An element of standardization is inescapable in all social interaction. Lacking it, we would be helpless to connect with each other. Language itself represents a kind of standardization. But so long as language and society are healthy, there is a creative tension and balance between the standard (lexical) meanings of words and the speaker's individualized meanings. (It turns out that you can't say anything very meaningful without this individualized element, but that is a larger topic.) In this play of stasis and invention, all human growth, all new understanding, is incubated.
In the business of establishing credentials today, where is the recognition of a principle to set against standardization, to prevent its becoming tyrannical? A one-sided pursuit of standardization (which, incidentally, coheres wonderfully well with the pursuit of information as shovelable fact) means neither more nor less than the obliteration of everything individual. In a valuable set of reflections upon educational standardization, sociologist Phil Agre casts the issue in terms of diversity:
We need to recognize . . . that the ease of transferring courses between schools effectively assembling one's college education a la carte from among the offerings of a large number of potentially quite different programs may come at a significant price in intellectual diversity. If the internal modularity of degree programs must be coordinated centrally, or at least negotiated among numerous independent universities, then the result will be less flexibility and greater uniformity. Power over fine details of the curriculum will inevitably shift in the direction of accrediting organizations, university administrators, and other professional coordinators. Faculty may effectively lose the ability to write their own syllabi. (1998)
Agre urges us to "preserve the institutional conditions for a diversity of intellectual approaches." I will suggest what this might mean shortly. Meanwhile, to summarize:
The central focus of information technology upon the reliable, precise, and quantifiable transmission of well-defined bits from one place to another, and the emphasis upon algorithmic procedures for manipulating this information, accord perfectly with
the "shoveling facts" style of education;
the increasingly cosy relationship between education and businesses, whose primary concern has more to do with operational effectiveness than with depth of understanding;
the rigid "credentialization" and standardization of society, which, in turn, amount to a denial of the distinctive life and gifts of the individual.
But, in the end, this model of education leaves little room for schools or, ultimately, students.
Everyone disowns fact-shoveling education. And yet the computer and its databases, into which we pour information, have emerged utterly triumphant as the reigning metaphors for learning. The metaphors that powerfully grip us are more indicative of what's going on than our much too frequent protesting.