“There is an assumption that western education, western knowledge, is something that is superior…there is an idea that we have evolved to a higher level of being, and that these people, however lovely the are, they’re going to benefit from this superior knowledge.” Helena Norberg-Hodge
McDonald’s is one of the most successful corporations in the history of the world. They are now present in 121 countries and experienced “lackluster” earnings of $28.1 billion in 2013. By any superficial measure of success, McDonald’s is there.
And how did they do this?
By instituting a highly managed process of standardization that insures that a Big Mac in Vietnam tastes exactly like a Big Mac in New York.
From Citizendium: “The standardized McDonald’s hamburger has meat that weighs 1.6 ounces (45 grams) and measures 3 and 5/8 inches (9.2cm) across; and is garnished with a quarter of an ounce of chopped onion, a teaspoon of mustard, a tablespoon of ketchup and a pickle slice one inch in diameter. The Big Mac is likewise standardized with two patties and a sauce.”
Why does this work?
Again, from Citizendium: “Ritzer (2000) argues that McDonald’s has succeeded so well because it offers consumers, workers, and managers a maximum degree of efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control through non-human technology.”
McDonald’s “works” because it has a standardized set of processes which increase predictability, efficiency and control, and decrease as much as possible any semblance of human individual decision-making. And who can argue with this at $28.1 billion in profits during a lack luster year?
However, problems arise when we look a little closer at what we mean by “works,” and who you ask. You see, when something “works” it is always measured against a particular set of values. What we really need to be asking is, what are the values you are using to measure what “works?” If the value is simply net income, then clearly McDonald’s works. And clearly, within the set of values framed by economic efficiency, standardization is the process for ensuring “results.”
But let’s look deeper.
Learning From the Ladahk- A Cautionary Tale
I few years ago I was bowled over by the book Ancient Futures, by Helana Norberg-Hodge. It’s an incredible story of how the Ladahk, an insulated group of people who lived quite happily within a subsistence economy, changed culturally as their country began to open to foreign influence.
As described by The Right Livelihood Award web-site:
“Ladakh, or ‘Little Tibet’, an Indian region in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, is one of the last remaining traditional cultures on earth. For over a thousand years the Ladakhi people prospered, creating a rich, harmonious and sustainable culture from the sparse resources of their region. In 1975, traditional self-reliance and cultural pride were suddenly replaced by feelings of inferiority, dissatisfaction and competition when the area was opened to ‘development’, including tourism, media and advertisement, which brought with them highly idealised impressions of life in the West. Outside economic pressures began undermining the local economy, and ills that were previously unknown – pollution, crime, unemployment, family breakdown, rapid urbanisation and ethnic conflict – began to take hold.”
As Norberg-Hodge powerfully describes it, a culture of perfectly satisfied people went from this satisfaction to the “realization” that they were actually poor, and in need of money and jobs. This economic, and resulting cultural, McDonaldization allowed them to experience all of the alienation, ennui and poverty that was previously limited to Western cultures.
And yes, you can now order a Big Mac in Ladakh.
This is how progress happens. Right?
Did it work?
If your value is money, yes.
If your value is culture, tradition, a sense of belonging and health of the environment, nope.
In Who Will Roll Away the Stone?, theologian Ched Myers describes the process of progress this way. “Today, ideologies of ‘economic development’ are used to legitimate the European American’s continuing sense of entitlement(pg 123)…Economic exploitation became economic domination became economic determinism, now to every corner of the globe (pg. 141).”
So one way to look at this process of standardization is to say that we are increasing profit and spreading the western values of hard work and excellence. A different frame says that we are doing so at the expense of local cultures, human connections and dignity, and the earth’s health.
We have (and continue to) arrogantly and ignorantly valued our cultural perspective of market fundamentalism and imposed that wherever our power and wealth allowed.
Which is almost everywhere.
Including, now, our schools.
Again, why standardization?
Because it allows for economic efficiency, predictable outcomes and technocratic control. This is what allows for the creation of income. However, we must recognize the purpose for which standardization has historically been used, and the contextual boundaries that it is now leaping over. We must continually ask, what do we want for our children?
Teachers necessarily function with a standard of “quality” within their given contexts. We like quality. Yes? But this is very different from standardization, which are standards that have leaped the bounds of the context they work within. For instance, a teacher working directly with children may give them feedback individually based on their writing. This feedback is crucial to their growth as writers, and such feedback is based upon said teacher’s knowledge and experience with quality writing, a developed sense of what is meant by quality, or “standards” explicated within an appropriate context. And this is then weighed against an intimate knowledge of that child, knowledge that grows from a real human relationship. Feedback, the sharing of an understanding of quality, is communicated with a tentative understanding of how this feedback might best be received. This process is entirely different from a state/nation wide standard abstracted from such a classroom and applied indiscriminately to all always. Such abstracted standardization is a cancerous growth that technocratically controls via “accountability,” imposing itself on an individual teachers’s professionalism and judgement- erasing the uniqueness of an individual child, and the uniqueness of an individual teacher.
It is taking my back yard grilled burgers, spiced with seasonings that I know my family loves, to the garbage in favor of serving up Big Macs to all.
Standardization is to quality what cancer is to healthy cells.
I say we want to at least explicate the underlying values hidden within the quest for standardization.
I say we voice and stand for the messiness of democracy, for the passion that leads to uniqueness, and the creativity of individual lives protected from the always creeping forces of economic efficiency.
“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.”
No, that’s not a good thing.
But at least it is controllable.
Again, is this what we want for our children?
I say no.
So go ahead educators, continue to vouch for the quality of the Common Core. Continue with your arguments that they are “much deeper,” and “much richer” than any previously explicated, abstractly and mindlessly applied standards that we have had. But, please, please know the context and history you are working within, and, for the sake of our children, be willing to face that.
“As people of entitlement, we must walk with the devil and face the history of empire, because our structural advantages are predicated upon the suppressed traumas of the past. We must dredge up the ghosts of Columbus and Cortes, Custer and Calley, not because we can change their historical behavior but because otherwise we cannot change our own. If we do not, we will keep reproducing the illusions and violence of that history through repetition- compulsion.” (pg. 132)