On the Standardisation Aesthetic in Education: All the Same "Just Because"

US Military parade at the Imperial Palace Plaza, 1948. Public Domain via Wikimedia.

Standardisation is an important means to an end - typically efficiency. Shipping containers and pallets are interesting examples. A world without these would be a very different world. Standard electrical fittings, too, are convenient - you notice this most when you travel overseas and you do not have a country-specific adaptor. 

But what about when standardisation is not a means to an end, but an end in itself? This I call the standardisation aesthetic.

I noticed this first in the military. The regimental sergeant major walked into a classroom and ordered the desks to be lined up precisely, and make it "all regimental-like". Later, I found myself being annoyed at the way the cheese was cut. In its extreme, it becomes obsessive-compulsive disorder. It can be unhealthy.

So when I find education managers wanting to make everything "nice and regimental-like", I question: What are they trying to achieve? Efficiency? Hardly. While management is busy checking up on everyone else, some important system is typically offline. Often, it is simply this: the standardisation aesthetic. I find this permeates so many things in higher education.

In a nation that routinely claims universal ideas as part of its "culture" or "way of life", the standardisation aesthetic is surely a cultural artefact that manifests itself regularly, but is rarely observed. And I don't mean "artefact" in the sense of a human-made tool or object, but in the scientific sense of "something observed in a scientific investigation or experiment that is not naturally present but occurs as a result of the preparative or investigative procedure".

Having worked for a few years in my youth in hydraulic spare parts and industrial bearing sales, I heard the term "standard" frequently. A typical customer engagement would go like this:
Customer: "I need an o-ring/oil seal/tapered roller bearing for a thing".
Me: "What size/type/brand/thing is it?"
Customer: "Oh, it's standard".
Me: "Yeah, right. There's no such thing".
Anyone who has worked in spare parts will know this story. It happens every day, and I have even stopped myself from saying it (it is possible, for example, to have Ford bearings in a Holden trailer hub - and it's "standard").

So we have two issues here. First, standardisation can achieve efficiency. Granted. But second, standardisation becomes an expectation to make things more convenient. But what if "it" isn't standard, and therefore it isn't convenient?

I ask this question because when designing a customer experience, the more convenient, the better. Consumers can mind-numbingly buy the same thing without thinking while retailers pocket the profit. Except in grocery stores. The trick in grocery stores is to routinely rearrange the store. This disrupts habits and forces shoppers to "look" for their preferred or habitual purchases. 

Of course, it typically leads to shoppers buying things they didn't need or want. There is a reason that every convenience store has the bread and the milk at the back of the store, you know.

But what about the people who are meant to be future leaders? Should we provide a consistent customer experience for students? I say no.

The world is not standard. Sure, parts of it are or can be, but this works best when there is an end in sight - an objective. Standardise shipping containers and pallets, and we have efficient physical distribution systems. Standardise the customer experience, and we have an efficient market or distribution system for goods and services. 

But standardise nature, and one day the species is wiped out because we removed the opportunities for critical variations in the evolutionary gene pool to occur. Natural selection ceases to function. Do the same with our markets, and organisations will cease to innovate and eventually die. Just like the Soviet Union. Or Kodak.

What, then, of our students? Elementary knowledge like times tables? Find the best approach and standardise it. Leadership? Find the best approach and standardise it. Oh, wait. That won't work. Why? Because we are all unique individuals and what works for one won't necessarily work for another. 

We have entered the realm of the social sciences and therefore we cannot reduce everything to standardised units. Even if we could, those sneaky humans might change their behaviour, just to annoy our cunning plan.

There are two problems with standardised education. First, the world isn't standard, so creating a falsely standardised learning environment is counter-productive. It may produce efficient consumers, but it won't produce effective leaders. 

Second, creating a standardised learning environment removes opportunities for students to grapple with diverse and nuanced situations. I always tell my students that an undergraduate degree is proof that they can navigate their way through bureaucracy. Watch your grandmother try to grapple with a Centrelink form and you will see what I mean. 

So standardisation as an aesthetic is a cultural artefact - we only notice it when we strip away the rhetoric of good governance. As educators, we need to ask ourselves, what is the purpose of standardisation? Will it improve our efficiency? Making course information or learning materials readily available is a good example. Standardise away.

But when standardisation becomes an end in itself, we need to question the wisdom of such an approach and ask, why?

Management won't like it, but we risk doing our students a disservice if we let the aesthetic run its course. We need to see it for what it is, and, funnily enough, only someone with a bit of social science training could see standardisation as an artefact. The variations are important opportunities for developing new skills, new knowledge, and improving living standards.

If we standardise everything, we will have a beautiful education system, all regimental-like. Why? Well, just because. And that doesn't sound very educated to me.