Setting The Bar

When our standards don't live up to our standards

--> arlier this fall the literary critic Harold Bloom unloosed a memorable blast in the Los Angeles Times. His target was the National Book Foundation and its decision to bestow an award for "distinguished contribution" to the novelist Stephen King. This award, Bloom noted, had previously been given to such masters of the literary craft as Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and Arthur Miller, whereas Stephen King's thrillers "sell in the millions but do little more for humanity than keep the publishing world afloat." Bloom saw the decision to honor King as one more episode in "the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life."

Shortly before Bloom's article appeared, that same paper ran a news story about yet another instance of sliding norms—in this case, involving how the military deals with its deserters. I remember reading about a scholarly conference in Belgium some years ago on the subject of executions for desertion during World War I. One of the participants argued that it would be wrong to regard the fleeing soldiers as derelict in their duty; they weren't deserting, silly, they were "merely exploring the boundaries of consent and personal motivation in a democracy at war" (the boundaries being somewhat to the rear). That argument has now been embraced in spirit by the U.S. Army, which today—even under the Bush Administration and in time of war—almost never prosecutes deserters and, according to the news account, takes a "passive, good-riddance approach to its runaways." In 2001 about 5,000 people decided to simply up and leave the U.S. military. No American has been shot for desertion since 1945.

Whatever happened to standards? This has been a consistent refrain of social observers and literary critics down through the ages, and although some of these people are professional curmudgeons, it's hard to argue that they don't have a point. My father, when informed that Bill Clinton had admitted to indulging in "inappropriate" behavior with Monica Lewinsky, observed that he could remember a day when "inappropriate" meant wearing brown shoes in public after 6:00 P.M. An article in the pages of this magazine in 1892 took note of softening standards for admission to Harvard, but the "new" criteria it described (including "an elementary working knowledge of four languages, two ancient, Latin and Greek, and two modern, French and German") would seem almost laughably stringent to modern eyes. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, writing in The American Scholar a decade ago, described how society's increasingly relaxed standards were allowing more and more marginal behavior to gain gradual acceptance. He called the process "defining deviancy down."

As foreigners are often quick to point out, the entire American way of life sometimes seems to be a monument to eroding standards. One of George Carlin's most famous routines, back in the 1970s, centered on the seven words one couldn't use on television or radio. Today most of those words are used multiple times in any episode of The Sopranos. In many jurisdictions people were once drawn for service on juries from the pool of registered voters; voter registration is now so low in some places that courts must draw from the pool of people with driver's licenses. Until recently it was rare for professional basketball teams to recruit players directly from high school; high school students, it was argued, simply lacked sufficient personal or athletic maturity. LeBron James, Tracy McGrady, and Kevin Garnett, among others, show what has happened to this standard. For most of my lifetime North America had only five lakes that were officially deemed Great—until 1998, when Congress voted to classify Lake Champlain, on the border between Vermont and New York, as a sixth Great Lake. The provision was actually signed into law, but was later revoked. (The instigator of Champlain's enhancement, Senator Patrick Leahy, of Vermont, gamely weathered criticism as "the Fourth Stooge.")

Of course, the situation with respect to standards is not straightforward, because for every example of declining norms in one area of life there is an example of rising norms somewhere else. Educators have plenty of bones to pick with aspects of standardized testing, but there's no question that assessment tests are increasingly widespread, having been mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Almost every state has by now set a blood-alcohol concentration of .08 percent as the legal threshold for intoxication while driving—stricter than the 0.1 percent that used to be common. It is well known that language purists in France vociferously resist the encroachment of words from America; but the French have been joined in this hand-wringing by worried elites in England, Russia, Spain, and elsewhere. The writing of a résumé was once a personal and even idiosyncratic enterprise, encompassing a variety of approaches, but there now exists a Professional Association of Résumé Writers and Career Coaches to certify practitioners and enforce a code of ethics.

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Cullen Murphy is The Atlantic's managing editor. More

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

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