The Credential-less Society

Via @traxus4420, I find a piece that is basically the opposite of my ontological analysis of academia: a call for the abolition of credentials. One of the most fascinating things about it is that it comes from the late 70s, but feels very timely.

What do you think, readers? If you do decide to comment, be sure to scan over it, skip to the end, and pass hasty judgment based on the general category of writing you believe it to belong to — life’s too short to read attentively.

4 thoughts on “The Credential-less Society

  1. Why Adam, you have discovered my technique!

    This is a great article, as it is prima facie well thought-through. I’m not convinced that “credential abolitionism” would work for practical reasons as it would require near unthinkable changes.

    There is a passage that I find particularly telling, as I am tempted to agree with it:

    ” Humanistic culture has become very nearly the exclusive province of professional teachers of the humanities, and they themselves have turned their subjects from cultural ends to be created and enjoyed in themselves into the mere basis of a currency of numbers of publications on a professional vitae by which their careers in academic bureaucracies are made.”

    In my view, at the system-level, humanities academia is being crushed by the weight of its own habits, driven by systemic effects rather than wise decisions.

  2. “This does not mean abolishing the schools, but it does mean returning them to a situation where they must support themselves by their own intrinsic products rather than by the currency value of their degrees. Legally, this would mean abolishing compulsory school requirements and making formal credential requirements for employment illegal.”

    This is nuts. There’s no need to make it illegal for your company to hire another company to see whether the person you are thinking of hiring is competent at something. That’s basically what credentialing is. You make widgets. You need to hire an accountant. There’s a business whose model is certifying that certain people are competent to do accountancy. There is no earthly reason why you should be legally forbidden from using the services of this credentialing business. Why should you have to be in the making-widgets-and-making-sure-accountants-can-do-their-job business, rather than the plain old widgets business? Makes no sense

    That said, the general points made in the linked piece are mostly valid and important, and collectively undercut the points you made in your piece. Credentials aren’t what people want. They want competence. Credentials are a proxy measure. Whenever anyone adopts a proxy measure, people start gaming the system. (Most perniciously, credentialing allows people to form cartels and guilds and so forth, excluding competent people the credentialed class would just as soon not have to compete with. That’s the ‘credential fascism’ the author is clearly really worried about, and it’s a real worry–even if ‘fascism’ is a bit too alarming.) There’s just no final fix for this problem. Credentials are a quick and dirty solution to an information problem. But, unfortunately, they’re quick and dirty, as solutions go. The thing not to do, then, is the thing you sort of did: put credentialing – grading – on a pedestal. It’s a kludge, not an essence. A proxy, not the point.

    Your focus on the performative nature of grade-giving shows where you are going wrong. Suppose your marriage is on the rocks and you go to a counselor and are thusly reassured: ‘obviously you are felicitiously married. The illocutionary act performed by the priest was felicitious.’ That’s true, as far as it goes, but hardly to the point. Insofar as there is a crisis in academia, focusing on grading as a speech act seems, likewise, not to the point. The social arrangements that go with the speech acts have to be healthy, or at least non-dysfunctional ones. If academia is the Titanic, about to go down, rearranging the Austinian deckchairs won’t help. By contrast, if the Titanic is not going down, rearranging the deckchairs might be a good idea, if a happier arrangement suggests itself. You are, in effect, pointing out where there is likely to be room for improvement, assuming there’s no crisis. Better grading, if we can figure out how to do it.

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