The debate is not about whether having a degree is a good idea. Of course it’s a good idea. Folks with degrees and credentials make more money, get more respect, and are far too often the only acceptable pool of candidates for jobs that have nothing to do with the degree. The debate is about whether the creep of credentials and higher education into more and more spheres of life is a good thing.
I think it isn’t. Let me take a shot at explaining why. Forgive the lack of nuance and so forth. Pretend we’re around a campfire on one of those nights when its dark enough that a man can try and articulate what’s bothering him that he’d normally be too embarrassed to admit are bothering him.
And don’t bother pointing out that I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. I’m aware.
Most of the bloggentilic complaints about credentialism are about equality. Credentialism ruins it, they say, by tying wealth and prestige to big university credentials, wealth and prestige in turn making it easier to get into the big universities. I don’t know how valid this complaint is. I’m told that one of the factors in the turn towards credentialism was laws making it difficult to give intelligence tests to prospective employees, making employers turn to the exclusiveness of the school from which one graduated as a rough substitute. Which suggests to me that credentials aren’t creating the differences, they are just exacerbating them. I do have to admit that the Book of Mormon does seem to suggest that differences in wealth become more insidious in societies where greater learning gets greater status, irrespective of talent, character, skills, and wisdom:
And the people began to be distinguished by ranks, according to their riches and their chances for learning; yea, some were ignorant because of their poverty, and others did receive great learning because of their riches.
Even so, it isn’t the inequality that bothers me. What bothers me is three-fold. First, I hate credentialism because higher education these days is a process of acculturation into the new elites. Besides the elite liberalism that is actually taught–and the inevitable national and even international outlook of the university–the entire atmosphere of learning as a competitive endeavor designed to enhance one’s status and wealth promotes a certain outlook. In my own experience with law, I found that it took an actual exercise of will to decide not to try to get into the best schools, get the best grades, get the best jobs, and so on. I’m happy where I’m at in a fair-to-middling market doing small city legal work, but its not really what was expected of me.
Second, I hate that college is such a waste of time for people (the majority) who probably would not be there if they were not hunting a credential. The result is that people in the energetic prime of their lives give themselves over to frivolity and license. I said that elite liberalism and the expectation of learning for success were how universities acculturated students into the new elites, but I think it’s really the social atmosphere that does the most damage. One does not have to be an ‘I am Charlotte Simmons’, either. The experience of living away from family and all other ties, among a bunch of unrestrained youth, can create a dangerous tolerance and non-judgmentalism,* along with a false sense that one’s values are personal, in almost anyone.
Finally, I hate how credentialism affects liberty. I hate the implicit assumption that people who don’t have credentials need people who do to run their lives. I hate how it stifles local differences and projects, because no one who hasn’t gone away and learned what the elites do is qualified. I hate the fetters it puts on will and imagination. Want to write for the paper? Sit at a desk for four years. I’ve stated my belief before that semi-consecrated family businesses are ideal for Mormons, but the more kinds of work that are regimented and professionalized, the less kinds of work that afford the flexibility that such a business needs (I’m kind of dubious of unions, for the same reason).
I don’t know what to do about it. One of the suggestions among the bloggentiles was to resist attempts to convert more and more jobs into formal professions, requiring specialized advance degrees and licenses and so on. Journalism, e.g. That sounds like a good start to me.
* See Comment #8 for what I mean by dangerous tolerance and non-judgmentalism.