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Credentialism in our ignorant society
A summary of this paper, along with my thoughts.
Link to paper: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED053645.pdf
Author : Michael Marien
Date: April 30- May 1 1971
Title: Credentialism in our ignorant society
Theme: Credentials and its relationship with meritocracy
Michael Marien prepared a paper in 1971 for the Educational Staff Seminar on Alternatives in Post Secondary Education, Syracuse University Research Corporation, New York, April 30-May 1. In it he argued that the execution of meritocracy in America fails to live up to the theory of meritocracy as it is rooted in credentialism. He argued that unlike other industries credentialism has experienced little to no regulation, citing the observation as obscure given that it is the core mechanism behind social ordering. His concern was highlighted by the belief that our current social selection process would lead to serious problems as we entered into a *‘knowledge society’ which he believed could account for ‘one-half of the total national product by the end of the decade’ (1980’s).
His argument can be summarised into 6 points:
Artificial demand in education — An over reliance on credentials as ‘proof of ability’ coupled with higher education’s monopoly on credentials has led to an artificial demand in education. This may lead to a distaste for self learning due to its lack of credential, which is an important skill individuals will need in their life.
Artificial constraint in learning — Access to higher education credentials are dependent on having some level of credential beforehand (e.g a high school diploma). Even though there is no shortage of resources to educate these individuals, this limits their access to higher educational opportunities.
Overlooking obsolescence — A shift into a knowledge society decreases the time span in which a credential is valuable. In other words, credentials proving a skill 2 years ago may be meaningless today for one of two reasons :
Nobody values the skill
The definition of ‘good’ in regards to the skill may have changed significantly
However society is still operating on the principle that a credential is valid proof of someone’s ability for the majority of their working life, leading to a form of rent seeking.
4. Generational Inversion — The young have a strong advantage over the old in that they now have ways to prove skills the older generation may have otherwise learnt but acquired no formal credential to prove. In other words access to these credentials are skewed towards the young, which affects equality of opportunity.
5. Artificial social class — Not all credentials are equal, and the idea that they are is ‘pseudo-egalitarian’. There is a caste system amongst the ‘credentialed’ and the ‘credentialed’ in relation to the ‘non credentialed’. He err’s toward the argument that the variation amongst the ‘credentialed’ may almost be as big as the variation between the ‘credentialed’ and ‘non credentialed’.
6. The myth of the well educated society — Using the number of degree holders and the level to which they are educated (credentialled) is a vanity metric. We should not assume that because we have more credentialled persons today and we know more than yesterday that we are ‘progressing’ as a society. Rather we should set objective standards and measure ourselves in relation to that, if we do we may find that we are actually underperforming and therefore not progressing regardless of relative progress made.
He believed a genuine meritocracy could only be achieved if ‘credentials reflect abilities for all persons at all places and at all times’. He cites 3 possible routes to achieve this type of meritocracy:
Constant renewal of examinations and diplomas, complemented by an evolving definition of merit
Abandonment of all use of credentials (examinations included too) and focus solely on job performance. The only important piece of data collected from schools would be a student’s ability to learn as that would ensure constant access to opportunity.
A mixture of 1 & 2, where we would measure any and everything, valuing all types of talents alongside a level of constant examination. He referred to this type of meritocracy as ‘multi-level’ meritocracy where ‘merit’ does not have a narrow definition, excellence can be recognised across different skills and the option to ‘advance’ yourself will always be available.
Things I found interesting:
Given that this was written in 1971 and the internet only began to gain real traction in the 1980’s I was extremely impressed by his foresight, given how fundamental it is to our current knowledge economy.
His point made on artificial learning was interesting as the problem has been somewhat solved through online education (no prior credential is needed to learn what you want to learn). Taking the software industry for example, being a self taught developer is extremely common. Had this gatekeeping not been solved how would that have affected the software industry and where would we be today?
His caution around the myth of a ‘well educated society’ was of particular interest now, especially as more research and questioning is being done around our speed of progress.
Things I disagreed on:
That a level of regulation is needed within credentialism. Having governments regulate this mechanism could introduce bad incentives and slow movement. Imagine if the government had a say in how software engineers should be ‘recognised’? I don’t believe we would be where we are today.
That a future without credentials is a viable solution. I do not see a future where we do not organise people based on the properties of credentials, nor do I think it is possible. As humans we will always need (and choose) an easy way to identify a person’s ability, performance or potential in order to ‘place’ them. Before educational credentials we used wealth and social status, the point being that there will always be something. Trying to change human nature is a battle that shouldn’t be attempted. Instead we should focus on creating the right incentives for them to want to change. Usually this requires a solution that provides a strong enough selfish reason for the individual to want to change solutions. The needed solution may not look like a credential, but it will have all the properties of a credential.
Things I agreed on:
A real meritocracy requires equality of opportunity at all points in time. Although credentials have helped distribute opportunity to those who otherwise would not have access to it, it does this too few times in an individual’s life, creating a ‘one shot’ problem. In other words, people have ‘one shot’ to get access to an opportunity and failure to do so sets them on a path that is hard to correct or change.
His description of solution 3 was not entirely clear to me but it is the one I agreed with the most on an abstract level. A mixture of constant assessment and measurement of an individual would look like constant measurement of ability and performance from my point of view. The assessments would capture ability (what are all the skills the person has right now) and performance would capture the effectiveness of particular skills currently being exercised. As credentials at their core are used to predict ability and performance, direct access to this data (constant measurement of ability and performance) would make credentials in their current form obsolete. How he proposes to combine the signalling properties of credentials with this data is not clear to me, but I have some ideas of my own!
Questions for myself (and anyone who cares about this problem)
His point on generational inversion was something I had never thought deeply about before. It never occurred to me that skills acquired over time may suffer from lack of traditional ‘proof’. It’s unclear to what extent this is true and how deeply it affects older workers, but it is still a question worth exploring.
If the problems of our current version of a meritocracy were highlighted in 1971 along with possible solutions then why has nothing been done so far?
What tools and concepts today could actualise the proposed solutions?
Whose role is it to actualise these solutions (government or private companies)?
What are the major downfalls of constant measurement of ability and performance?
Is there a relationship between credentialism and progress and if so what does it look like?
Where should we be as a society, where are we now in relation to that and did the use of credentials as a metric play a role?
What are the major differences between meritocracy and multi-level meritocracy?
Has credentialism negatively affected our self learning abilities, and if so what was the larger effect of this?
*where the various sources of employment depending on the production and utilisation of knowledge
As always feel free to DM on twitter (@adaobiadibe_) me if you would like to discuss this topic further. If you would like to engage in more discussions about credentials, meritocracy and talent identification join the community here https://discord.gg/9wHqf45