Fashionable Despair: Observations on the Demise of Standards

Augustine Brannigan

Abstract. Claims of cross-institutional declines in standards cannot be gainsaid. "Fashionable Despair" about such declines may have foundations in important challenges to public institutions other than those based on the alleged disarticulation between values and criteria. The claims of declining standards may be better examined in the context of interest conflicts. And interest conflicts may be at the level of basic values, not merely the criteria designed to represent them. This discussion raises questions about the claim of falling standards and identifies some existing resources for thinking about it.


Professor Benjamin Singer's apocalyptic analysis of the demise of standards in the professions, in the leading institutions, and in public life paints a worrisome picture of a society whose values have been co-opted by forces of expediency, leaving the culture deeply rudderless and ultimately on the brink of barbarism. Incompetence marks the ranks of physicians, scientists, educators, and accountants. Quality control has declined in both the animate and the inanimate, i.e., both in politicians and in Ford motor cars. A pervasive fin de siècle malaise replaces an earlier age of authenticity in times past when "our experience with the essential things of our lives was most often individual and empirical" as opposed to collective and external. Why is this so?

Standards have become disarticulated from their underlying values and the media of assessment and representation have come to occupy the place where standards were once closely guarded. Professor Singer further argues that biased assessment criteria for identifying quality and performance actually replace the meaningful standards with trivial measurements of convenience, and professional behaviour changes accordingly. Indeed, bad faith would appear to replace professional duty. Professors write banal papers with a high probability of acceptance by "refereed" journals because numbers of publications outweigh their quality. Lawyers take only the cases they can win, and surgeons decline hazardous operations. Not only this, but professionals are encouraged to falsify their credentials to take advantage of the frailties of the criterial systems, and so advance their careers, not through what Goffman called "benign misrepresentation," but through outright deceit: "scientific researchers publish fraudulent findings to make it through criterial systems for tenure and promotion."

And what is the solution? The solution is the development of "a new sociological paradigm" of the standards complex, a new "general social science of standards." Professor Singer acknowledges that such an enterprise would not turn its back on the more common sociological territory -- marketplace dynamics, bureaucracies and professions -- though these are described as "the other major forces that drive standards" [emphasis added], as though criteria were an autonomous force of greater gravity than the familiar sociological variables.

What can be said of the diagnosis and of the solution? In my view, Benjamin Singer's paper mirrors, and indeed amplifies, the crisis literature about which he writes. He exhibits a healthy doubt about the virtues of technological rationality, and like other humanists, seeks a reintegration of reason and values. In this I subscribe to his enthusiastic views. However, in some respects, his arguments are prone to undercurrents of scholasticism and Platonism. In general, the paper reflects the fashionable despair of postmodern times. It sometimes conflates doubt and critique with caricature. Like many readers, I am skeptical of the accuracy of his diagnosis of the age of criteria, and doubtful about the utility of his solution.

Are Standards Falling?

Social scientists are not unaccustomed to proclamations of immanent crisis. Popular support for social change and law reform has often been initiated by dire warnings of impending doom if steps are not taken to eliminate such intrusions into the culture as narcotics, alcohol, white slavery, dangerous foreigners, sports hooligans, and, in the age of Manning's Reform Party, secular humanism. Singer's examples are quite different but they have the same panic quality. Typically, the sociological analyst treats such claims as symptomatic of other more subterranean concerns which have been transubstantiated by fear of change. For example, juvenile delinquency is cast as an epidemic comparable in scope to the barbarians at the gates of Rome, when in fact this hysteria arises from uncertainties about new types of family formations, families believed to represent crime and immanent demise (Gilbert 1986).

In contrast to the usual sociological stance vis-˜-vis claims of falling standards, Professor Singer's analysis appears to accept the claims of demise at face value. However, when one examines the sources, the crises arise largely from journalistic reports and, in the case of scholastic achievement, from educational advertisements. What should the measure of a crisis be? Following the Singer methodology, should we accept the evidence of demise because it met some meaningful standard of real deterioration based on a close scholarship of sources? Yes. But should we accept it simply because the claims appeared ready made in the, at times, sensationalist journalism of The Globe and Mail or The New York Times? If we learned anything from Professor Singer's paper, we would quickly dismiss such criteria. Without further basic research, I would think that the claim of a global crisis in standards of the kind Professor Singer raises should be treated as a phenomenon to be explored, not as a fact so colossal in its significance and so general in its application as to merit the launch of yet another sociological paradigm.

There are many reasons why claims of demise in standards are made. Within organizations and industries, there are conflicting interests over institutional goals and means. Claims about the demise in standards may be expressions of such competition. At the universities, for example, information age proponents of technologically assisted instruction (TAI) decry the attachment of the industrial age's intellectuals, the chalk board Luddites, to the "canon," the classroom and the traditional pedagogy. In the new information age "without continued innovation, we may be doomed to fail," warn Dolence and Norris (1995: 7). Of course, they also represent a consortium ready to replace professors with interactive CDs. This is an option administrators across the country are sure to examine in the context of corporatist-style downsizing, and an option liable to attract the moral opprobrium of the traditional professoriate threatened by such innovations. In this vein, Professor Hexham (1996) has characterized the new TAI proponents as a cult.

The interest in TAI is symptomatic of larger ideological and fiscal realignments in modern societies. The swing to conservative populism throughout the industrial democracies has been accompanied by attacks on a range of institutional elites -- judges, lawyers, doctors, nurses, teachers, professors -- and demands for their "accountability," particularly in the public sector. Performance indicators are a growth industry as politicians insist that the "service providers" (i.e. the judges and professors) provide value-for-money for the "clients" (victims, students, etc.). There is, in addition, a strong backlash against the autonomy of professions as in the case of the legal fraternity and the criminal justice system (along with its Charter of Rights and the Young Offenders Act, both of which are viewed as impediments to swift retribution). Recidivism from prisons which are already woefully overcrowded is viewed as evidence of correctional failure. Conservative governments with large popular mandates have moved simultaneously towards a dismantling of the public funding of health care under the epitaph of returning "choice" back to the consumer. And the same political mentality has resulted in cuts in public investments in school boards and universities. The public agenda has been hijacked by the ideology of the "free market."

This movement has been explored at length by John Ralston Saul (1995) in The Unconscious Civilization (the recent CBC Massey Lectures). Saul argues that opinion leaders have allowed the logic of the marketplace -- the accumulation of private benefit through the rationalization of production in international markets -- to supersede the communal goals whose protection was sought through the creation of public institutions by democratic assemblies. In the current climate, the common good is equated with the exercise of private interests. In the politics which result, "we are unable to take into account the needs of a sophisticated society. Investment in training and in the care of citizens cannot be treated as an asset. Yet the illusion of growth through the sale of golf balls remains firmly in place" (p. 152). The invisible hand of the market has supplanted democratic deliberation about the desirable society. We have become, in Saul's term, an "unconscious civilization," or, in Singer's terms, a criterial, or "surface" society, out of contact with our deeper moorings.

Another contemporary perspective is owed to Mark Kingwell, whose Dreams of Millennium (1996) reports a much broader panic in the popular culture as the century draws to a close. Historically, the points of millennial change have been lightning rods for a host of cultural fears and hopes. Kingwell argues for the common currency of fears of global warming, the demise of democracies, alien abduction, body piecing and virtual communities, and the popularity of news and entertainment devoted to exploiting such fears. This speculative treatment challenges the prospects of "technotopia," the replacement of social relations and values with technical means and standards and the supposition that every human limit or weakness has a technical fix. From Kingwell's perspective, the contemporary despair over standards is the frustration of change without control, production without direction. Millennial change intensifies such misgivings, but it also resurrects hopes of deliverance.

To return to the question -- "are standards falling?" -- we are struck by several different issues. Professor Singer seems to take it for granted that the case for criterialization is already made across a number of different institutions. If I take the case of the quality of admissions to university, something with which I have some tacit experience, several considerations come to mind. To determine whether we are admitting less qualified students, I would be inclined to consult things like changing trends in GRE scores, trends in high school completion grades, time required to complete degree, trends in literacy and vocabulary acquisition, and the Maclean's magazine ratings -- all the sorts of things which Professor Singer warns against for reasons of criterial bias. To be sure, it is difficult to interpret what any of these measures means in a time series without reference to the other factors which covary over the same period including the involvement in part time jobs, the global changes in literacy and numeracy, the changing participation in university opportunities of women, minorities, part time students, etc. However, these are problems of a strictly technical sort.

What I find disturbing in Professor Singer's discussion is the nihilistic implication arising from his analysis of potential limitations in standards creation and assessment of standards. He investigates three approaches to criteria development and rejects them all. First, outcome measures are faulted because of "bias in the groups who control the selection criteria" -- a statement which seems to deny the existence of expertise among such groups, or if it admits expertise, seems to deduce that consensus will be necessarily unattainable between different and incommensurable experts. Second, credentials are faulty since they represent "input" as opposed to "output" -- as though a neophyte in any field can be presupposed to possess the "firsthand experience" for which the degree is said to be the surrogate. This criticism is unrealistic inasmuch as it presupposes that no sorting or evaluation is possible after credentialling. And finally, process-observation is deemed irrelevant "because of its essential subjectivity" -- a criticism difficult to credit given the importance already accorded to the individual in determining values in times past. Such reasoning resembles scholasticism.

This logic suffers from the fallacy of the unsubstantiated generalization. Professor Singer appears to believe that if any such criterion is ever misleading, the failure represents how the criterion operates for cases in principle and in general. He transforms an unexamined "for instance" into an ideal type, and a negative one at that -- an ideal type of corruption or degeneration. According to Parsons (1985: 30ff.), Weber makes a similar kind of unfounded generalization when he equates capitalism and rationality in the Protestant Ethic with capitalism and rationalism as such. For Singer, the problems of criteria affect the society at large -- "the age of criteria" -- and appear incorrigible to boot. No measure can ever be faithful to the value which underlies it. Criteria make cheats of professors, accountants, teachers, and all the rest. Singer's observations are never couched in the particular circumstance of "if-then" or in the subjunctive or conditional tense. No mights, coulds, or maybes. Professionals should be forgiven if they take umbrage at what little stock is shown of their virtue. In addition, the determinism ascribed to criterial systems is historicist.

There is a final epistemological problem in the analysis. Professor Singer appears to attach a kind of Platonic essentialism to values. "Values are the foundation of all standards." They are the telos of standards representing the ideal state, outcomes, or ends of conduct. In "a well ordered world," standards would be based on significant values. In the only illustration which sought to distinguish criteria, standards, and values, Professor Singer argues as follows:

Standards should be substantive, should describe the qualities sought -- such qualities as depth of scholarship, original research of an important nature, creativity. The universal values represented might be those describing the quest for and dissemination of knowledge as a general statement of the university's purpose or central value. (209)

The problem with this model is that it appears to fix the university's basic values unproblematically. Here, two separate functions are identified -- research (quest) and teaching (dissemination). Research establishes the facts. Teaching spreads the news. These would be unproblematic if reason were fixed, and if knowledge were an identifiable quantum. That is certainly the Platonic side of Greek thought, but the Socratic side puts a premium on doubt and on questioning, not to accumulate a stock of knowledge for the domination of nature, but to re-fashion the soul, and to change the learner, and in the Aristotelian side to fashion a society which optimizes the citizen's potential. This suggests that the idea that a "gap" exists between values and standards or standards and criteria presupposes that there is a terra firma in the first instance. This is highly controversial precisely because the foundation of universities is not factual. It is ethical, and aesthetic. It is idealistic and temporal. It evolves with the times. The methods of determining the foundational values are not deductive or inductive, but following Aristotle, are "deliberative" (Levine 1995: 111) or "hermeneutical" (Rorty 1979: 357). If this is the case, the ironic contrast between criteria and ultimate values is misplaced. Just as criteria are vulnerable to doubt as to their ability to express values, deliberations are subject to doubt in achieving fixed answers about their basic values or goals. I am uncertain how true this might be of other institutions but it is certainly true of universities and their complex and contested value bases.

This raises another type of question. The universities are themselves subject to the tyranny of reason -- the notion that the fixed truths of the individual disciplines are the unique arbiters of knowledge. As Saul (1995a: 250) advises:

The hypothetical doubting citizen could suggest that reason might make more sense if it were relieved of its monotheistic aura and reintegrated into the broader humanist concept from which it escaped in search of greater glory in the sixteenth century. In this larger view it would be balanced and restrained and given direction by other useful and perhaps also essential human characteristics such as common sense, intuition, memory, creativity and ethics.

To return to our first question -- are standards falling? -- this is not a question which admits of a simple answer without masking the epistemological suppositions on which it is based, only the most obvious of which have been tagged in this discussion.

Is a Sociology of Standards Relevant?

It is sometimes suggested that there can be "a sociology" of anything. I suspect that sociologists who hold this view have a weak sense of social structure. The alternative view is that, as far as significant social changes are concerned, determinate social tendencies influence social reality with relatively predictable outcomes. As a consequence, the important determinants of social structure at any one point in time ought to be self-evident. While we often find it difficult to reverse social changes through deliberate public interventions, the causes of change are less mysterious. As far as the role proposed for a "sociology of standards" is concerned, this notion appears to hypostatize bureaucratic rules as sources of agency, as opposed to the outcomes of agency. Any sociology which defines a field of action a priori from the point of view of the inanimate is surely off to a false start, since action is the distinctly human engine of change. Just as "capital," that apparently abstract and decisive ingredient in the wealth of nations, is reducible to the social relations which it masks, so too the standards of performance which Singer criticizes are only intelligible within the social relations of service and service marketing which underlie them.

The notion that there should be a sociology of standards presupposes two things. First, it presupposes that the machinations which incline interest groups to represent their success via dubious self-promoting criteria are currently unknown to sociologists, requiring a conceptual revolution to bring the bias into focus. In my view, the sociologies of bureaucracies and professions are not an exotic addition to the proverbial "stone soup" of sociological standards, they are the only thing nourishing in it.

Second, the sociology of standards presupposes that there already exists a well-established domain of observations and facts which cannot be subsumed by existing paradigms and whose obdurateness has been captured in repeated studies. On this point, the evidence is gainsaid. Are professionals and members of the public unaware of the discrepancy between values and measures? Are information consumers unaware of the bias in products and services? In the area of politics, the publics in Canada, America, Britain, Russia and other countries are highly skeptical of politicians (Newman 1995). In the area of products, the demise of the US automotive industry derived simply from the superior quality of imports. Singer comes close to suggesting that a sociology of standards will be of some utility in determining which standards consumers ought to employ. "[It] would aid in developing an understanding of the different drivers of standards." If the purpose of this is to determine which standards should be used, this is like suggesting that a sociology of religion will advise citizens about which church to attend. These are issues of values, philosophies and beliefs. Sociology cannot replace religion by substituting its rational-empirical knowledge for ontological instruction and experience. These are categorically different areas of knowing.

In my view, I am not convinced that the case for a sociology of standards has been made, that it is even possible, let alone desirable or relevant. The skepticism which Professor Singer exhibits in his specific illustrations are part of mainstream methodology and issues of measurement validity, and the sociological theory is, among other things, old fashioned interest group analysis.


Dolence, Michael G. and Donald M. Norris 1995 Transforming Higher Education: A Vision for Learning in the 21st Century. Ann Arbor: Society for College and University Planning.

Gilbert, James 1986 A Cycle of Outrage: America's Reaction to the Juvenile Delinquent in the 1950s. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hexham, Irving 1996 "Transforming Higher Education: Vision or Mirage?" The University of Calgary Gazette (February 5) 25(27): 6-7.

Kingwell, Mark 1996 Dreams of Millennium: Report from a Culture on the Brink. Toronto: Penguin.

Levine, Donald N. 1995 Visions of the Sociological Tradition. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Newman, Peter 1995 The Canadian Revolution 1985-1995: From Deference to Defiance. Toronto: Viking.

Parsons, Talcott 1985 "Capitalism' in Recent German Literature: Sombart and Weber," in Peter Hamilton (ed.), Readings from Talcott Parsons: 21-40. London: Tavistock.

Rorty, Richard 1979 Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Saul, John Ralston 1995a The Doubter's Companion. Toronto: Penguin.

1995b The Unconscious Civilization. Toronto: Penguin.

1993 Voltaire's Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West. Toronto: Penguin.

Singer, Benjamin 1996 "Towards a Sociology of Standards: Problems of a Criterial Society." Canadian Journal of Sociology 21(2): 203-221.

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