Beware the American craze for college credentialing

The editors of the always-valuable n+1 have published a penetrating and damning assessment of what’s wrong with the craze for credentials that marks the American economic and educational landscape right now. It’s all the more valuable for putting the whole thing in long-historical perspective.

For the contemporary bachelor or master or doctor of this or that, as for the Ming-era scholar-bureaucrat or the medieval European guildsman, income and social position are acquired through affiliation with a cartel. Those who want to join have to pay to play, and many never recover from the entry fee.

…Over the last thirty years, the university has replaced the labor union as the most important institution, after the corporation, in American political and economic life. As union jobs have disappeared, participation in the labor force, the political system, and cultural affairs is increasingly regulated by professional guilds that require their members to spend the best years of life paying exorbitant tolls and kissing patrician rings. Whatever modest benefits accreditation offers in signaling attainment of skills, as a ranking mechanism it’s zero-sum: the result is to enrich the accreditors and to discredit those who lack equivalent credentials.

Jean Baudrillard once suggested an important correction to classical Marxism: exchange value is not, as Marx had it, a distortion of a commodity’s underlying use value; use value, instead, is a fiction created by exchange value. In the same way, systems of accreditation do not assess merit; merit is a fiction created by systems of accreditation. Like the market for skin care products, the market for credentials is inexhaustible: as the bachelor’s degree becomes democratized, the master’s degree becomes mandatory for advancement. Our elaborate, expensive system of higher education is first and foremost a system of stratification, and only secondly  – and very dimly — a system for imparting knowledge.

— “Death by Degrees,” n+1, June 19, 2012

Also see the essay’s recounting of how the modern-day medical training model, where a four-year bachelor’s degree is automatically followed by four years of medical school, was created in the 19th century for purposes of socioeconomic engineering to benefit the rich and powerful, and how this is the root of today’s stranglehold on American medicine by the AMA (whose vampire squid-like power the authors compare to Goldman Sachs):

[T]he AMA owes its authority to America’s most notorious robber barons, who invented philanthropy as we know it by establishing foundations capable of long-term, organized interventions in the country’s political and cultural life. The first foundations poured money into medical schools  —  but only if those schools followed the example set by Johns Hopkins, which in 1893 had introduced what’s now the standard formula: students attend four years of college, then four years of medical school. Institutions that didn’t follow this model did not get donations, and they also got denounced in a 1910 report sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation. After the Carnegie survey published its “findings,” scores of medical schools  —  schools whose students could not afford the additional years of study now required, and nearly all of the schools that admitted blacks and women — closed…The corporate-sponsored consolidation of the medical establishment changed undergraduate education from a choice to a necessity. Where once there was indifference, now there was demand: “I want to be a doctor when I grow up,” the child in the PSA says. “I want to go to college.”

This is powerful and disturbing stuff. As a way of widening the context, I think it’s not tangential to quote something Neil Postman wrote two decades ago about the arbitrary way that we in modern technological societies have come to view and do college:

Some technologies come in disguise. Rudyard Kipling called them “technologies in repose.” They do not look like technologies, and because of that they do their work, for good or ill, without much criticism or even awareness. This applies not only to IQ tests and to polls and to all systems of ranking and grading but to credit cards, accounting procedures, and achievement tests. It applies in the educational world to what are called “academic courses,” as well. A course is a technology for learning. I have “taught” about two hundred of them and do not know why each one lasts exactly fifteen weeks, or why each meeting lasts exactly one hour and fifty minutes. If the answer is that this is done for administrative convenience, then a course is a fraudulent technology. It is put forward as a desirable structure for learning when in fact it is only a structure for allocating space, for convenient record-keeping, and for control of faculty time. This point is that the origin and raison d’être for a course are concealed from us. We come to believe it exists for one reason when it exists for quite another. One characteristic of those who live in a Technopoly is that they are largely unaware of both the origins and the effects of their technologies.

— Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1993)

In light of our current credentialing craze, is it possible that not only the arbitrary custom or technology of the “college course” but the entire education system itself, from kindergarten to graduate school, is just like Postman describes? Is it a “fraudulent technology” whose origin and raison d’être are concealed from us, so that we believe it exists for one reason when in fact it exists for quite another?

Finally, let’s not forget what the great Jane Jacobs said in her final book, 2005’s Dark Age Ahead, when she called out for special criticism the American transformation of higher education into primarily a factory for issuing credentials. “Credentialing, not educating, has become the primary business of North American universities,” she wrote, and then she illustrated and analyzed this trend in considerable depth to show its relevance to her controlling thesis: that we in North America are facing the authentic possibility of a dark age, defined as a period of cultural amnesia and barbarism. “A dark age,” she wrote, “is a culture’s dead end…A culture is unsalvageable if stabilizing forces themselves become ruined and irrelevant. This is what I fear for our own culture.”

About Matt Cardin

Teeming Brain founder and editor Matt Cardin is the author of DARK AWAKENINGS, DIVINATIONS OF THE DEEP, A COURSE IN DEMONIC CREATIVITY: A WRITER'S GUIDE TO THE INNER GENIUS, and the forthcoming TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN. He is also the editor of BORN TO FEAR: INTERVIEWS WITH THOMAS LIGOTTI and the academic encyclopedias MUMMIES AROUND THE WORLD, GHOSTS, SPIRITS, AND PSYCHICS: THE PARANORMAL FROM ALCHEMY TO ZOMBIES, and HORROR LITERATURE THROUGH HISTORY.

Posted on July 5, 2012, in Education and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a Comment.

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