Power Brokers In The Credential Society: Another View From Within

by Crawford Kilian

Prof. Kilian's article was reproduced in the Internet newsgroup "misc.education" in 1993, and that version of the article is reproduced here without editing. He gave me permission to post it many years ago, and I hope his permission is still good. His website is at http://crofsblogs.typepad.com

Copyright 1993 by Crawford Kilian.

I published the following article in the fall 1993 issue of Vancouver Review. In the light of the discussion on "Schools and the Anti-Culture," some people may find it helpful.

We educators enjoy entirely too much power over students and society, and we should give up a great deal of it. We wield our power because we set the terms for everyone's entry into the working world: we can give or withhold a piece of paper called a diploma or degree--a credential.

Lewis Perelman raises the issue of credentialism in a recent book called School's Out: Hyperlearning, the New Technology and the End of Education. Perelman argues that as long as you must have an academic degree or diploma to get a decent job, the education system has you over a barrel.

To the extent that we educators think about it at all, it's only to rejoice that God has so wisely given us the barrel. The rest of the population is less delighted with this divine ordinance, but they accept it without question. Belief in the value of a piece of paper is so ingrained that most people consider credentialism a solution instead of a problem.

The problem with dropouts, after all, is not that they're incompetent; the problem is that they don't have their grade 12 diploma. The problem with post-secondary education is that too many people can't get in to obtain a degree. Too many others fail to complete their BA, MA or PhD; despite their expensive schooling they don't qualify for challenging jobs. (However, their incomplete education may "overqualify" them for joe jobs.) So millions of North Americans scramble for some kind of certification, at immense personal and financial cost.Ironically, the increase in numbers of high school and college graduates has devalued their achievement. High school graduation once qualified young people for all kinds of work; by 1965 or so, it was just a ticket for further training. A bachelor's degree, in the last decade or so, has suffered similar devaluation; many new BA's go right back to school to acquire either an advanced degree or certifiable job training. As each piece of paper becomes less helpful, another piece of paper becomes essential.

Like nations caught up in an arms race they can't afford, young people must now compete furiously with one another to qualify for the next stage of their education. Many must commit the entire first third of their lives to the schooling they need for high-income employment; they need the high income so they can pay back their enormous schooling-induced debts. They and their families must sacrifice to afford the cost of study, and the whole society must tax itself heavily to subsidize the hundreds of thousands who--without a credential--would be unemployable. They are often unemployable in any case.

Nevertheless, governments foster ever more belief in credentialism. Official reports predict that for the foreseeable future, new jobs will require 17 years' formal schooling--the equivalent of a master's degree. Politicians warn of the dire consequences of high-school dropouts, of uncompleted college educations. Everyone wants to reduce dropouts and increase high school graduation rates, which would of course lead to still more people entering post-secondary.

Surprisingly, the politicians never mention the staggering cost increases that would follow such success. When 9,496 students dropped out of BC schools in 1991-92, they saved taxpayers $60 million in per-pupil grants for 1992-93. Had those dropouts all stayed in and graduated, about 2,000 of them would have joined the throngs already fighting for seats in BC's overcrowded colleges and universities.

The supposed reason for all this schooling is to equip people for jobs, as if employers were desperately seeking credentialled workers to feed a booming economy. Yet though we seemingly need advanced education to stay competitive, our credentialled workers are manifestly incapable of sustaining prosperity. In 1988 alone, Canadian universities awarded almost 3,000 master's and doctor's degrees in commerce; those graduates have spent most of their careers under recession conditions. Another 3,000 received advanced degrees in education that year, and never has the public been less happy with the schools than in the last five years.

Credentialism is not an innate flaw in education, but a result of the misuse we have made of it. Post-secondary education in particular should be dedicated to the pursuit of scholarship for its own sake--whether in high-energy physics, biology or Chaucer. But we have made scholarship (better said, the certified pretence of it) into a prerequisite for utterly unrelated kinds of work outside the academy, and credentialism is the result.

The scholars themselves have cooperated in this abuse of their calling. Floods of state-subsidized students bring in money for research, for teaching assistants, for secretaries, for offices and labs and travel. In return, scholars must teach large numbers of young people who could not care less about their subjects. A few students may be potentially good apprentice scholars, but finding them is a tedious business. Teaching well enough to attract such apprentices is even more tedious.

To ease the apprentice-spotting process, the scholars pressure the public schools to improve academic standards--regardless of the impact on ordinary, non-scholarly young people who just want to make a footnote-free living. Perelman observes that today's education is really just vocational training for the job of college professor; yet we make everyone train for it.

Consider an analogy. We have decided to give the best jobs and highest prestige to accomplished 100-meter sprinters. Track coaches find themselves awash in money, but only if they accept countless students who can barely stagger. The coaches have to work with swarms of young stumblers in Remedial Walking, all the while proclaiming "Excellence in Sprinting." (The junior coaches, that is; the senior coaches are away at conferences on track surfacing, locker-room design, and sprinter self-esteem.)

With their enhanced incomes at stake, coaches soon find ways to pass even their hopeless students. Special educational stopwatches run slow, giving plodders a chance to sprint to glory. Educators debate the exact definition of "100 meters": before long, 90 meters looks close enough. Maybe 85. Steroids become mandatory. After all, if they flunk too many student sprinters, it will look bad and the kids won't get jobs.

Absurd, of course--but no more absurd than to suppose a certified literary critic or sociologist is more useful to business than someone who never heard of Walter Pater or C. Wright Mills. Yet employers still prefer applicants who are so certified.

This reflects badly on employers' trust in their own judgment. A degree, as they themselves loudly and rightly complain, is no proof of competency--least of all when they themselves hold one, or the Canadian economy might be stronger. But demanding a degree cuts down on the number of applicants to interview. In the old days, hiring on the basis of race, sex or nationality served the same purpose. Lewis Perelman rightly calls credentialism a civil-rights issue. Employers, he says, shouldn't be allowed to discriminate in favor of people with degrees.

Suppose we grant Perelman's point, that employers should hire strictly on the basis of demonstrated ability to do the job. A credential, by definition, gives the employer grounds to believe the applicant is capable. Reject credentials, and what can you believe in apart from the applicant's own self-serving claims?

Perelman would replace the grade 12 diploma with a "Certificate of Basic Competency" (CBC)--a guarantee that graduates have at least entry-level work skills. Of course, you wouldn't need to wait until grade 12 to acquire your CBC if you could pass the test sooner. And you'd be crazy to leave school without it.

But who would design the CBC test? As long as the testing authority was independent of educators, it could be an employers' group or a government agency. The Motor Vehicle Branch, after all, doesn't care if you learned to drive from your mother or from a driving school. You earn your licence when you prove you can drive, not because your mother is rich or the driving school has ivy-covered walls.

The CBC, like your driver's licence, would say nothing about your understanding of Shakespeare's sonnets, your fluency in Spanish, or your knowledge of geography. It would measure only the basic abilities that employers would like to see in young workers. These would presumably include rapid reading, clear and correct writing, listening, speaking, and numeracy. Beyond the basics, job seekers could obtain specialized skills from public or private schools, or as apprentices. They might obtain certificates of completion, but the real "ticket" would again come from an independent judging body. Employers could of course run their own tests, perhaps after in-house training. And in many cases they might well decide that a background in the liberal arts would indeed be a "basic competency." If so, students would have to turn back to Shakespeare and the Brontes, and to prepare for testing on the Impressionists or Lady Murasaki.

Can we break the grip of credentialism? The idea seems daunting. Yet one recent case suggests it can be done. China for centuries ran its affairs with the help of a credentialled class of mandarins. An elaborate system of schools and examinations worked to staff the empire's bureaucracy. The system survived warlords, invasions, communist takeover and even the Cultural Revolution.

The Chinese economic boom, however, has done what Mao's Red Guards could not: make credentialled education almost worthless. Canadian educator Robert Cosbey, who has taught all over China since the 1970s, reports that the country's graduate programs are frantically lowering standards in an effort to attract students. Even women are now allowed into hitherto male-only disciplines.

The reason? A bachelor's or advanced degree leads only to a monthly salary of perhaps $30 Canadian; a job in the booming private sector can pay ten times as much regardless of certification. China's best and brightest are therefore deserting the schools that were once their only hope of security and prestige.

Similarly, but more consciously, Perelman's "civil rights" approach would reduce the economic advantage of a credential, and deprive education of its present captive market.

Far from destroying the schools, the end of credentialism would rescue them from their present bureaucratic stagnation. The system would become smaller, simpler and more productive. Many "dropouts" would now have reason to rip through school in record time, grab their certificates, and take off for work or further training. Education costs would fall sharply for a good reason: the state would subsidize only the training demanded by the workplace. If students wanted to take other courses out of personal interest or for the good of their souls, they could do so at their own expense.

Universities would therefore shrink into small groups of scholars; they would teach only students who wanted to become scholars also.

Some might argue that such a system would aggravate our present problems with "cultural literacy." Who would read Dostoevsky or Scott Fitzgerald without a professor's gun at their head? Who would enroll in philosophy, art history, or surveys of medieval French poetry, without the threat of severe reduction in lifetime earnings?

The answer is obvious: Those who wish to, and those who must do so for professional reasons.

The present education system seems so huge, complex and entrenched that we forget it is largely a recent creation--a gigantic daycare for the baby boomers. The economic and technological conditions that gave it life are changing before our eyes. From a kind of "monoculture" of credentialist education, we are moving rapidly into a rainforest model of diverse but equally valid approaches to teaching and learning. The purpose of such diversity is only partly to produce employees; its primary goal should be to produce free men and women who choose their own lives, on their own terms.

We can look forward, perhaps even within the lifetime of middle-aged pedants like me, to a system in which education happens everywhere, all the time, to everyone. In that happy time, those who look back at late 20th-century schools will say that we were, in more senses than one, certifiable.

Crawford Kilian
Communications Department
Capilano College North Vancouver
BC Canada V7J 3H5