinge more empirical than, say, Talcott Parsons’ “pattern variables,” for they are connected to some basic observables and measurables (how many students are being educated in particular systems), but their links to anything else is nebulous (Parsons, 1949; Parsons, 1960). They remind me of the sorts of “analysis” that Marvin Harris (1980, 287-341) criticized as “eclectic” or, worse, “obscurantist”. In the liberal eagerness to be endlessly open-minded (presumptively a good thing), there is a persistent risk of ultimately becoming empty-headed (by most accounts a bad thing). In the quest to remain methodologically, strategically and ideologically uncommitted, Harris argues, we gamble on an unacceptable degree of casuistic elasticity. In the process of avoiding commitment to explicit elements of theory and methods, we can see our efforts at analysis to be, in Paul Simon’s apt phrase, “slip-sliding away.”

Nonetheless, however lacking in precision, Trow is credited with giving educational theorists and researchers a “landscape” or a “context” in which any number of particular problems could be investigated. He surely deserves that much.


Trow started off well enough. He seemed to detect basic patterns of educational development that follow larger processes of social change. These patterns, in turn, are ultimately determined by adaptations to political economy and, more specifically, the social mode of production and distribution of knowledge. But, Trow slipped and slid—declining to develop a precise statics, never mind a dynamics of change. Instead, he focused on a plain set of numbers. His work boiled down to the assertion that elitist education exists whenever 15% or less of secondary school graduates people have access to higher education. Mass education emerges when roughly 16% to 50% go on to postsecondary schools. And universal education comes into play when the number goes above 50%. I was fortunate to have been born just late enough to get in on the transition from elite to mass education. Many readers are no doubt more familiar with the era of universal education and may have no personal connection to either of the other two.

Trow made little effort to explain the transformation of higher education in consistent detail. He also said too little about the depth or value of the education that is provided when institutions shifted from the preserve of elites to become the common property of all. He did, however, make some statements concerning associated variables. He spent a good deal of time talking about technology. In the 1970s, for example, he chatted amiably about television, videotapes and computers as facilitators of instruction and, shortly before his death, he encouraged the belief that the Internet would similarly transform teaching and learning (Matkin, 2012). He did not, however, speak of the inevitability of change in predetermined and logically inescapable directions. Such statements were, he believed, reductionist fabrications, and revealed their proponents to be captives of the myth of progress. So, Trow’s basic patterns or, if you like, his “ideal types” may be no less, but are certainly no more, than safely described aspects of the overall educational project as it reflects social conditions and helps to form social arrangements in its turn. They were elements of modernity, and Trow may be said generally to have approved.

According to Trow, however, change within educational institutions is not a manifestation of a technological rules that insist that mechanized or electrified education are necessarily more efficient than the deft use of a piece of chalk and a slate; likewise, the contemporary managerial frenzy to impose core curricula, quantified measures of subject mastery, standardized tests and all the paraphernalia of virtual classrooms is not the inevitable result of adaptation to twenty-first century living. Above all, AADD (administrative attention deficit disorder) is not a necessary measure of multi-tasking. From Martin Trow’s perspective, there may be all sorts of influences upon education from business and government, from technology and the symbolic culture, and from alterations in demography as well as rising or just possibly lowering expectations of life and learning. Complex societies are not that simple. Trow does, however, insist that piloting the educational project through turbulent social waters requires a firm hand.

Trow showed plainly enough that education must change to meet new circumstances. Like other sorts of change, attitudes toward education in modern Western society reflect the dominant belief that modification to meet the needs of altered circumstances and to take maximum advantage of new opportunities is praiseworthy. Guiding these modifications requires heightened sensitivity to indicators of the nature and direction of change, realism and pragmatism in approach and an unsentimental appreciation of what is central and what is peripheral to the educational enterprise.

Trow is aware that most members of modern society—even those of us who describe ourselves as professional educators—do not spend much time mulling over the implications of technological innovations such as steam engines, heavier-than-air flying machines, electronic communications devices or the invention of plastic. We recognize their importance, of course, as instruments that alter aspects of our lives. Few of us, for example, compose long letters, put them in envelopes decorated with postage stamps and remain content to wait a week or two for a response; instead, we use e-mail and expect answers in an hour (or at least a day) or two. We seldom think seriously, however, about how profoundly such innovations refashion space and time. We take note of the increased convenience of instantaneous communication, but our thought rarely goes beyond the consideration of instrumental ease. And, of course, if there is money to be made, we will pursue it even if the by-products of change are anxiety, illness, pollution or the ecological degradation of the Earth itself. Instead of engaging in moral reflection and contemplating political action, we let the market decide and allow it to make any needed corrections. The same goes for education.

My concern here is that change may be adaptive, but it is not necessarily progressive. Though unintended, dismal consequences may follow from what seemed like a good idea at the time. Solutions to immediate problems may turn out to have catastrophic consequences in the long-run. After all, Darwin spoke of “random” mutation and “natural” selection. While our big brains may let us use our reason to “self-mutate,” our capacity for mastery has not afforded us the power to exercise final “selection.” We can still be too smart for our own or anyone else’s good. Sometimes, if we catch ourselves making a mistake, we can undo it in time to avoid calamity; sometimes we cannot. However expedient Martin Trow’s threesome may be, I did not find much that advanced either deep analysis or critique of the changes he “landscaped.” The evolution from elite to mass to universal has both moral and practical dimensions that remain unexplored.

In this collection of essays, assembled partly by the master and partly by Michael Burrage following Trow’s death, a picture of higher education is painted both in necessarily broad strokes, but also in specific case studies. We get an impression of the forest and also particular trees. The vital relationship between the two is less well explained.

Trow’s essays in this summative anthology are arranged in six sections:

  • Emergence of an Enduring Theme;
  • Causes and Consequences of America's Advantage;
  • Britain as a Contrasting Case;
  • The Private Lives of American Universities;
  • Governance and Reform of the American University; and
  • The Completion of the Transformation.

Trow’s main message, despite his claim that the elite-mass-universal pattern applies to all advancing and advanced societies, remains focused on the United States of America, with an assessment of schooling in the United Kingdom as his primary comparator. As such, there may be lessons for others to learn from his musings, but they must largely be self-taught.


Martin Trow may have handled or at least finessed the larger questions of social shifts and educational adaptations adroitly. Like others who affect a disinterested demeanor and scholarly detachment, however, it doesn’t take much digging to learn where Trow’s personal sentiments lie.

In Trow’s scheme, elite education is just that: an educational system intended to affirm the culture and social preferences of a privileged elite and to restrict a broad liberal education mainly to the members of this fortunate few. It’s great for a stagnant, self-contained society in which appreciation of the past trumps necessary innovation for the future. It derived from monastic education and thrived as long as Latin was the language of scholars and scientific inquiry was largely the domain of aristocratic amateurs.

Mass education allowed the doors of academe to swing open just far enough to give access to the arts, sciences and professions to the broader middle class and the more deserving children of the working classes—all the while ensuring that the main goal of the reforms is to transfer necessary technical and vocational skills to an emerging cohort of mental labourers. As someone who managed to be born just in time to take advantage of the explosion of building and development that allowed youngsters of modest means to slip through the cracks that were opened by latter-day Ryersonian optimists, I shall be forever grateful to the Russians who designed Sputnik and opened North American purses to the largest decade of educational expansion and expenditure that we’ve seen before or since. At that time, the infamous 1960s, higher education was being democratized without necessarily being degraded to meet the declining standards of success available to underprepared, unmotivated and incurious collegians.

Universal education almost necessarily means a retreat from elitist conceits and even the middle class aspirations of mass education. It is the dissemination of something like higher education to all, but it is seldom the “real thing.” The verdict on this final phase of Trow’s story is obviously not yet in. While it is fashionable to lament the attitudes and expectations of many contemporary college students and annoying to hear the easy chatter about technologically enhanced education somehow feeding everything from wisdom to minimal job training through their Blackberries and into their inattentive brains, it is hard to argue that there’s something morally or practically wrong with keeping them off the streets and in, however shakily, an academic environment. Likewise, there is nothing obviously evil in promoting “lifelong learning” and signing people up for both formal and informal education.

Still, a cursory glance at the offerings and expectations of most college and undergraduate university catalogues—never mind continuing education, extension or part-time studies—reveals that “open” education isn’t exactly what Antonio Gramsci had in mind when he argued that “elite” education should be made available to all, with the result being that advanced societies would create “worker intellectuals.” It was Gramsci’s ambition to ensure more than that “the labourer can become a skilled worker, for instance, [or] the peasant a surveyor or petty agronomist.” He also saw the political potential of education in that “democracy, by definition … must mean merely that every ‘citizen’ can ‘govern’” (1971, p. 42). Gramsci would, I am confident, be delighted to know that schools are crammed with students and that colleges are crowded with people of every social standing; he would, however, feel that they were being betrayed by a curriculum that diminishes the arts and sciences while replicating social class in both the methods and the “outcomes” of college education.

Trow’s deepest loyalties appeared to lie with the culture of elitism. This was evident in his consistent opposition to measures that would provide legislative or institutional policy support for affirmative action, admissions quotas or any other means to permit women and minorities to gain access to the privileged domain of high scholarship without demonstrable talents, discernible aptitudes and superior prior accomplishments. While economic and social changes made it necessary to enlarge the number of people who would work with their heads rather than their hands, Trow continued to regard intellectual standards as precious. They were not to be sullied by social engineering. In opposing demographically based admissions, Trow left behind his dispassionate narrative and indulged in a comparatively fiery polemic. The integrity of scholarship, intensive scientific research and overall academic excellence were not to be surrendered to feelings of guilt about social injustice—past or present (which, in America, he strongly believed, had mainly to do with shame and remorse about racism).

Trow also displayed elitist sympathies with his overall enthusiasm for leadership. When describing or explaining instances of institutional success (or failure), he set his eyes squarely on positions of administrative authority. His sympathy, for example, for Clark Kerr who presided over the University of California at Berkeley during the era of Mario Savio’s Free Speech Movement was touching, if only for its (perhaps willful) innocence. His readiness to accept the prevailing ideology of the corporate “multiversity” as the model for a democratized institution of higher learning was in keeping with his overall preference to keep education under the control of elites, even as it was to become more widely available to the sons and daughters of shop keepers, artisans and an occasional blue-collar worker. Above all, he looked to boards of oversight, local chancellors, presidents and deans to demonstrate the vision and commitment to achieve top-rank status for their institutions—seemingly a more precious goal than worrying excessively about the quality of undergraduate education being prepared for the more tidily attired of the otherwise great unwashed.

Perhaps the most revealing writing that Trow produced was his essay, “Guests without the Hosts: Notes on the Institute for Advanced Study.” According to reviewer Mark Oromaner (2012), it “is a good illustration of how Trow turned his personal experience into an analysis of the ‘environment for intellectual work’.” The essay is an extended complaint about the academic year 1976-1977, which Trow spent at Princeton University’s prestigious Institute for Advanced Study. Evidently all did not go well. Trow was, it seems, not adequately welcomed. He grumbled about his sense of alienation and the “lack of civility” with which he was treated. Compared to the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in Palo Alto, California, he found Princeton cold and inhospitable.

The Ivy League school may not have provided an atmosphere as congenial and consistent with Trow’s expectations about what a year of high-brow intellectual stimulation should be. And, I suppose, there may be some insights to be gained from his gripes; nonetheless, I have the uncomfortable sense that much of Trow’s venerated scholarship flows from just such personal, anecdotal and conversational inquiry rather than either rigorous theoretical or meticulous empirical work. According to Trow, the problem was that Princeton’s Center had no permanent members. New arrivals had to improvise and make up the rules as they went along. In the alternative, Trow’s preferred Center in California had an established culture which required no such creativity. Having hung around a more modest academic facility for parts of three or four years, I appreciate how important institutional culture is, especially for people engaged in relatively short periods of intense intellectual activity. Trow may very well have expressed himself well and generalized fruitfully from his personal experience; I am not sure, however, that I agree with the introduction to the essay by Trow’s long-time colleague Neil J. Smelser’s and his assessment that it rises to the level of “a brilliant piece of social science analysis.”

Returning to his list of publications for a moment, I noticed at the outset that Trow’s first major work was as a junior contributor to principal author Seymour Martin Lipset’s book Union Democracy: The Internal Politics of the International Typographical Union (1956). Lipset, of course, was most famous for his endorsement of democratic revisionism and his paean to American political life, Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics, wherein he (in)famously assured his readers that the days of explicitly political conflict over competing ideologies was over, for the United States had become “the good society in operation” (1961, p 403).

Much that is contained within Trow’s writing is reflective of a premature nostalgia bordering on wistfulness. He put his faith in academic bureaucrats and was worried about the “challenges” that were approaching with speed. He did not, however, look as seriously at the adaptations that were being advocated by towering figures of the educational establishment such as his friends Kerr, Smelser and Lipset—dignified and well-connected liberals who were eager to protect their hallowed traditions of apparent scientific disinterest while simultaneously controlling the barbarians at the gates and, above all, keeping themselves in line with the established political, social and economic order.

By contrast, conservative Canadian philosopher George Grant, declaring solidarity of a sort with student radicals of his era, explained that “when I hear what Mr. Savio at Berkeley … [says] about the inhumanity of our multiversities, by and large I agree with [him]. … How can a conservative not feel sympathy with the outrage of the new left against the emptiness and dehumanization that this society produces?” (Grant, 1966, p. 123).


Looking to the future, Trow (2000, 2010) told us in an essay originally published at the turn of the millennium, that:

Information technology now forces a revision of our conception of the conditions making for universal access: it allows, and becomes the vehicle for, universal access to higher education of a different order of magnitude, with courses of every kind and description available on the Internet in peoples’ homes and workplaces. That involves profound changes in both institutional structures and attitudes regarding higher education.

Indeed it does, and Trow’s consistent theme seemed to be one of managed acquiescence. Somehow the opening up of the doors to higher learning had to be accepted but, once the masses were inside, Trow faced a dilemma. On the one hand, universal postsecondary education threatened to become a kind of endlessly varied educational shopping mall with anchor stores equivalent to Walmart or Target—the second or third-tier universities and the two-year colleges and institutes—supplying easily salable commodities to indiscriminating shopper/learners while certain niche boutiques preserved the more highly valued and protected items of excellence.

At the same time, elusive standards of superior scholarship and, increasingly, industrial-strength research had to be maintained. Trow (2000) used, for example, the case of biology at Berkeley as a study of how clever managerial reorganization of the work of 250 biologists brilliantly transformed an underachieving group of scientists into a cohort of educational workers with much improved productivity and success. The celebrated success of institutional reforms over the alleged “conservatism” of faculty who resisted change and clung tenaciously to their “turf” is written as a paean to powerful managers with discretionary decision-making power. New facilities were constructed, old departments were abolished and a shiny, happy future was assured despite a certain amount of faculty opposition. I am left wondering what happened to those dissenting biologists.

On other large questions of education and society Trow endeavoured to appear steadfastly agnostic. He was, after all, no teleological thinker. Instead, he was content to observe and comment with neither non-negotiable methodological nor absolutist moral imperatives. Yet, it is precisely such considerations that demand more explicit acknowledgement and open discussion. Trow’s purported academic detachment and his implicit ideology were left more or less intact; so, his more critical readers are left unsatisfied by Trow’s approach to the question of what, if anything, mass and especially universal higher education are really for? No one can doubt that there is fierce competition, and that success in research and scholarship define the academic game at its highest levels, but what are the social relations of intellectual/ideological production and distribution?

Today, the prevailing (un)wisdom is that such questions are to be decided by the marketplace. On the “supply side,” colleges and universities must compete, like any for-profit, private sector business, for investment in the form of the scarce resources of research grants and contracts with massive bureaucratic, corporate entities—both public and private. On the “demand side,” there is competition for “customers.” Consumer choice and consumer satisfaction are to be the determinants of college and undergraduate university teaching content and standards. Taken together, this neoliberal assault on education cannot have been entirely to Martin Trow’s liking; nonetheless, although there is a long and meritworthy tradition of fundamental criticism of the conflation of universal education and the corporate agenda from a variety of political perspectives (Newson & Buchbinder, 1988; Locke, 1990; Turk, 1999; Côté & Allaha, 2007); Newson & Polster, 2010; Arum & Roksa, 2011; Côté & Allaha, 2011), it is difficult to discern a sustained critique and plausible alternatives among the treasures located in Trow’s legacy.


Arum, R. & Roksa, J. (2011) Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Côté, J. E. & Allaha, A. L. (2011). Lowering Higher Education: The Rise of Corporate Universities and the Fall of Liberal Education. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Côté, J. E. & Allaha, A. L. (2007). Ivory Tower Blues: A University System in Crisis. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Doughty, H. A. (1972). “Rock: A Nascent Protean Form,” Popular Music and Society. 2(2), 155-165.

Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks. New York: International Publishers.

Grant, G. P. (1966). “Protest and Technology,” in C. Hanly, ed., Revolution and Reponse: Selections from the Toronto International Teach-In. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.

Harris, M. (1980). Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture. New York: Vintage.

Lipset, S. M. (1961). Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics. New York: Doubleday.

Lipset, S. M., Trow, M. & Coleman, J. S. (1956). Union Democracy: The Internal Politics of the International Typographical Union. New York: Free Press.

Locke, M. (1990). “The Decline of Universities and the Rise of Edubis,” Society/Société, 14(2), 8-16.

Matkin, G. W. (2012, May-June). “The Opening of Higher Education.” Change: The Magazine of Higher Education. Available online at

Newson, J. & Buchbinder, H. (1988). The University Means Business. Toronto: Garamond Press.

Newson, J. & Polster, C. (Eds.). (2010). Academic Callings: The University We Have Had, Now Have and Could Have, Toronto: Canadian Scholars Press.

Oromaner, M. (2012, May). Review of Trow, Martin, Twentieth-Century Higher Education: Elite to Mass to Universal.H-Education, H-Net Reviews, available online at

 Parsons, T. (1949). The Structure of Social Action: A Study in Social Theory with Special Reference to a Group of Recent European Writers. New York: Free Press.

Parsons, T. (1961). “Pattern Variables Revisited: A Response to Robert Dubin,” American Sociological Review. 25(4), 467-483.

Siegel, P. N. (2005). The Meek and the Militant. Available online at

Trow, M. (2000, Spring). “From Mass Higher Education to Universal Access: The American Advantage,” Research and Occasional Paper Series: CSHE.1.00 available online at

Trow, M. (2000, Spring). “Biology at Berkeley: A Case Study of Reorganization and Its Costs and Benefits,” Research and Occasional Paper Series: CSHE.1.99 available online at

Tudiver, N. (1999). Universities for Sale: Resisting Corporate Control over Canadian Higher Education. (Toronto: James Lorimer).

Howard A. Doughty teaches political economy at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at