"Virtue," Emerson assures us, "is the only reward of virtue." Yet , as every academic knows , this seemingly elementary axiom has long been obsolete. Indeed , the very meaning of virtue has changed since Emerson's day, when the concept referred to a quality of being acquired through intense introspection and manifested in one's daily relations with others. As currently defined in the academy virtue is simultaneously more tangible and more prosaic. It is the status one acquires through the accumulation of certain types of credits: assignment to prestigious committees, active participation at professional meetings and, especially, a suitably impressive list of publications. Quantity rather than quality of production has often become the true foundation of virtue in academe as elsewhere in American society. In the academic milieu, this principle sometimes assumes a stark simplicity: one book, for example, may be "worth" an assistant professorship; two books, associate status; three books, the Nirvana of "flag rank" and the envious glances of those further down the professorial hierarchy.

Usually, however, the rules of the game are somewhat more complex. The players, rather than striving to achieve explicit, pre-established performance criteria, actually compete against each other in a never ending contest of one-upmanship. It is this ideal type meritocratic system (so curiously reminiscent of the Soviet "socialist emulation" competitions, c. 1935) which now appears to prevail in most academic departments. The purpose of this article is to briefly consider some of the historical and sociological factors which help to account for the system's growth, pervasiveness and durability.