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.
University admissions officers nevertheless maintain what Taylor calls "an enormous, pervasive and carefully concealed system of racial preferences," even while claiming they aren't actually doing so. The willingness to lie systematically seems to be a requirement for such jobs.
The willingness to lie systematically is also a requirement for administrators who profess a love of free speech while imposing speech codes and penalizing students for violations.
All of which provides plenty of business for Lukianoff's FIRE, which opposes speech codes and brings lawsuits on behalf of students -- usually, but not always, conservatives -- who are penalized.
Those who graduated from college before the late 1980s may not realize that speech codes have become, in Lukianoff's words, "the rule rather than the exception" on American campuses.
They are typically vague and all-encompassing. One school prohibits "actions or attitudes that threaten the welfare" of others. Another bans emails that "harass, annoy or otherwise inconvenience others." Others ban "insensitive" communication, "inappropriate jokes" and "patronizing remarks."
"Speech codes can only survive," Lukianoff writes, "through selective enforcement." Conservatives and religious students are typically targeted. But so are critics of administrators, like the student expelled for a Facebook posting critical of a proposed $30 million parking garage.
Students get the message: Keep your mouth shut. An Association of American Colleges and Universities survey of 24,000 students found that only 40 percent of freshmen thought it was "safe to hold unpopular views on campus." An even lower 30 percent of seniors agreed.
So institutions that once prided themselves as arenas for free exchange of ideas -- and still advertise themselves as such -- have become the least free part of our society.
How? One answer is that university personnel almost all share the same liberal-left beliefs. Many feel that contrary views and criticism are evil and should be stamped out.
It also helps to follow the money. Government student loan programs have pumped huge sums into colleges and universities that have been raising tuition and fees far faster than inflation.
The result is administrative bloat. Since 2005, universities have employed more administrators than teachers.
There are signs that what instapundit.com's Glenn Reynolds calls the higher education bubble is about to burst. And perhaps people are waking up to the rottenness beneath the universities' gleaming veneer.