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This, too, shall pass maybe

The once seemingly brilliant idea may not be we're suckers for fads. Trouble is, most fads don't cause kids to vomit, hate school, and believe that they don't measure up, that they're failures.

By Victor Greto

Remember the hula hoop, Cabbage Patch kids, the Macarena?

How about the "new math," multiple personality disorder, cold fusion?

More recently, you might wonder whatever happened to low-carb dieting.

And how about the testing frenzy in schools based on the "No Child Left Behind" federal law? Will this go the same way as teaching the metric system?

They're all fads or maybe soon-to-be fads mentioned or analyzed in University of Delaware professor Joel Best's latest book, "Flavor of the Month: Why Smart People Fall for Fads" (University of California Press, $19.95).

Best, chairperson of the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice, also wrote "Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists," which explains how numbers can be exaggerated or skewed.

"Americans love the idea that we're doing everything wrong and we've got to fix it," Best said, explaining why we're suckers for fads of all kinds.

While he mentions very visible trends -- beanie babies, cell phones, streaking -- he focuses much of his book on social and institutional movements such as school testing and workplace management theories.

"The American belief in progress, perfectibility, revolution and rationality," he writes, "reflects our experiences with change and make us more willing to consider new ideas."

This can be both fun and embarrassing -- say, actually enjoying pet rocks or CB radios. Or it can have a small cost -- choosing to buy the 8-track player instead of the cassette player, or a Betamax video player instead of VHS.

But enthusiastically climbing onto the latest institutional bandwagons can cost an organization much time, money and effort, Best says.

Anyone whose ever been close to an office cubicle knows that every couple of years or so, management -- no matter the company, no matter the institution, no matter the matter -- will become excited about some Dilbert-like idea that claims to revolutionize the way people do what they do.

Most of these "flavors of the month" -- "total quality management," "business process engineering," "Six Sigma" -- eventually die, but not before a great deal of time and money has been invested in them.

Best's books examine the "emerging, surging and purging" cycle of these institutional fads. He offers common-sense tools to help prevent you from being a sucker or wasting your employer's time and money.

The way to inhibit herd mentality is to practice a natural skepticism, recall the cycles of previous fads, and insist on evidence that proves whatever the fad contends, Best said.

But you also need to balance skepticism. Some things once considered fads -- wristwatches, for instance -- become an accepted part of everyday life.

If it's interesting looking at past fads, it's fascinating to consider whether we're in the middle of one. Take the yearly, numbing alarms claiming the American educational system is going to hell in a handbasket, always accompanied by various solutions that claim to revolutionize the field.

"There's an incredible nostalgia for the past, particularly in education," Best said. "We have a long history of people insisting that American schools are on the verge of collapse."

Which is curious, he said, because, "How can you argue things have gotten worse, when, 100 years ago, the life expectancy was under 50, and only about 8 percent graduated high school?"

Best points to the current testing mania. Interest in testing has been propelled by constant media coverage. It's become a high-stakes game -- the kid doesn't graduate if he doesn't pass, the school doesn't get federal funds if it doesn't pass, the state can take over a system that fails.

That kind of media coverage feeds the initial high of many fads.

But it's too early to decide whether high-stakes testing will be a fad, say Best and Robert Birnbaum, of the University of Maryland, who wrote a book about management fads in higher education.

"Fads are defined after the fact," Birnbaum say.

As long as kids are taking tests, the real impact isn't known and the movement can't really be labeled, Best and Birnbaum say.

But there are some signs that testing could be a fad, Birnbaum said.

"A lot of places are now finding that the tests they're using can't be implemented, or they have deleterious effects," he said, so some schools are changing standards.

In terms of a solution, that's cheating, he said.

But it's also typical of the track record of some fads.

Best cites the D.A.R.E. drug-abuse prevention program in schools as an institutional effort that has persisted despite evidence that it doesn't work. Faced with that evidence, administrators have changed or fine-tuned many of the program's precepts, but they still believe in it and hope they'll find a way to make it work, Best says. And under Best's definitions, D.A.R.E. can't be called a fad because it's continuing to evolve.

High-stakes testing may be saved from becoming a fad in the same way.

However, Best thinks high-stakes testing has "failure built into it."

"The standards are such that you can predict with near certainty that a growing proportion of schools will be found failing with each passing year," he said. "It will eventually collapse under its own rhetoric."

The 'war on terror'

Ben Aguirre, another UD professor of sociology, calls another current movement a fad-in-the-making: the fixation on homeland security.

"That has become perhaps one of the most important institutional fads that we ever experienced in the country," Aguirre said. He said the "war on terror," with the billions of dollars poured into it "has revolutionary implications. Our public funding has been affected."

Aguirre said that Best's book helps us understand how this has happened, because Best's book is "an extended commentary on the impact on existing power arrangements in institutions of society in terms of their ability to influence culture."

The fixation on homeland security illustrates one of the most effective means of propelling an emerging fad, Best said.

"We live in a world where lots of people try to find things for us to worry about ... and one of the most compelling kinds is a threat," he said.

Just recently, he pointed out, a study commissioned by the National Institute of Mental Health created a medical category for road rage.

The report called it Intermittent Explosive Disorder, which, it said, affects 7.3 percent of adult Americans.

"Rage disorder" may go the way of the "multiple personality disorder,"which, Best asserts in his book, people don't take seriously anymore.

Best doesn't predict the future. But he does know one thing for sure.

There will be other disorders lined up to take their place.


— Victor Greto
The News Journal


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