THE STANDARDS TRAP
Were we directed from Washington when to sow, & when to reap, we should soon want bread.[i]
i. Standards vs. Standardization
As in most areas of late modern politics, wherein the “liberal” and “conservative” factions of the progressive ruling elite fight their turf war over the future of a general population for which they have little or no regard, so in education these self-styled titans clash repeatedly over the superficial tenor of public schools, leaving out of account any serious alternative, such as the freedom both factions usually claim to be defending. And as is typical, the effect of this ruling class family quarrel is to produce the illusion that the entire range of plausible options is on the bargaining table, when in truth the competing establishment solutions on education represent a classic false dichotomy—a noisy debate that obscures the reasoned alternative, which is never given a hearing.
Thus, while the liberals have their socialization, creativity, individuality, and self-esteem, the conservatives, for their part, typically go all in on “standards.”
On its face, “standards” sounds like the more rational mantra, since it seems to adhere to concerns and goals that at least have measurable, objectively meaningful correlatives. That is to say, apart from all the other horrors embedded in the liberal catchwords mentioned above, those will-o’-the-wisp notions also have the considerable demerit of being so elastic as to be indefinable. How does one know when a child is socialized? (A cynic might answer, “When the child is a submissive, reliable voter for socialism,” but contemporary advocates of socialization would not likely accept this answer, at least in public.) Likewise, creativity and individuality are notorious linguistic ciphers, while self-esteem runs the gamut of definitions, from the rational egoism of the libertarians to progressive fantasies of feeling guilt-free, shame-free, and “comfortable in your own skin.”
Academic standards, by contrast, are at least determinable, in the sense that one may know when or whether one has attained them. The problem with the call to impose tougher standards or benchmarks in public education—that is, measurable goals according to which a community may judge the effectiveness of its education system—is not that such standards cannot be met. Rather, I am tempted to say that the problem is precisely that they can be met. The call for standardization of means and outcomes is, in practice, merely the call to systematize the mass retardation factory along quantitative lines, rather than along the sentimental lines preferred by the “liberals.” What I finally came to understand, after years of sympathizing with the push for higher standards in education, was how careful one must be to square this position with the defense of educational freedom and the desire to resist despotic paternalism. Specifically, I learned to distinguish standards from standardization, and discovered how frequently the latter arrives at the party dressed up as the former. In fact, the two concepts represent utterly opposed views of education, roughly corresponding to the difference between Athens and Sparta, civilization and regimentation, virtue and socialization. In human terms, the result of academic standardization is the crushing of the spirit. In societal terms, the result is the normalization of mediocrity.
The great progressive impulse, stemming from its German roots and branching out in a thousand directions ever since, is the urge to universalize. From Kant with his categorical imperative, which effectively siphons the yolk of context-defined humanity out of ethics, leaving a pristine empty shell of freedom redefined as the obliteration of the individual, to the socialist’s “universal healthcare” imposed at the point of a gun, the desire to steamroller experience and common sense out of life in the name of humanity is intrinsic to the progressive sensibility. In practice, this universalizing impulse involves the application of fallacious logic to human experience, invalidly inferring that what is applicable to individuals in a given situation is ipso facto applicable to mankind generically. The result of this tortured logic of universalization is invariably something inhuman, and often something truly bestial.
One particularly infamous example will suffice to demonstrate the kind of faulty reasoning I have in mind. Consider communism. The idea of the communal life has a perfectly legitimate realm of applicability, and has been a useful notion throughout the history of civilization. The early Pythagorean maxim, “All things in common among friends,” captures the spirit of proper communalism quite well. True friends, as Aristotle would later say, are like two bodies sharing one soul—that is, a friend is one from whom we feel no fundamental separation, from whom we therefore withhold almost nothing of importance, and for whose benefit we would happily part with almost anything. “What’s mine is yours,” says the man to his true friend. And then of course there is the most common “commune,” the family. Here, the formula Marx borrowed from Louis Blanc, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” is both a fair maxim and an accurate description of how normal families have always functioned. Adults who withhold their time, labor, or goods from their spouses, children, or aging parents, in an effort to maintain a degree of separation from the social unit to which they (voluntarily) belong, are rightly judged bad family members. Family is nature’s safety net.
Political communism is, at base, nothing more than the attempt to broaden the scope of nature’s modes of communal life to encompass entire societies, and ultimately the entire world. That is, the communist seeks to extract the “all things in common” sensibility from the real, human context of friendship and family—the context comprised of shared purpose and genuine sympathy rooted in voluntary interaction and experience—and to impose this communal sensibility artificially upon relationships that barely exist, except as abstractions, and hence where none of the deepest experience-based sympathies may be found.
The faulty logic of the communist lies in the presumption that the fully communal sensibility can be universalized beyond the private, particular context by which it is conditioned, while yet remaining a valid human sensibility. But in moral matters, to discard the context is to discard individualized humanity itself. The true outcome of such pseudo-scientific reasoning, as history proves with painful absoluteness, is precisely the opposite of the result of the natural communal feeling experienced among friends and family. In other words, while nature’s “communism” leads to strong character, mutual attachment, and a less materialistic life, political communism promotes exactly the contrary of all these things, both at the individual and societal levels. The logical error is revealed in the millions of murdered, tortured, and oppressed men and women sacrificed by necessity in the effort to universalize the communal effect beyond its natural boundary conditions, and in the growing amorality with which the oppressed betray and devour their comrades under the cover of such abstractions as “the collective good,” “social justice,” and “equality.”
The same illogical universalization may be observed in the case of academic standardization.
Standards, i.e., goals, are a necessary element of any kind of teaching. The teacher must have at least a sense, if not a clearly defined account, of what he hopes the student will learn from his teaching, how long it might take to reach this goal, and how he will know when the goal has been reached. The relevant question is, “How does the teacher arrive at his standard?” Optimally, the standard of learning is determined with reference to the particular student, in the particular context, and in accordance with the particular needs of the situation. If, for example, you are given the task of teaching someone a language—a task common to every parent in history—you begin with a few basic, implicit considerations: What level of language skill does the student currently possess? What are the personal circumstances and intellectual interests or curiosities of the student? What kind of commitment (temporal, emotional) is the student likely to be able to make to this learning endeavor?
From these questions, and related others, you will form a basic idea of what you might reasonably hope to achieve with the student. If the student is actually your child, such that you have, in principle, unlimited access, the strongest possible emotional commitment from the student, and all the time in the world, the standard you set might be nothing more specific than, “I want my child to have a great vocabulary, a masterly facility with the core grammar, a love for great literature, and the ability to communicate with effective rhetorical skills, but without excessive artifice.” Even in this case, you will likely benefit from setting provisional goals to be met along the way, both as signposts of progress, and to encourage your child’s sense of accomplishment. For example, “I want him speaking in complex grammatical sentences by this time next year,” or “I’d like to give him a copy of Gulliver’s Travels for his tenth birthday.” And if you are not the child’s parent, and therefore have much more limited access, emotional attachment, and so on, your goals will be some partial version of the parental goals, determined according to the conditions in which you receive the child as a student, and the projected temporal limits of the relationship.
In every instance, then, the teacher will indeed have standards—and by standards, to reiterate, I mean aspirations determined according to the nature of the individual case.
Of course, in many real teaching situations, especially those in which the teacher is not also the parent, practical contingencies may require that standards be applied to two or more students simultaneously. Difficulties arise as soon as a second student is introduced. For this second student will of necessity present the teacher with a different set of answers to the standard-setting questions with which we began. How is the teacher to match his efforts to the two different levels of skill, natural capacity, and desire for knowledge without shortchanging one or the other of the students on one or more levels? Assuming neither student is a problem case, requiring extraordinary and special attention, a clever and earnest teacher should be able to manage this situation without sacrificing much in the way of individualized teaching, i.e., individualized standards.
Add more students to the mix, however, and the problems grow exponentially. In principle, the larger the class, the less individualized teaching is possible, which means that every student loses, and the teacher, if he is honest, knows he has not done his absolute best by any one student. All teachers—I mean teachers, not bottom-feeding careerists looking for a safe job at public expense—know this. I recall discussing this issue with a graduate class in which most of my students were professional teachers. One public school teacher agreed with my suggestion that fewer students means better teaching opportunities, and therefore more learning. I encouraged her to decide how many students would be ideal. At first, she wanted to keep it general, “as few as possible,” but after I pressed her to be more specific, she said “fewer than ten.” I pushed further: “Why not fewer than two?” Now she became uncomfortable, imagining that I was trying to trick her into some kind of confusion, or into contradiction. No, I explained, I actually agreed with her, and was merely trying to discover to what extent she agreed with herself. [ii]
However, for all the natural problems with developing a set of standards for application in a classroom situation—that is, with multiple students—there nevertheless remains the consolation that at least the teacher is still in the position of developing the standards, or some kind of composite standard, for his own students, meaning for people he knows personally, has observed personally, has examined and assessed as to level and potential personally. We are still talking about individualized teaching, albeit of a more or less attenuated sort.
We are also, therefore, talking about a world of education that began to expire in the late eighteenth century, and barely exists at all today.
[i] Thomas Jefferson, Autobiography of Thomas Jefferson (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1821), 123.
[ii] It should be noted that merely teaching a smaller number of students does not necessarily entail a more individualized standard. Even one-on-one tutoring can be, and today usually is, pursued according to “universal standards,” at least in the sense that such tutoring is now sought primarily in the name of boosting results on government-standardized tests.