Never mind the fact that standards imply so much more than legal dictates and cultural norms, and that because “the way we do things” also encompasses familial customs and passed-down wisdom spanning ages, such a theoretical world would be practically impossible. If we were to philosophize, like the great post-Renaissance social contract thinkers, of an anarchic state of nature — where might made right and only the strongest survived — what would that look like?
Would employees run screaming through the halls like madmen? Would violence reign supreme? Would knowledge cease to be transmitted?
The fact is that standards, whether they be yardsticks, goals, benchmarks, criteria or requirements, exist to prevent the decay of society. It’s why the Common Core — that family of educational standards determined by state governors and top educators, and backed by the federal government that you will read about in the pages of this week’s JT — was both hailed and derided when it became a part of our national consciousness two years ago.
To those who champion a national set of educational standards, such a set of “need to know” items will ensure the graduation of teenagers equipped with the basic set of tools they need to survive in the real world. To those who oppose it, Common Core’s top-down universality is the seed to its own destruction. Even its critics recognize the need for standards; it’s just that they’d prefer to be the ones to determine them, thank you very much, not a governor of a state that doesn’t reflect their views.
Ultimately, the question of standards boils down not to one of existence, but to one of process: Who determines that which is acceptable, the standard to which everything else is to be judged? In the Jewish world, of course, the determination of communal, familial and individual codes of right and wrong can be traced back, as written in the beginning of Pirkei Avot, thousands of years to when the Jewish people were first grappling with the notions of peoplehood. The point is that, whether by view to tradition or to divine command, the Jewish way of setting standards keeps the focus away from the changing mores of the present. So when day schools wrestle with how exactly to implement — or whether to implement — the Common Core, they do so with a measure of humility and respect for how education has traditionally been handled in the Jewish world. Education, in this mindset, is meant to produce adults who, by virtue of their respect of their parents, teachers, traditions and God Himself, will be productive members of society. More important than how they approach a mathematical problem, this approach reasons, is how they approach questions of ethics, of raising children, of beautifying the world around them.
In this vein, it’s important to remember that “standard” can also refer to a flag, a physical embodiment of an idea higher than oneself. Were all of us to keep standards as ideals to aspire to, rather than requirements to be fulfilled, the world would probably be a much happier place.