Steffens showed there were some rotten things underneath the gleaming veneers -- corrupt local governments and political machines, aided and abetted by business leaders.
In recent weeks, two books have appeared about another of America's gleaming institutions, our colleges and universities, either of which could be subtitled "The Shame of the Universities."
In "Mismatch," law professor Richard Sander and journalist Stuart Taylor expose, in the words of their subtitle, "How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It's Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won't Admit It." In "Unlearning Liberty," Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, describes how university speech codes create, as his subtitle puts it, "Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate."
"Mismatch" is a story of good intentions gone terribly awry. Sander and Taylor document beyond disagreement how university admissions offices' racial quotas and preferences systematically put black and Hispanic students in schools where they are far less well prepared than others.
As a result, they tend to get low grades, withdraw from science and math courses, and drop out without graduating. The effect is particularly notable in law schools, where large numbers of blacks and Hispanics either drop out or fail to pass the bar exam.
This happens, Sander and Taylor argue, not because these students lack ability but because they've been thrown in with students of exceptional ability -- the mismatch of the authors' title. At schools where everyone has similar levels of test scores and preparation, these students do much better. And they don't suffer the heartache of failure.
That was shown when California's state universities temporarily obeyed a 1996 referendum banning racial quotas and preferences. UCLA law school had fewer black students but just as many black graduates. The university system as a whole produced more black and Hispanic graduates.
Similarly, black students interested in math and science tend to get degrees in those subjects in historically black colleges, while those in schools with a mismatch switch to easier majors because math instruction is pitched to classmates with better preparation.