Elizabeth Scalia (aka The Anchoress) cites the case of Pete Hamill–author of over a dozen books, writer of a syndicated newspaper column and of countless essays and articles covering a broad range of subjects–who finally got around to getting a degree from the high school he dropped out of 59 years ago. “It was the last period when you could do that and still have a life,” Hamill told the New York Times.
We live in an era where a well-educated journalist can declare the Constitution to be “over a hundred years old” and therefore difficult to understand, and remain credibly employed; it does seem that credentials matter more than ability. Demonstrating that one is able to conform to curricula currently trumps boldness; seat hours in the auditorium count more than audacity.
I wonder if that’s really good for America, though. To become educated is a marvelous thing; to have the opportunity to study is a privilege too many take for granted. But have we become a society that places too much weight on the attainment of a diploma, which sometimes indicates nothing more than an ability to keep to a schedule and follow a syllabus, and underappreciates the ability to wonder, to strike out on an individual path, and to learn on one’s own?…to paraphrase Gregory of Nyssa, it’s the wondering that begets the knowing.
President Obama, in his State of the Union speech, asserted that “Over the next ten years, nearly half of all new jobs will require education that goes beyond a high school degree.” But…to the extent that this forecast is true…how many of these jobs will require post-high-school education merely because of the failure of the k-12 schools to teach what a high school graduate would normally have been expected to know a generation ago? How many of these require post-high-school education (college, usually) merely as a signaling device to manage the flood of resumes, rather than for any genuine knowledge need? These questions have been widely discussed, and a truly analytical and thoughtful leader would consider and address them as part of any planning/remarks on national education policy.
In a thread that mentions the poet Alfred Noyes (who wrote “The Highwayman” at 24), the Sibling of Daedalus wonders whether our societies are doing enough to encourage creative accomplishment at a young age. Excessive emphasis on credentials, I believe, tends to have the opposite effect.
Scalia also mentions James Taranto’s assertion that the venom directed at Sarah Palin is in part due to her lack of brand-name educational credentials. I don’t think there’s any doubt about this, and indeed have made the same argument myself. People who have invested many years and dollars in credentials often develop a sense of entitlement about the payoff to be expected from these credentials, and of when they see people succeeding without benefit of brand-name degrees, it does not make them happy. Surely status-anxiety in connection with the valuation of credentials is a key factor in the insane levels of hate and rage which Palin seems to provoke in so many.
UPDATE: See the tribute bearers and the tribute imposers, which contrasts the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly the Torah, with the legal order that predominated in the rest of the Near East at the time–with application to our current political and economic debates.
Not all of our obsessive credentialists are current or would-be tribute-imposers, but a lot of them are.