Forces of Normalcy

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I always cringe when I hear the term “best practices,” which I think are hard to differentiate from habits. I’ve not seen much evidence of rigor in assessing the “best” in that term. It just seems to be a nice name for a kind of recipe swapping in which people take a solution from one context and apply it to another.

The world of best practices represent endless forces arrayed against change in higher education, even as calls for change are loud. Let’s look at one comprehensive state college in the northeast, about 10,000 students. Institutionally, they’re accredited by their regional oversight body. But that’s just the beginning.

This is a school with 28 undergrad and 19 master’s degree programs. And those individual programs are accredited by 25 different disciplinary or professional bodies:

  1. Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology
  2. American Association for Health Education
  3. American Chemical Society
  4. American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages
  5. Association for Childhood Education International
  6. Aviation Accreditation Board International
  7. Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs
  8. Commission on Accreditation of Athletic Training Education
  9. Council for Exceptional Children
  10. Council on Social Work Education
  11. Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs
  12. Educational Leadership Constituent Council
  13. Federal Aviation Administration
  14. International Reading Association
  15. International Society for Technology in Education
  16. Interstate Agreement for Educator Licensure
  17. National Association for the Education of the Young Child
  18. National Association of Schools of Music
  19. National Association of Schools of Art and Design
  20. National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration
  21. National Council for the Social Studies
  22. National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education/Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation
  23. National Council of Teachers of English
  24. National Council of Teachers of Mathematics
  25. Society for Health and Physical Educators

That’s 25 organizations whose job is to aim for normalcy, to make sure that the franchises don’t get too far away from the McDonalds operation manual. And that makes sense when mobility is the norm, when more than half of college students transfer from one school to another and when disciplines control faculty hiring. Standardized products are more easily taught and more easily traded, commodities broadly accepted. (We’ll talk more later about the aptness of the term “commodity” when dealing with higher ed, the perfect counter-concept to the life of the mind we hope to foster.)

For higher education to really change, we’ll have to break the iron grip of the disciplines and their societies, to allow for far more creativity and variation in the design of curricula and of student experience. We need more schools that are commonly demeaned as “boutique operations,” instead of more franchises of the big-box brands. As E. F. Schumacher put it, small IS beautiful.