Joe Henrich gave an interesting talk at the 2009 Emory University Center for Mind, Brain, and Culture Symposium on The Evolution of Brain, Mind and Culture. Professor Henrich studies the co-evolution of culture and the human species (I found the podcast on iTunes.)
One point in his talk particularly gave me cause to ponder. In Prof. Henrich’s thesis, society evolved, humans became more sociable, they shared more information, and grew bigger brains to hold all that new information. The information became too much for single brains to hold, so we had the first division of knowledge, that held by the female brain, and that held by the male brain (with lots of overlapping, of course). As societies became more complex, different trades appeared, and society was able to retain even more knowledge, because those of one trade could keep knowledge related to their trade, and other tradesmen knowledge related to their trades.
I thought about how this might apply to current trends in education. The No Child Left Behind Act sought to bring accountability to education, and one of the main ways to bring this about was through standardized testing. Standardization means that to a large degree, everyone learns the same thing, so they can be compared against each other, we can tell which teachers and programs are effective, and we can maintain accountability.
But this standardization is contrary to the development which Prof. Henrich notes is part of the evolution of societies he studies. If we all learn the same things, collectively we know less than if different individuals or groups of individuals learn different things. Standardization of testing leads to standardization of teaching, and of learning, and leads to a dumbing down of the overall society. This cannot be beneficial to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.