The standardization quandary

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Each year about this time I begin to review a short list of my “must read” pieces, which comprise certain books, articles, essays and the like which not only reinforce my held beliefs, but which also force me to re-examine some of those held beliefs.

The top of that list is always occupied by Machiavelli’s The Prince and that is immediately followed by an intriguing short story by Kurt Vonnegut entitled Harrison Bergeron.

I recommend this six-page yarn to anyone who seriously questions the directions any society can take if it seeks standardization through the sacrifice of individual achievement.

Email newsletter signup

And it seems to me that in the latter half of the Twentieth Century, there has been a gross misinterpretation of measures of “success” in our Nation including our educational institutions.

This notion becomes rather cumbersome if it means that as a consequence of “standardization” we intend to hold back those who would be successful in order for others who cannot be that successful to “catch up”, if you will.

And this is the theme in Harrison Bergeron.

In a capsule summary, the main character in Harrison Bergeron, his name, lives in some undesignated society in the year 2081.

That society is so bent on everyone being “equal” that those who are gifted are shackled with some sort of physical impediment which does not allow their gift to out perform others.

Hence, Harrison, a huge, handsome, articulate, intelligent and athletic young man, must wear extra weights to prevent him from being faster than his contemporaries.

You get the idea – no one is allowed to be better than anyone else.

The clamor for standardization seems to smack of this kind of perverse egalitarianism.

It is a kind of “one size fits all” application which leaves no one happy and everyone frustrated.

We hear of the creation of level playing fields through standardization, but ultimately performances framed by standardization do not really advance the progress of the human condition.

They simply dilute the ambition of those who would out perform others, and, at the same time, offer an illusion of “success” to those who could not advance were it not for this gross misapplication of created “standards”.

Still, this issue when applied to education is not new to controversy.

In 1939, Mortimer J. Adler, the noted American philosopher-educator, wrote an article entitled “The Crisis in Contemporary Education” in which he tackled this quandary – what price do we exact in providing an equal playing field for everyone, and what excellence is sacrificed as a consequence of this philosophy?

Is “standardization” truly what we seek when we set common exams and tests?

That is the question which plagues me.

And I know our Nation has thrived living under two seemingly antithetical locutions both of which hold great validity and great impact.

Those two locutions are the celebration of “individualism” and in a seemingly opposing posture the directive to “help thy neighbor.”

Their respective underpinnings do oppose each other, but this opposition has made us a stronger Nation, a more independent people, and a more introspective society.

Granted, some sort of social mechanism had to emerge which could protect the successes of some members of our society whose efforts had not been acknowledged for some reason other than their performance.

Should Jim Thorpe, for example, have had to forfeit his Olympic medals, or was his claimed “professionalism” really a function of his being a Native American with all the prejudicial implications of his day?

This might be a stretch, but I am concerned with the balance we must maintain between helping those who cannot help themselves and promoting the success of those who have clear gifts.

Do we really want to hold back the successful just so we can create a kind of mythical equalization?

Would it be fair to the runner who holds the world record in the 100 meter run to give him or her a starting line which was ten meters behind the starting line for other runners?

This it seems to me to be the quandary of standardization – do we really want to minimize the gifts of Jesse Owens so that others might do as well as he by creating an artificial start or finish to the race?

The challenge of education is to bring out the best in each of us based upon our own talents however extended or limited they may be, for it is in the individual success of each contestant in the human condition which continuously sets the higher benchmark to be reached.

Not the diluted standards designed to prevent anyone from achieving success.

But Felix Schelling (1858-1945), another American educator and scholar, has said far better than I.

Schelling observed, “True education makes for inequality: the inequality of success; the glorious inequality of talent, of genius; for inequality, not mediocrity, and individual superiority, not standardization, is the measure of progress in the world.”

Well, maybe it’s not a quandary after all!

Dr. Arthur G. Ogden is the Demopolis Campus Director of Alabama Southern Community College.

All his degrees are in philosophy.

He can be reached at