Social Process

Chapter 32: Rational Control Through Standards

Charles Horton Cooley

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THE ideal aim of intelligence seems to be the rational control of human life. Just what do we mean by this? Surely not that a conscious process must everywhere be substituted for an unconscious; common sense tells us that this is impracticable or inexpedient. Perhaps a fair statement would be that we mean by rational control a conduct of affairs such that their working, in a large way, commends itself to intelligence, even though not always guided by it.

A man's every-day life runs, for the most part, on instinct and habit. His digestion and other physiological functions, his routine work and recreation, go on without much help from his thinking. Rational control consists mainly in a certain watchfulness over these processes, which awakes attention when anything goes wrong with them, and applies an intelligent remedy if it can. It is quite as likely to be manifested by judicious inactivity as by interference. So with the manager of a factory: the secret of effective control, in his case, is to allow every machine and every subordinate to do his own work,

(383) paying, for the most part, no attention to the details, and yet carrying in his mind an ideal of the working of the whole which enables him to see and correct anything that goes wrong. Likewise with the social organization at large. Its working consists, in great preponderance, of ideas, feelings, actions that have no conscious reference to the system as a whole, but are, from that point of view, merely mechanical; while rational control calls for an intelligence and idealism that understands how the whole ought to work, and exerts the necessary authority at the right time and place.

There is a certain presumption in favor of letting the unconscious processes alone. They are the outcome of a tentative development, confused and blind for the most part, but resulting in something that does, after a fashion, work; and this is no mean achievement. One of the best fruits of our study of history is to perceive how little we know, and how possible it is that what appears to us senseless and harmful does serve some useful purpose. A conservatism like that of Burke is always worth considering, whose later writings, as every one knows, are largely an endeavor to make us conscious of the limits of consciousness, in order that we may conserve the benefits that we owe to unconscious growth. The traditional organisms of society-language, folkways, common law and the like-exhibit on the whole an adaptability to conditions, a workableness, that could not be equalled by reflective consciousness alone. The latter may give us Volapuk, but from the former we have the English of Shakespeare.

Nevertheless there is an evident need of a competent intelligence to watch and supplement the unconscious processes. George Meredith compares the irregular and

( 384) uncertain progress of the world to that of a drunkard staggering toward home,

"Still that way bent albeit his legs are slack."

No doubt it does get on, after a fashion, but the fashion is often one that is disgraceful to a rational being. While there is a great deal of truth in the idea of the involuntary beneficence of economic competition, it is certain that under the too great sway of this idea natural resources are wasted, children stunted and deprived of opportunity, women exploited, and the unrighteous allowed to thrive.

If we consider how rational control may be achieved we are led at once into the question of standards of service. If we could devise and apply, in connection with every function, some sound test of performance, so that all concerned might know just what good service is, and how the service of one agent compares with that of another, the question of control would become simple.

This would not only act directly to promote efficiency of every sort through selecting the best men and methods, and holding them to a high grade of work, but would have an immeasurably beneficent effect in diffusing through the community order, contentment, clearness of purpose, and good-will, instead of the confusion, unrest, and hostility that now so largely prevail. Standards of any kind, if generally accepted, have the same kind of effect that the use of money has in economic exchanges: they make relations definite and thus facilitate co-operation and allay disputes. Ill-feeling, whether toward other persons or toward life in general, is based chiefly, perhaps, on resentments and perplexities arising from the lack of settled valuations. If we all knew what our

(385) place in life was and what our just claims were, as compared with those of others, the confusion that now prevails would subside.

We may distinguish, as regards human conduct, two sorts of standards: the higher or emulative, instigating us to attain or approach an ideal, and minimum standards or limits of toleration, conformity to which is more or less compulsory. The former appeal to the more capable and ambitious, the latter are imposed on the backward. One defines the type at the bottom, the other at the top.

In almost every kind of activity it is harmful to tolerate those who fall below a certain level of achievement: they not only set a bad example and lower the grade of service, but impair co-operation and esprit de corps. Even in competitive games, such as foot-racing, jumping, golf, and the like, it is usual to classify the players so that those in each group shall be sufficiently homogeneous to incite one another to do their best; and every one knows how detrimental is the influence of a player of a lower class. In the breeding of animals we have the immemorial practice of eliminating individuals who lack certain "points," and the social science of eugenics aims, in a similar manner, to set a standard of propagation for the human race. Our whole body of penal law is a system of minimum requirements as to conduct, and the conventions or mores enforced by public sentiment have much the same character.

The idea is ancient and familiar, its present interest arising largely from a tendency to apply it more and more stringently in the control of economic competition. It appears here in a great variety of forms, but the general an is to classify more definitely the kinds of economic

(386) struggle, to determine who are and who are not legitimate participants in each, and to see to it that all are carried on under proper rules for the protection of the weak and the welfare of the public.

All competent students feel that there is urgent need of a rational programme for the protection from crushing and degradation of those who, for whatever reason, are not in a position to protect themselves. If their weakness is intrinsic they need to be removed from the general struggle and put in a class by themselves; if it is accidental they require intelligent succor while they are recovering their strength.

The weak side of the standardization idea, as applied to society, is its trend toward the numerical and mechanical. An external, visible test, almost always superficial in this sphere, is easy to apply, and for that reason recommends itself to all who seek precise results without an exercise of the higher faculties of the mind. This, added to the prestige which numerical methods have gained by their value to physical science, has given rise to a formalism which intrudes them where they do not belong, and inspires a confidence in results often in inverse ratio to their value.

To the statistical type of mind precision is apt to seem in itself a guaranty of truth, and it is common to see elaborate calculations based on assumptions which will not bear scrutiny. The authors of such structures instinctively avoid any kind of thinking except mathematical. This was partly the case with Francis Galton, a man of real eminence, who made a statistical study of men of genius, in which the numerical part is logically dependent upon the postulate that practically all men of

( 387) genius become famous.[1] This view he does not examine adequately; the bent of his mind unfitted him to do so. He had to have a standard test of genius in order to open the way for statistical treatment; and he easily convinced himself that fame was such a test. His postulate, however, is pretty clearly false, and his calculations, consequently, of doubtful value.

Many accept numerical system and precision as " science" without further inquiry. I have seen a university faculty adopt without question a resolution recommending as scientific the distribution of examination marks according to the statistical curve of chance variations from a mean, when probably few if any of those present had asked themselves whether it was likely, in common sense, that the performances of the students followed any such law.

Numerical tests may, no doubt, be used to compare the results of processes which are in themselves nonmechanical and perhaps inscrutable. Thus of two salesmen spending the same time on similar routes selling the same goods at the same prices, one will sell twice as many as the other; it is often impossible to say why. " Personality " does it; that is, a complex of influences beyond the sphere of precise analysis. But you can measure the results of its operation and be fairly sure they will be repeated. It is the same with authors. When a new writer submits the manuscript of a novel the publisher can make only a very uncertain guess as to how many copies of it will sell; but when several novels have been published

( 388) and shown their power to interest the public a reasonably safe prediction is possible. The statistical method does not require that the process we are testing be understood, but only that it be uniform. In that case its future working may be predicted from its past. There is a large and legitimate field for ingenuity in thus standardizing human function.

Formalism is apt to come in, however, by our taking a mechanical view of the function itself, of the end to be sought, in order to make it more easily measurable. This objection may be made, for example, to rating and rewarding salesmen according to the amount of their sales. It seems that this is not, in practice, a good plan, because their behavior counts in many ways not covered by such a calculation. A merchant says: "If you have five hundred sales-people working on a straight commission basis, you have five hundred individuals who are, in principle, each one in business for himself. . . . This means that there is no group spirit, no sense of unity in the organization, no co-operative spirit present. It works out very badly." He suggests a modified test, also numerical, which is inadequate in theory, however it may work. The complete function of personality is never measurable. We have the same fallacy in the attempts to measure the value of a professor by the number of students electing his courses, or the number of hours he spends in his classroom.

It seems to be a general truth that the higher a social or mental function the less capable it is of numerical measurement; the reason being that the higher functions are acts of creative organization that can be appreciated only by a judgment of the same order. The work of a

( 389) lawyer, a teacher, a clergyman, a man of science, even of an artistic craftsman, can be measured only by expert opinion. Our tests of the mental capacity of children should be mechanical only in so far as they relate to mechanical processes, like verbal memory or calculation. When it comes to higher capacities, like the understanding of complex ideas or sentiments, such as honor, the test, if it is to be of any value, must be applied, not mechanically, but by some one of imagination to understand what the child means by his answers.

I have little confidence in the more ambitious projects of some psychologists in the way of measuring a priori the capacity of the mind for the various vocations. I do not doubt that many useful hints can be gained by laboratory methods; but if a function is essentially social the test should also be social: science should keep as close to nature as possible. In civil service examinations such qualifications as speed in typewriting may be ascertained by a mechanical test, but as regards any sort of social ability, such as fitness for collecting labor statistics, or conducting correspondence, the main reliance is necessarily placed on success in actual work of a similar character.

In short, any merely mechanical test of the higher human faculties and achievements is, and must remain, an illusion. The only real criterion is the sympathetic and, as it were, participating judgment of a mind qualified by capacity and training to understand these faculties and share in their operation. Goethe maintained that the only competent critic of literary work is the man who can do similar work himself, and the principle is of wide application.

Is there, then, any way of testing the higher func-

(390) -tions, involving leadership and creative organization, so as to maintain a high level of performance? There is no way that is precise or final, especially where originality is in question-since it is the nature of originality to set aside accepted tests-but higher functions of a somewhat settled character may be kept up to the mark through the judgments of an expert group. The various branches of natural science--say, astronomy, geology, or physiology-offer good examples, in that each possesses a group of men with high and definite ideals as to what is standard achievement in their specialty, and with a disposition to apply these in exalting the worthy and casting the unworthy out. It is much the same in all the so-called learned professions. The principle applies also, though with a somewhat looser discipline, in literature, sculpture, painting, architecture, and music; that is, achievement in each of these is appraised, more or less decisively, by a competent special group.

Such groups may act quite definitely. They may form associations and appoint judges-let us say to accept or reject paintings for an exposition, or to select among competing plans for a public building. The judges, if they are competent, do not decide wholly according to old models or traditions. They are men trained by active participation in the artistic endeavors of the time, and they aim, by an effort of creative appreciation, to understand what new achievement an artist has sought, and the measure of his success.

In spheres like patriotism, philanthropy, and religion, the standards are embodied in the lives and works of men whom the appreciative imaginations of a kindred group recognize as bearers of the ideal. For the Christian tradition the "glorious company of the apostles, the noble

( 391) army of martyrs," and their successors incarnate the ideals of the group in cherished examples.

In this regard society greatly needs a more various and closely knit group organization. The modern enlargement of relations has in part broken down the old groups, based chiefly on locality, family, and class, and brought in a somewhat formless and unchannelled state of things for which a remedy must apparently be sought in the development of groups of a new kind. Only close and lasting co-operation can discipline the individual and provide standards for every kind of function.

It is peculiarly requisite to have vigorous and distinctive groups devoted to achievement for which there is no commercial reward. We need men who will passionately set themselves to do fine and ever finer work, hungry for perfection, careless of popular recognition, inspired by congenial example and appreciation, and creating higher standards for those who follow.

The action of commercialism in repressing higher achievement is quite simple: it merely sets up such a din that it is hard to hear anything else. It is ever assailing us from newspapers and from the voices, eyes, and actions of our associates. If we have no momentum of our own it carries us along. It is scarcely possible for one to make separate headway against it: we must have groups and environments, organized to other ends, in which we may take refuge.

It is a frequent remark that it is the function of the universities to set the standards of modern democracy. I suppose the idea of this is that since we have abandoned the standard-setting leadership of a hereditary class we

( 392) must look for a substitute to groups trained and inspired by the educational institutions. This implies a noble conception of such institutions, and the more one thinks of it the more reasonable it appears. It would mean that the universities should select and train competent men in all the more intellectual functions, including literature and the fine arts, inspiring them with ideals which, as members of special groups, they would uphold and effectuate for the good of society. Beyond this, it should mean for all students a moral culture and spirit of devotion to their country and to humanity fit to set the standards of the nation in these high regards. I do not think that such supreme leadership or standard-setting can come from any one source, but the universities, as the appointed organs of higher culture, may aspire to take a large part in it. To their actual achievement only moderate praise can be given.

When I am raking and burning leaves, as I have to in the fall and spring, I often light one little pile, and, when it is well afire, I pick from it a burning leaf or two on my rake and carry them to the next pile, which thus catches their flame. It seems to me that this is what a university should do for the higher life of our people. It should be on fire, and each student who goes out should be a burning leaf to start the flame in the community where he goes.

The working out of higher control turns much upon the critic, whose function is no less than to incarnate intelligence, to embrace in his mind the whole organism and process, and to evaluate the operation of every part. In literature and art the competent critic--Goethe, let us say, or Sainte-Beuve--aims to appreciate each man's

( 393) work as a function of the universal spirit and declare its part in the whole. The same principle applies to more special groups. In the army the critic is the consummate officer who, in times of peace, observes carefully the tests and evolutions and brings to bear upon every detail an expert judgment of its significance with reference to that success in war which is his supreme ideal. In industry, considered as production, he is the efficiency expert. Considering it from the standpoint of human welfare he is a social expert with or without official standing.

All the settled and interesting lines of human achievement naturally produce critics, because contemplative men, familiar with the tradition, find enjoyment in surveying the field as a whole, and appraising the various contributions. The matter is bound up with organization, and where that is lacking criticism is usually weak. For this reason, largely, American culture is sadly deficient in it.

We urgently need a criticism of our social system that shall be competent to a somewhat authoritative estimate of the human value of the various activities. In order to this it must be well instructed in social science and history, familiar also with practical conditions, courageous, judicious, and highly gifted by nature with insight and faith. We have not attained this as yet; our judgments, like the conditions themselves, are in much confusion. It is fairly apparent, however, that social criticism is growing with the growth of research and endeavor. Although social workers are ardent people, often with a good deal of bias, yet their serious struggle with real conditions, preceded, commonly, by academic training, has already enabled them to illumine many obscure matters and put public sentiment in right tracks. And the more

( 394) retired students who deal with social psychology, philosophy, and statistics are no doubt doing their part also. There is a decline in that particularistic spirit that spent itself in the advocacy of conflicting panaceas, and a growth in the larger spirit which judges all schemes with reference to a common organic ideal.


  1. See his Hereditary Genius. Among other criticisms of his views was a pamphlet I published called Genius, Fame and the Comparison of Races (No. 197 of the Publications of the American Academy of Political and Social Science). There is a good account of the literature of the subject In Lester F. Ward's Applied Sociology.

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