Robert D. Shepherd previously wrote a post about why standardization fails. Now he asks whether we want to standardize for a certain outcome or whether we want an education that discovers the genius in every child:

Every child born today is the product of 3.8 billions years of evolution. Between his or her ears, is the most complex system known to us, and that system, the brain consists of highly interconnected subsystems of neural mechanisms for carrying out particular tasks. Years ago, some Japanese researchers won the Nobel Prize for mapping the neural system in fruit flies that functions ONLY to detect movement from left to right in the visual field. Marvin Minsky calls this complex of interconnected systems a “society of mind.”Early in the twentieth century, a psychologist named Charles Spearman posited a single intelligence factor, “G.” A couple decades ago, Howard Gardner made a name for himself by positing seven (later eight) “multiple intelligences.” But that’s all hocus pocus. The truth is that there are, quite literally, billions of intelligences in the brain–mechanisms that carry out very particular tasks more or less well, many of them sharing parts of the same machinery to carry out subroutines.Over that 3.8 billion years of evolution, these many intelligences were refined to a high degree. Creatures, like us, who reproduce sexually and mix up our genes, are born with different unique sets of mechanisms, and these are pruned and refined based on our experiences, for the neural machinery is extraordinarily plastic. In other words,

1. People are extraordinarily variable, and
2. All have propensities to become very good at some things and not at others

In EVERY child some of these subsystems are extraordinary and some are merely adequate.

In other words, there are no standardized children. Almost every new parent is surprised, even shocked, to learn that kids come into the world extraordinarily unique. They bring a lot of highly particular potential to the ball game. And every one of those children is capable, highly capable, in some ways and not in others.

What if, instead of schools having as their purpose turning out identically machined parts, they, instead, existed to find out what a given child is going to be good at doing? What if children were carefully, systematically, given opportunities to try out the enormous range of purposeful human activity until we identified each child’s GENIUS? What if we said to ourselves, presented with a particular child, “I know that this little person is the product of 3.8 billion years of evolution, that he or she has gifts conferred by that history of fitness trials, and it is my responsibility to discover what those are?”

I heard an Indian elder, whose name, unfortunately, I forget, speak about this once. He said, “Look at the kids. Really look at them. You can see who the leaders are and who the followers.” This insight can and should be generalized.

Now, before you dismiss this as a preposterous idea, consider this fact: A child can be born with, say, perfect pitch and go through our entire K-12 education system without anyone ever discovering this about that child.

A society, to be a society, needs SOME shared common culture, and it’s valuable, for that reason, to have some common, shared set of knowledge and skills transmitted from one generation to the next. But a pluralistic society also needs the astonishing variety of attributes that people are born with or are capable of developing.

No list, however well vetted, will represent the natural variety of ability and potential that exists in children. Nor will it represent the variety of abilities that the society actually needs in order to function well. It’s bad for kids and it’s bad for society as a whole when someone has the hubris to come up with THE LIST of what everyone needs to know.

Let me be clear about what I am NOT saying: I am NOT saying that school should be a place where kids “do their own thing.” What I am saying is that it should be a place that enables kids and their teachers to discover what kids, given their particular endowments, can do. I believe, strongly, that every child has some genius among those TRULY multiple intelligences.

It would take a lot of re-envisioning to come up with a workable model of schooling that would do that properly and rigorously. And it wouldn’t look anything like what we are now doing.

Finally, to get to the specific question. The revolutionaries who founded the United States recognized that any system that awards people based upon the accidents of their birth rather than based upon their talents, whatever their birth, wastes a lot of human potential. They were committed to the idea that everyone deserved a chance to follow his or her genius, whatever the conditions of his or her birth. That’s why many of them were also committed to the idea universal education and why it is in the interest of all of us to end disparity of educational opportunity. The founders had this crazy idea that no one was disposable, that everyone had gifts to bestow on his or her fellows that would flower in the right circumstances. Any rigidly enforced system of standards treated as a curriculum is not going to enable the achievement of the founders’ vision because while everyone else’s children are toiling through the checklist of standardized skills attainment, the children of the elite will be having extraordinarily varied experiences enabling them to find and follow their bliss (what they care about and have the potential to do well).

If that’s the society that we want, the Morlochs and the Eloi, then uniform national standards treated as curricula, the same in every school, for every student, is the way to go.

That works for folks who think that there are the few gifted who are destined to rule and the great mass of interchangeable worker bees who need to be as identical and predictable as possible. It doesn’t work for people who believe in pluralistic democracy.