Credentialists Gone Wild

(updated 1/28)

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.

12 thoughts on “Credentialists Gone Wild”

  1. Part of the problem is the fact that employers are no longer able to use IQ testing, or anything like it, to sort applications.

    My father-in-law was head of public relations for Hughes Aerospace for 20 years. He had not finished college before he went into the army in World War II. After he came home, he got a job and never went back to school. As part of his job, he spent a lot of time with math and science PhDs. The president of the company had a Physics PhD. Once in a while, someone would ask him where he went to college. His reply was that he had not finished the 8th grade. They were invariably hugely impressed. He was also a colonel in the Army Reserve.

    Many years later, after he retired, he went back to school and finished his BS in History at age 85.

  2. I think that part of the problem is that credentials are too expensive to achieve. I would trust someone to have a high school education in mathematics if he can clear the kahn academy exercise board. If he had a high school diploma, I’d honestly question it more. When we get widely accepted credentials that can be quickly and cheaply achieved, I think we’re going to see the end of the uncredentialed left out of society.

  3. Aptitude tests in employment are not absolutely banned, contrary to what many believe in the wake of the famous (infamous?) Griggs vs Duke Power court decision of 1970. It IS necessary to be cautious..odds of avoiding trouble will be much better if the test is clearly job-related, is used systematically with all applicants, and is statistically validated.

    For a high % of professional business positions, aptitude tests are of limited value anyhow. I don’t think there is any set of tests that would do a good job in capturing more than a fairly small % of the attributes to be expected of a Product Marketing Manager, an Executive Assistant for a senior exec, or a Research Scientist who is expected to do seriously creative work. Interviewing skills on the part of the manager doing the hiring are key.

  4. I wonder about this myself – about how much some expensive credentials are worth, when it comes to just getting a job done. I’ve had the experience now and again, of going to book-talks (about my own books) and holding my own in knowledge historical, against all sorts of people with very much more exalted formal academic credentials than my own. Which go no farther than a BA in English from a state uni that practically no one has ever heard of, and some post-graduate courses in public administration from another state uni that no one has ever heard of.
    Thank god there is no entrance qualification for those who want to write historical fiction … except that of being able to write entertaining prose, of course.

  5. Credentials are part of the conceit, but this seems just another facet of the general disdain for work and commerce expressed by hereditary nobility, from Medieval times to the present day. This disdain captures what I take as the core of Codevilla’s Ruling Class v. Country Class formulation.

    The fatal weakness of a society infected with this attitude was captured succinctly almost a century ago:

    “The real argument against aristocracy is that it always means the rule of the ignorant. For the most dangerous of all forms of ignorance is ignorance of work.”
    — G.K. Chesterton, 1918


    — WH

  6. I have a neighbor with a successful architectural company, yet he doesn’t have a degree in architecture. He got the knowledge by experience working in architecture firms until he was able to start his own business.

    Never underestimate the power of the human spirit!!

    We put way too much emphasis in our country on education and credentials over experience. And, yes folks, this is coming from a teacher, herself! A teacher whose Master’s degree meant nothing when moving to a new state to teach. Do you what got me the job??? Passing the state test, and paying $600. After this I got the state “certification” that basically said, “Ok, you’ve jumped through our hoop, we’ll now let you be employed.” I’m dismayed that a degree I worked very hard for, not to mention scrimped to pay for, really means nothing in terms of attaining a teaching job. In fact, my Master’s degree has been a detriment because on salary schedules I cost a district more money, and have thus been rejected by some.

    People will say, “Yes, but with a Master’s degree, you can teach at the college level.” True, but with a Master’s degree I qualify for what is called an “Adjunct” position. Part-time, usually no benefits, and less pay than a public school teacher makes. Boy, howdy, that degree sure helped me!!

    I would support higher education and post-secondary credentialing if I saw more evidence that our society supported it. The President stated that half the jobs in the future would need an education beyond high school, but he wants ALL kids to go to college. Why? When there aren’t enough jobs out there to support their educational level??

  7. Mary, about that architect neighbor of yours.

    I am in a similar situation: have been working in architectural companies for 16 years (I am a commercial interior designer) and I can be reasonably sure in telling you this: someone without a graduate degree in architecture has no chances to become a Registered Architect, which in itself consist of 9 exams in several aspects of practice that require years of preparation while working full-time (and cost an arm and a leg, too).

    Without those magical R.A. after one’s name an architect has severely diminished access to projects. Certainly he/she can not be eligible to bid for any job that requires filing in local Department of Buildings (he/she has no right to Seal), be it residential or commercial.

    Some go around this obstacle by completing the job anyway and then hiring an R.A. architect to seal the sheets of Construction Documents set with their stamp – w/o even looking into the matter. I hear, some RA turn this hiring out of their seal into a good steady income…

  8. A few years back I looked into changing career paths. I looked at architecture, law, and reluctantly, an MBA program.

    I noticed that the main thing they seem to signal is corporate backing or bottomless pockets. It is sometimes argued that a degree is useful to a hiring entity as a rough filter of ability, but is that what it actually signals?

    I don’t mean to sound populist, but it does concern me that we have a system which is heavily tilted not just to the advantage of the wealthy, but almost exclusively so. Had I the resources to invest in one of these programs (possible exception of MBA) I wouldn’t invest it there. I’d set up a decently diversified portfolio and retire. (I very seriously wish I’d known to do that with the resources I spent on my undergraduate degree, but I guess I did learn something from it… kind of like touching a hot stove.)

    I was appalled at how easy it was to use the figures published by one school to show the ROI on the investment in their MBA was less than inflation. What does it say when a business school advertises their great ROI and then publishes figures which give it the lie? Another school tried to tell me that both their undergrad business program and their MBA program had 100% employment rates at graduation.

    So, what does the credential signal? I’d say it tells you the person holding a graduate degree in one of these areas is either wealthy, corporate sponsored, can’t do the math to see it will never pay off, or all three.

    How long is it between embarking on a career in architecture and your first pay check? When I looked into it, the answer appeared to be about 10-12 years. I found this very difficult to believe and still do.

  9. John,

    No, 10-12 years for getting a first check in the profession is not right. You can get your first check while working as part-time draftsman in architectural firm while being in grad school. But if you mean “first check as Registered Architect” – 12 years is a close estimate…it could be more.

  10. Along the lines of over-stressing the importance of credentials, is continuing education requirements.

    Now in some professions, such as health care, I can see the need due to research and changes in technology. But others, I’m not so sure, specifically teaching, which I can comment on until the cows go home.

    I did some research on what Texas (state I live in) requires in order to maintain a license, and/or certificate. Here are the results.

    These are required continuing education hours per year for these professions:

    Dentists and Dental Hygienist-12
    Tax Return Preparer-15
    Doctor, MD-24

    Interesting, isn’t it?

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