Credentialism and critical thought

by Rob Horning

3 May 2007


In discussing Marilee Jones, the former dean of admissions at MIT who resigned after it was discovered that she had doctored her own résumé more than 25 years ago, Barbara Ehrenreich offers this cynical interpretation of college education:

My theory is that employers prefer college grads because they see a college degree chiefly as mark of one’s ability to obey and conform. Whatever else you learn in college, you learn to sit still for long periods while appearing to be awake. And whatever else you do in a white-collar job, most of the time you’ll be sitting and feigning attention. Sitting still for hours on end—whether in library carrels or office cubicles—does not come naturally to humans. It must be learned—although no college has yet been honest enough to offer a degree in seat-warming.

As Christopher Hayes notes in linking to the piece, this is “credentialism run amok.”

Credentialism is when employers require things like college degrees (from preferred schools) for their own sake, not for any skills they guarantee. This prerequisite serves a filtering function to weed out superfluous people—those who can’t game the admissions system, or haven’t been docile enough to be trained from an early age to prepare for it, or lack the money or the know-how to get it out of the existing aid systems—and allows meritocracy to be undermined by the very act of trying to institutionalize it. Certainly, credentialism explains why so many college students pointedly lack the love of learning one might idealistically expect from those electing for more education; they just want the degree the system requires. To them, college is just an especially obscure bureaucratic apparatus. Learning is so insignificant to students that it doesn’t even reach the point where it can be debased by being instrumentalized. (The need for diplomas for their own sake has opened up the lucrative business of online colleges, which streamline the process and strip it to its essentials, the fulfillment of the essential paper shuffling and the rather arbitrary requirements to spend so many hours exposed to so much standardized material. The rare spontaneous moment you’ll encounter in classrooms is perfectly suppressed, making th credentialing process much more businesslike.) Instead college education functions like cultural taste; the things one claims to know, just like the things one claims to appreciate, are a bit beside the point of being able to plausibly and convincingly state to someone else that you know or appreciate them. The object of the learning or the appreciating disappears, becomes a mere algebraic variable in an equation computing one’s social capital.

Because credentialism is so widespread, employers don’t seem to expect anybody to know how to do anything; they merely expect new employees to attend orientation meetings and follow pre-established procedures. This makes an employee’s willingness to defy established procedures and at the same time articulate why they needed to be defied—a capability of thinking about the process while making sure it is carried out—all the more valuable. Jumping through hoops gets you credentialed, but it won’t get you promoted; ambition seems to be a matter of ignoring the procedures or testing them for cracks that you can slip through, since if the procedure was airtight, everyone who serviced it would be fixed in place; the whole system would be static. Anyway, this is to say aspirants are wise to learn how to think about processes rather than results and to consider how they can profitably do more than what they are told to do. I felt I could generally tell the best students by how far they were willing to go without explicit instructions, and I often was aware of the paradox of teaching “critical thinking” as I often pretended to do—it basically means teaching disobedience, preparing students to ultimately recognize the limits of what you say.  It was more important that they learn something other than what I would spend my time talking about and they would take down in their notebooks. If they only learned what I tried to teach, I would see that as a mark of our mutual failure. No wonder I had to quit teaching.

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