"The idea that you are a faceless cog in a benevolent system that cares about you and can't tell particularly whether you are worth a day's pay or not, is, like it or not, over." So wrote Seth Godin a few days ago.
There's a lot in this - and not just about work. We are, each and every one of us, unique. The way we look, the way we think, the way we dress, the way we work, the way we play - we are unique.
At first, I wondered if this was something that we did to ourselves - do we each need the comfort of being a cog because standing out makes us uneasy? Or are there other forces at play? (And if there are, how long have they been "playing" with us?)
In my limited experience, most parents of young children look to correlate their child's progress to published norms. They want to make sure s/he is at the right percentile physically, behaviorally, and intellectually. They may want their child to be at the "upper" end of the scale, but "normal" is just fine. Even the doctor's goal is to map every child to an expected norm.
Once in school, the measures become more tangible since we explicitly assess performance vs. set of pre-defined standards/expectations. We should of course note that these standards most closely resemble the management structure that Henry Ford implemented to build his Model T with one notable and evil addition.
Success for Ford was setting a standard of consistent, prolific production - millions of cars, all identical in quality, capability and performance. At that same time, kids were "institutionalized" to both manage the child labor problem and create lots of future factory workers. The schools adopted a similar approach to standards, with the shared goal of burping out millions of children, all identical and drone-like in knowledge and skill.
As factories have become a smaller and smaller part of the employment base, the need for hoards of similarly-skilled workers has also fallen. Whilst "they" do pay lip service to the idea that each child is unique and must be treated in accordance with their specific needs, capabilities and potential, actions speak louder than words. And just as in the 19th century, schools continue to have one standard, one set of assessments, one curriculum, and one teaching approach.
Even the latest "innovations" in learning embrace this idea of normed achievement. You might know that Common Core Standards were published on June 1 (2010), and have been heralded as a tremendous step forward for American education. As ever, success according to "them" is about burping out hoards of like-minded and like-abled drones. The only thing that's changed is type of drone. How sad.
The evil addition? The Bell Curve. In an attempt to patch the genericness, many schools (still) grade on a curve so they can normalize the results and create an achievement blend (say 20% great, 70% average, 10% poor).
In essence, we're assuming that everyone contributes (and must contribute) in an equal way - that there is only one meaningful measure of attainment as a student, and that nothing else matters. If a student doesn't measure up, it's the student's failing, and like at Henry Ford's plant, those cars don't graduate to the showroom. But unlike Ford (and this is the evil part), the curve implies that we can only have so much greatness; the rest of you are (whether you are or not), normal or failing.
Ironically, this implicitly limits a school's ability to graduate more than the specified number of great students, or less than the specified number of failing students!
As Seth pointed out, norming doesn't end when students graduate. The world of work is also normed - from recruiting to training ("on-boarding") to performance management - most organizations operate on the basis that all employees in a given level or role stratum are essentially equal; their contribution should be compared relatively, and they should be graded on a curve (a zero-sum game).
In each instance, we've bizarrely ignored our real and true instincts. When a child is born, it is (and forever will be) the most beautiful person their parents know. Their light will shine above all others, and remain brightest ...forever. When a parent looks at their child in school, some part of them has to want them to be the best, perhaps not the best of all, but certainly the best of themselves.
Surely every teacher, every principal, every minister of education wishes their education system to be the best, that it not be limited by any norm, but rather perform with excellence and graduate brilliant students. Surely there's no such thing as a good (and successful) business leader who aspires to not suck, or to not lose, or to be average, or not rise above the fray?
So if these leaders all expect the best of themselves and their organizations, how do they justify embracing standards that require the people they serve or the people they employ to be merely average? Seth is urging us to rebel against the system, to proclaim individuality in the face of facelessness.