Friday, October 3, 2014

Living in a Non-Standardized World

My school was closed today. We're closed every year on this day because it is the weekend of our local small town festival. This is our local holiday.

Like many small town festivals, we have hung ours on a thinnish peg. John Chapman, aka Johnny Appleseed, lived here for a while in the distant past, and so our festival is Applefest.

We close down the main drag on Saturday and Sunday. There's a 5K race down the main street of the city and back. There's a car show on Sunday which fills that same street. There are roughly a gazzillion vendors in the park, selling everything from Ecuadorian sweaters to handcrafted clocks to Jesus painted on roof slate. There's a whole street of local service group vendors, right across from the farmers' market. The local theater group schedules a Big Show for this weekend (this year it's Chicago, which I'm directing but must modestly admit that, thanks to my cast and orchestra, it kicks ass). Last night my school sponsored our high school hall of fame induction dinner. Today my wife and I got up early to go to the apple pancake breakfast at the Catholic church.

Applefest was partly invented and has partly grown organically. When I was a tadpole, it was an afternoon of small crafty booths. Now it's a three day festival that shuts down the whole town and brings in tens of thousands of visitors. Maybe hundreds of thousands. There's not any good way to judge.

Why am I talking about this? Because it's an example of how life in a non-standardized world looks.

No amount of "town festival standards and practices" guidelines would have helped a bit, either ijn the creation of the festival nor in its growth and execution. Most especially, it would not have improved the experience of it.

There are thousands of small town festivals like ours (and a few hundred big city festivals trying to capture the same small town feel). They all have many similar features, and yet they are all different. If you teleport me into the middle of any of them, there isn't the slightest chance that I would mistake it for our festival here. They are all specific to place. You cannot just move seamlessly from one to another without it making a difference.

But they are most of all specific to people. Folks come back for Applefest to see people. In an hour of walking, I will touch on a hundred different relationships. This morning I saw dozens of current students. I saw some old friends and classmates of my own. I saw a student from a decade ago who wanted to tell me that she is now a middle-school English teacher and she sometimes channels me in class. I do remember her from back in the day, and her story becomes one more to add to the file of "People do grow up and turn out okay even if that future is not obvious when they're sixteen" stories.

So when people start talking about standardization in schools as if it is self-evident that standardization is a Good Thing, Applefest is the kind of human experience I think about. How can standardization possibly make human experience better? Why would it be any sort of improvement to be able to move from one place to another without it making a difference? Why is it a good idea to make human experiences more the same? And how, in a world where the foundation of all human activity is the relationship and interactions between various specific individual human beings-- how can standardization even happen without trying to render unimportant the very things that make us human?

If there's anything Applefest doesn't need, it certainly doesn't need a state or federal or "expert" authority to come in with some sort of standards for how to do this better. We don't need to standardize the events or the experience or the people. My experience this morning of walking around town with my wife was unique and singular and absolutely unstandardized.

Schools are a a product of the place in which they exist and the people who walk their halls. Some may struggle, and some may face large challenges. Standardization is not the solution to any of those challenges. Standardization is not what makes the world go round. Standardization is not what makes life rich and full and worth living. And if standardization does not enhance the experience of being human in the world, how could it possibly enhance the experience of school. 


  1. Whether you believe in the doctrine of multicultural diversity or of individualism, you CANNOT believe in standardization as something that can enrich either the former or the latter (left and right, respectively). To do so would be hypocrisy for both the left and right of the political spectrum. Therefore, I'm seeing lots of hypocrisy out there in the nation today. Thank you for your blog, as well as your much needed words of wisdom and common sense, Peter Greene

  2. When I build a home, my home doesn't have to look like anyone else's home. But there are still standards that apply. I don't think those standards hurt my home living environment. Same for education.