My all-time favourite examination board meeting took place back when departments got together to compare marks, and, if possible, prevent the dean from finessing three or four firsts for the course he taught for three weeks of the Christmas term. This one was winding up with the chair commenting on our final-year results. "This mean score is very low," he intoned, to nods of approval. "It stops you from awarding as many firsts as the rest of the faculty." (More nods.)
Our econometrician roused himself from The Times crossword. "Could the dean assist us here?" (Pause.) "What exact mean score would he like us to produce?"
When Joel Best begins this interesting text with a litany of extraordinary - and, to non-American eyes, cringeworthy - lists of boasting and self-congratulatory customs, from "best-of" lists identifying the top Chinese takeaways in Delaware, to schools giving out bumper stickers to their honour students (often the entire body, it transpires), my initial thought was to consign this to the "What's that to do with us?" pile. As the text develops, however, it becomes clear that this is, if not a "warning from history", certainly something of a "heads up" on where we seem to be going.
The central issue is what the author calls "status inflation", slightly adapting David Riesman's idea of grade inflation. The trend discerned by Riesman can now be found not only in higher education institutions anxious to attract more and better-qualified students but also in the schools from whence they came, the military, the retail and service sectors and so on. In fact, it is happening in all places where it is possible to evaluate and quantify the operations and outcomes involved, as a consequence of the ubiquity of systems to collect, store and analyse it, in the best "can do, will do" tradition of science.
Further, should those involved attempt to jump from this bandwagon, they will find themselves trapped. One prestigious US institution that tried to escape from an overload of semi-bogus maximum grade-point scores among prospective students, by shifting to an entry system based on evaluation of their written work, suddenly found that applications dried up. When the change meant that the institution no longer appeared in the league tables prepared by a key publication, candidates looked elsewhere.
These processes of status inflation are ubiquitous, Best argues: among mystery writers, in sports and the military, among aficionados of barbershop quartets and American Civil War re-enactments; everywhere, there are subgroups, each dispensing their own variety of status to their members. Some of this seems familiar and of little significance, but Best argues that this process is at the least highly questionable.
Heroism has become a quality assigned routinely to whole groups ("Firefighter Angel" winged toys were one of the results of 9/11), whereas in the past it applied only to extraordinary and self-sacrificing individual bravery. One candidate for the governorship of New York lauded "Financial Exchange workers...(as) heroes for returning to work" after the World Trade Center attacks. Victimhood itself has become, as Frank Furedi has suggested, the modern basis for heroic status. "Stars", too, have dimmed and vanished to be replaced by galaxies of "superstars" in every part of life.
It is easy to dismiss this tendency as yet another example of the public's enslavement by the wiles of advertisers and promoters, and to the facile claims of dubious statistics and empty symbols. As Best points out, there is paradox and danger here, too; we all want a way of getting the best for ourselves, but also solidity and a firmly grounded moral compass. He raises the interesting possibility that these ends are at least contradictory, and probably incompatible.
Everyone's a Winner: Life In Our Congratulatory Culture
By Joel Best
University of California Press 216pp, £16.95
Published 1 March 2011