04/14/2011 03:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Race to the Bottom: How Low Expectations Are Hurting Us

If America is the land of opportunity and optimism, you could be forgiven for wondering where it went as you watch contemporary social and political affairs. From one area to another, we seem driven not by the soaring rhetoric of hope and promise but by the sinking call to lower our expectations.

Education is a prime example. The drive for minimum standards of achievement, in recognition of the poor performance of American students matched against themselves and other nations, is a drive of diminished expectations where the phrase "race to the top" gets equated with an educated person. There is no question that these minimum standards are crucial to meet, but what do they say about the importance of exceeding them or the enjoyment of art, poetry, music and literature -- as ends in themselves apart from a score on a test -- in forming an educated person and a good society? When we define success in education as a passing score, we act as if everything that counts can be counted.

Education is not the only field in which minimum standards seems to have replaced the call for American greatness. We have bottom-oriented thinking in mileage standards for cars, in acceptable levels of pollutants in power-plant emissions and other industrial operations and in permissible levels of chemicals in food and drugs. We have minimal requirements of disclosure, transparency and integrity for financial institutions in instruments from home loans to credit cards. While such standards play a useful role in protecting public health and consumer finances, they also signal that anything you can get by with while still meeting this floor is not only acceptable but damn creative. Where is the invitation to excellence?

In many of our social relations, we seem to have reached the point where legality is the sole measure of acceptability. Rather than ask how we should behave, we settle for figuring out how we have to behave. If it's legal, it must be OK. Said another way, you can't stop me unless you can prove I broke the law. While this has created a boom economy for lawyers, it does not do much to build the moral character on which good societies rest. It is a year after the BP oil spill and we have yet to figure out if anyone at BP can be charged with breaking the law, and meanwhile we watch Transocean claim that 2010 was its best year for safety. How do we signal to them both that there is a higher standard by which we judge them -- and by which they should judge themselves?

In politics, the race to the bottom is driven by nastiness and the desire to take away anything people don't have the power to keep. Admittedly, state and federal debts have to be reduced, but must the path to doing so be strewn with vitriolic words and the assumption that the social safety net is the primary place to cut? When we charge public employees with being the "haves" and the rest of the middle class with being the "have-nots," we are in headlong battle with ourselves that looks down the economic ladder for solutions. It's as if we'll be happy when everyone else is as miserable as we are, rather than viewing our relationships as a way to lift each other up. Indeed, we seem to have almost given up hope in raising everyone, a hope that has sustained us for generations.

My wife told me once that, as a child, she would tend to look down as she walked on the street. Her mother, a woman whose early childhood photograph is a poster for optimism and who met life more than half-way and expected the best from her children, used to tell her, "Look up; that's where God is." Not a terribly religious woman, I think what my mother-in-law meant was that we realize the best that is in us and others when we aspire to the possibilities in the world rather than shrinking from them and limiting our view. After all, if you want to see the sun, you have to look up. Looking down is sure to show you only the shadows. America could do itself a big favor if -- whether in education, commerce, politics or social relationships -- it looked up instead of joining the current race to the bottom.