As part of the trend in assessment and standardization, some university bureaucrats have begun pushing for standardized classes with standardized texts. In general, they do not take the view that they, the non-teaching administrators, should decide what books are used in classes. Rather, the plan is to have departments standardize certain classes in terms of the textbook and content.
To be fair, this proposal has certain merits. First, there are some classes that are aimed at providing a general content that will be needed in the major or in other classes that follow. Standardization can help ensure that such content is provided and that the students are thus prepared for later classes. Second, most schools have a general education curriculum that is supposed to provide a core education. As with the classes in the major, standardizing such classes can help ensure that the students receive the education they need. Third, having standardized classes will simplify things for the faculty, students and the book sellers.
Despite these merits, this proposal has serious flaws. First, there is the matter of academic freedom. One critical aspect of the university system is that the professors have a degree of autonomy and this includes the right to select the material that will be taught. Obviously, professors need to stick within certain rational guidelines. But as long as a professor is doing a competent job, there seems little reason to take away such freedom of choice. An essential part of the intellectual environment is the clash of ideas. Mandated standardization conflicts with this essential part of academics.
Second, students often seek out professors who teach specific material and hence standardizing classes would also restrict their freedom of choice in this matter.
Third, there is the fact that some faculty write text books and hence there would be the potential for a conflict of interest as well as conflict between faculty. For example, if the chair happens to have a text on the market, s/he might be sorely tempted to make it the standard text. As another example, multiple faculty members might have different books out there for sale, thus leading to conflict in regards to which gets adopted.
Fourth, each professor tends to have his/her own style and strengths and they tend to pick texts that match these qualities. For example, one professor might be well versed in the the varieties of feminist ethics and hence select a book with more readings in that area. Another professor might prefer a more informal approach to logic than another and hence select a book that is more informal (and perhaps less dull to the students).
Fifth, if someone is qualified to teach a class, then that person should be qualified to select a suitable text and teach an adequate class. If this is not the case, then standardization will not really solve that problem. After all, in the standardized scenario there would merely be an incompetent person doing a terrible job trying to follow a standard plan. While this might be somewhat better than an incompetent person following his/her own incompetent plan, it would still be a serious problem. To use an analogy, it would be like saying that the solution to bad drivers getting into accidents is to make sure that everyone has the same car to drive. That would hardly solve the true problem. The solution would be to replace someone who is incompetent with someone who can do the job properly.
Obviously, I’m opposed to standardization. I do, however, agree that faculty are obligated to do a competent job at providing the education students need. Honesty compels me to say that not all faculty do this and that is a problem. But this problem can be solved without imposing standardization on the faculty. The solution, as noted above, is to deal with incompetence and failings directly.