Friday, March 21, 2014

In Praise of Non-Standardization

It is hard for me to argue with fans of national standards, because we hold fundamentally different values.

I'm opposed to CCSS, but unlike many other CCSS opponents, I'm opposed to any national standards at all. But it's hard to have that conversation because it comes down to this not-very-helpful exchange:

Standards fan: But if we had national standards, everyone would be on the same page. The system would be standardized. That's a good thing.

Me: No, it's not.

I'm not advocating the destruction of all rules and order. I'm not calling for the Land of Do-As-You-Please. But let me speak in praise of non-standardization.

Standardization is safe. It's predictable. We can walk into any McDonald's in the country and it will be just like any other and we will know exactly what we will get. I am not excited about that prospect. Let me plop you into the center of any mall in the country and defy you to guess where you are. That's not a good thing.

Complete organization and standardization is complete boredom. A canvas painted by Monet is interesting precisely because it is disorganized. There's more of some paint over here, less of the other paint over there. A wall painted by Bob's House Painting is perfectly orderly and organized. It's also flat and featureless and nobody particularly wants to look at it; in fact, once it has dried, the homeowners will break up its monotony by hanging photos or decorations or a print of a Monet painting.

Take a glass of water and drop one drop of food coloring into it. At first it will be a group of stark swirls against a clear background. It will be disorganized, disorderly. It will also be cool, interesting. After a while, it will be completely organized and orderly. And boring and uniform.

Chaos and information theories tell us that disorder and entropy are not necessarily best buds, that in fact achieving order and increasing entropy actually go hand in hand. Progress and creation arise out of chaos.

We don't have to be all philosophysicsy about this. Look at the arts. Watch the following process repeat over and over and over again:

1) The prevailing standard has become moribund and stultifying.

2) A large group of alternatives suddenly arise, almost simultaneously providing a whole host of exciting alternatives

3) Eventually one or two emerge as the "winners."

4) The winners cement their status as the new standard by becoming more orderly, more formalized, more organized (but less energetic)

5) See step 1. Rinse and repeat.

This covers everything from the French Impressionist movement to the rise of varied forms of Rock and Roll and Pop in response to the easy listening of the fifties. Or the arc of the computer software and app industry.

It is not just that the non-standard makes the world beautiful and interesting. It is the non-standard that is necessary for human beings to rise and advance. It is the non-standard that allows us to be our best selves, to express whatever unique blend of human qualities that birth and circumstances bring to us.

The goal of standardization is the exact opposite of what is, I would argue, the business of human life. We exist as human beings to make our mark, to make a difference, to be agents of change, to put our unique fingerprints on the things we touch. The goal of the standardized human is to not make a difference, to not leave a mark, to interact in the world in such a way that it would not have made the slightest difference if some other standardized human had been there in our place.

Some loose standardization greases the wheels of society, gives us a common foundation to develop our individual differences. But to imagine that standardization is in and of itself a high and desirable virtue is to imagine that a foundation is the only thing we need in a house.  So no, I don't see some sort of national standard as a worthy goal.


  1. Your position is like Yong Zhao's - diversity is the strength of the US school system. And like diversity of species vs. monolcultures, diverse standards are far better able to adapt to changing conditions.

  2. This is a brilliant essay, worth submitting to national newspapers.